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Saturday, January 23, 2016

The case for replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote system

This post is a mix of my 2008 Wyoming Seminary Oratorical Contest-winning speech, a previous essay of mine on the issue, and a bit of fresh thoughts on the matter.
You might be under the impression that you can now one day vote for the next President and Vice President of the United States. However, the truth is that you will not be and never will be voting for these offices in your lifetime. This is despite the fact that the United States is often regarded as a leader in democratic values and a nation that strongly underscores the criticality of majority rule and the power of the people. However, ironically enough, the election of the President and Vice President of our nation is not by direct public vote. Rather, it is done through a system deemed the “Electoral College.”  It has served as our means of electing the president and vice president of the United States for over two centuries and has emerged as the subject of considerable controversy. In a presidential election, American voters pull the trigger for electors rather than actual presidential or vice presidential candidates. It is such that in the final tally what is significant is not the total number of votes a candidate received nationwide yet how many electors he or she won. Although this system has served as a major element in our democracy, it is nonetheless very undemocratic. For that, the American Electoral College system must be rescinded in favor of a national popular vote election system.
         It is critical to take into account the history and methodology of the Electoral College system. It was established by the U.S. Constitution in Article II, Section I as a system in which “each state shall appoint a number of electors equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” Typically, according to the National Archives and Records Administration, the state parties are the entities that select such electors, being chosen to account for the state’s total number of electoral votes. Given the total of 100 members of the U.S. Senate combined with 535 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and in addition to three electoral votes granted to the District of Columbia, there are a total of 538 electors or electoral votes nationwide.
 On the day of a presidential election, voters in regions throughout the nation cast their ballots for electors for their choice for president and vice president. Whichever ticket wins at least a plurality of the votes in a state, that ticket receives all the electoral votes of the state. The only existing exceptions to this winner-take-all system are Maine and Nebraska, which award their electoral votes based on results in congressional districts. Whichever ticket receives at least a 270-vote majority in the electoral count is elected President and Vice President of the United States, regardless of who won more votes nationwide. In turn, the electors representing these electoral votes of each state proceed to vote, usually in state capitals according to MSN.com, for the ticket that won the most votes in that state. However, such a procedure is of no significant value and only serves to simply validate the results of the electoral vote. While there are a sizable number of states that legally mandate electors to vote for the state’s popular vote winner, it could occur that electors in states with no such laws could potentially vote for whomever they want regardless of who won that state. In the most recent presidential election, a Democratic elector in Minnesota, a state carried by John Kerry, voted for Mr. Kerry’s vice-presidential nominee, John Edwards, for the presidency, thus decreasing Kerry’s electoral vote total from 252 to 251. Although these appropriately dubbed “faithless electors” have yet to have any substantial influence on the result of a presidential election, the possibility that they may in the near future is not entirely improbable. Another potentiality is the possibility that no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes if there are more than two competitive nominees, as occurred in 1824. All of these and other components of one of the most long-lasting establishments of our democracy reveal a rather undemocratic and frankly disingenuous manner in which we elect the leaders of our society.
         Most alarming regarding the Electoral College system is that it makes it possible that an individual could win the presidency without actually receiving more votes than the opposing candidates. Thus far, this has occurred four times in all of American history – 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. In the latter three of these instances, the winning candidate received a majority of electoral votes and lost the national popular vote. Most recently, in 2000, then-Democratic Vice President Al Gore received 540,000 more votes nationally than Republican Governor George W. Bush. Nevertheless, Bush’s narrow 271-266 advantage in the electoral vote guaranteed his election to the presidency. The fact that such a direct abdication of the very ideals that have defined what a democracy is for ages could take place on the soil of our nation is appalling. If we are to be that country where "it is the right of the people to abolish" a government not of our liking and if we are to be a country that fought against tyranny because of a lack of representation of the people, it is essential to get rid of the Electoral College. Our nation is very often described as a democracy. Democracy is defined by the Meriamm-Webster Dictionary as rule by the people. In addition, the Declaration of Independence clearly sets forth a truly magnificent idea that “governments are instituted among men.” If we are in fact a democracy in which governments are instituted among men, then we cannot allow the decision made by the people to be completely brushed aside in favor of a system that even founding father Thomas Jefferson grew skeptical of at one point. 
           According to Newsweek magazine, Jefferson himself is quoted as saying that the Electoral College is a “blot” on our Constitution. Congressman Gene Green of Texas clarifies that The Electoral College was “necessary when communications were poor, literacy was low and voters lacked information about out-of-state figures, which is clearly no longer the case.” Mr. Green’s brilliant assessment demonstrates that the Electoral College was intended for an era in which America and its population were radically different than they are today by any measure. It was perceived by many of our founding fathers that the populace was not well informed enough to have the upper hand in a presidential election. However, in the past two centuries, there has been such an incredibly sufficient surge of invaluable education, technology, and media that voters are more than capable of reaching a reasonable decision based on solid facts and assessments. The Electoral College is a system meant for the past and it entirely refutes the foundations of democracy highlighted by the Declaration of Independence that our nation always yearns to follow.
Furthermore, the “winner-take-all” system that 48 of the 50 U.S. states use in the Electoral College should be most definitely reexamined. Firstly, many argue that it obstructs the competitiveness of third party candidates. It does such by effectively obscuring them from having any truly real effect by ensuring that all the electoral votes of that state are appropriated to the winner of the state’s popular votes. For instance, in 1992, highly popular third-party candidate Ross Perot scored 19 percent of the nationwide vote and yet that historically large total is often overshadowed by his failure to win a single electoral vote, despite finishing ahead of one of the two major party candidates in a handful of states. Some point out that this in turn works to reduce voter turnout, never a positive sign for any democracy, among voters who are in strong opposition to the major party candidates and see it as pointless to vote for a third party. In fact, according to president-elect.org, since 1992, the most popular third-party candidate’s total in the popular vote has decreased in each election, indicating less and less voter support as it became clearer that the winner-take-all system was a deterrent to independent parties’ success. MSN.com points out it serves to force many of those who would vote and would otherwise support independent candidates to vote for the candidate many so aptly dub “the lesser of two evils.” 
In addition to this, there are additional significant negative aspects of the ‘winner-take-all’ concept. The most glaring of these, as many Electoral College critics point out, is that it allows for rather large sections of the United States to be largely disregarded in the general election. NationalPopularVote.com asserts candidates will probably never darken the streets of states in which they have a clear advantage or disadvantage considering that there is no gain. Thus, candidates invest in states where the outcome is rather unpredictable, meaning that the criticality of votes cast in a less politically reliable state such as Ohio and Florida are far more sought after and outwardly important than the votes cast in the heavily Democratic Massachusetts or the heavily Republican Utah. In the past three decades, the 1984, 1988, and 1996 presidential elections, highlighted by predictably huge electoral landslides and a lower number of contested states, saw an average voter turnout of roughly 50.7 percent of the voting-age population. By comparison, years in which a higher number of states were contested and the electoral map was less titled, 1976, 2000, and 2004, saw a 53.4 percent average turnout. This clearly indicates reductions in voter turnout that have been caused by the undemocratic nature of the winner take all system. NationalPopularVote.com cites that in every presidential election since 1988, roughly two thirds of the states have been highly uncontested. On the other hand, if we had a national popular vote system, critics of this method claim candidates would run to heavily populated areas like New York City and Los Angeles and shun smaller states that currently get attention. In the end though, the residents of large cities are just as much American as everyone else; we are all Americans and so our votes would all count equally in a national popular vote system with no care for swing states having more sway than others. People all across the country would feel like their vote is very valuable, much more so than now, because, as it is now, a voter in Ohio arguably has more sway in the election than a voter in reliably Democratic Vermont. In a national popular vote system though, the presidential election could literally come down to a single vote anywhere in the U.S. so all Americans' votes would be equally important.  
Finally, during the 2004 presidential campaign cycle, Michael Mugner, chairman of the political science department at Duke University, referenced that “too much rides on too few votes.” For instance, 1976, a swing of over just 5,500 votes in Ohio and just 3,687 votes in Hawaii would have propelled President Gerald Ford to victory over Jimmy Carter in the Electoral College and yet Carter would still hold a roughly 1 million-vote lead in the national popular vote. This illustrates that an alteration of a very small number of votes in an electoral prize state could determine the presidency without any significance to the vote of the general people of our land across the country. All of these signs are that the Electoral College must be rescinded. 
Ultimately, a national popular vote system would be preferable because it effectively validates the important American ideal of rule by the people, facilitates a truly nationwide campaign, and puts third parties in play. Should we not follow the will of the people in a democratic society like ours? That idea is at the heart of our dem As  one of our own founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson beautifully said, "we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home." 



Sunday, January 3, 2016

2015: Year in Review!

Best Political Moments of 2015

1. THE PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT is announced.
There were doubters and there were skeptics but, even while the deal announced was insufficient, it's a step forward, all "thanks to American leadership," to quote the president who led the effort, in keeping this world a safe, clean, and inhabitable place. There will be difficulty in enacting this agreement and there will be a lack of political will in many parts of the world. However, capping carbon emissions, going after polluters, and ensuring strong and solid regulations for the benefit of air, land, and water will take continued activism and pressure. There should be optimism though that that will be the case because it is precisely that -- political pressure from activists -- that led to the agreement in the first place. 

2. THE SUPREME COURT upholds the federal subsidies in the Affordable Care Act.
It's not just abstract: millions of Americans are better off because of this decision. The right-wing Roberts Court has made plenty of awful choices, mostly to the detriment of the marginalized, but this one assured stronger peace of mind for families struggling to make ends meet. I was privileged to be able to be present at the steps of the Court when the decision was announced and jubilation ensued. And why not? There is greater economic security and healthier bodies now for millions and millions of individuals who, without the protections and benefits of Obamacare, would be languishing in the pre-ACA Wild Wild West of health insurance (unregulated, unsubsidized, and inaccessible for the vast majority of the public). 

3. THE IRAN DEAL is enacted.
For over a decade, the international community struggled to reach a consensus based on diplomatic negotiations to curtail Iran's nuclear program, widely suspected of being the first step to a weapon. Strong-willed diplomats, a mutual showing of respect from the U.S. and Iran after decades of strained relations, and economic pressures -- as well as the loud voice of the Iranian people, clamoring for change -- made it happen. The deal makes war less likely, prevents an Iranian nuke, and empowers more moderate forces within Iran. There's no greater evidence of this than in the fact that Iran has already abided by many elements of this deal, including the reductions of centrifuges and the shipping out of 25,000 pounds of uranium, and that the U.S. has followed through with some cooperation with Iran on fighting ISIS and resolving the situation in Syria. This won't be easy. Iran's regime is still routinely repulsive, as seen in its treatment of dissidents, some of its onerous economic policies, and its support of unsavory actors on the world stage, like Bashar Assad and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, Iran's economic isolation from the rest of the world before this deal did nobody any favors. The Iranian people realized this, elected President Rouhani, and, thus, changed the course of history. With their help, in February's parliamentary elections, the world can continue to move in a better direction.

4. THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION on criminal justice reform and #BlackLivesMatter changes the political culture and policy.
Were it not for the protestors and activists who spoke up and demanded change in the wake of Freddie Gray's the death and in the wake of the video footage out of Chicago recently, we wouldn't be having the political and policy conversations we're having in this country about issues of mass incarceration and the inequities of our criminal justice system. These debates fueled criminal justice reform bills' progress in House and Senate committees, spurred trials for police officers, dramatically changed public opinion, as evidenced in polling, regarding the plight of black Americans, and led Democratic presidential candidates to meet with #BLM activists. It's not all rosy at all for these individuals. There's ample evidence for that (look no further than the lack of charges in the Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice cases) but it's hard to deny that protests are making a difference.

5. MARRIAGE EQUALITY becomes the law of the land in all 50 U.S. states.
A decade ago, as I wrote extensively in an essay for a public opinion course (as published on here), same-sex marriage was viewed, in the eyes of most Americans, as an abhorrent concept. Today, over 60 percent of the public agrees with marriage equality: the fastest, most radical shift in public opinion on any policy issue in recent memory. As much as the Supreme Court likes to claim they don't follow public opinion, it's difficult to imagine that the Court would've ruled the way it did on marriage were it not for the public support in the country. In making that call, the Court not only ruled in favor of the public but they also ruled in favor of an extension and expansion of equal rights, consistent with our history of continually broadening our liberties and protections to live up to our promise of equal justice and treatment. Consequently, the U.S. stands out in the world as one of the few nations to have nationwide marriage equality.

Honorable Mention: President Obama, defying GOP governors and Republican presidential candidates and the majority of the American public, stands firm in defending his administration's acceptance of thousands of Syrian refugees into the U.S. 

Best Policy Ideas or Actions of 2015

1. TUITION-FREE or DEBT-FREE or TWO YEARS of FREE COLLEGE
A college degree is increasingly vital for obtaining and keeping a high-paying job in the U.S. Unfortunately, the price of this degree is far too high in the wealthiest nation on Earth. It would actually cost the U.S. federal government less money to make college tuition-free than it would for them to continue their system of various subsidies for higher education. Further, making college tuition-free reaps numerous benefits down the line, including more Americans with jobs, less welfare spending, less spending on prisons, and a more educated, productive, and tax-paying populace. It's an investment that is very worthwhile which is why it merits the #1 spot here and why it's been proposed, in various forms, by Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden (tuition-free for four years), Hillary Clinton (debt-free), and Barack Obama (two years of free community college). 

2. LIFTING THE BURDENS OF FLAWED STANDARDIZED TESTING 
The flawed standardized tests that have long dominated our public education system have never been a true measure or reflection of students' intelligence nor have they ever been a fair or just way to evaluate teachers and schools. These tests also prioritized reading and math, pursuant to the requirements of No Child Left Behind, to the detriment of other important subjects like history and art. That's why it was welcomed news when the Obama administration announced in October that they would be stepping away from years of policies of heavily promoting and encouraging such testing. They made good on their promise when President Obama signed into law a large-scale federal education bill that got rid of core elements of NCLB and returned a great degree of power back to the states and local educational institutions that know best how to teach their students. 

3. CHANGING THE WAY COUNTRIES ARE CLASSIFIED 
In the GW Roosevelt Institute's Omnibus publication, Erin Agnew argued for a dramatic reform in the manner in which countries are classified in the United Nations. Instead of the current standard that marks nations as "developed" or "developing," Erin proposed using the Human Development Index (HDI), among other vital metrics, to categorize nations. That way, nations' relative economic success, social equality, and other factors, that take into consideration countries' living standards and rates of poverty, would be considered more strongly. The most compelling reasons for this change are reflected in Erin's accounting of what is happening in the world today. Countries like China are taking advantage of their status as "developed nations" to avoid obligations on climate change whereas nations like Russia claim to be developing nations to skirt responsibilities on helping the homeless. Given this status quo, a change like the one Erin is seeking is much needed.

4. ENDING THE NSA MASS SURVEILLANCE METADATA PROGRAM 
As a consequence of the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Congress and the President finally agreed to end the metadata mass collection program the National Security Agency administered in the Bush and Obama administrations. The USA Freedom Act, now a point of contention in the GOP presidential primary, passed by large, bipartisan margins in both houses of Congress -- a legislature controlled by Republicans who, for years, swore they'd never curtail national security powers in the name of civil liberties. But Mr. Snowden made this possible because he shed light on the needlessly aggressive surveillance policies of the agency. President Obama initially, and enthusiastically, defended the NSA's policies, ones he continued without any meaningful reforms after taking office in 2009 despite promises to the contrary in the summer of 2008. Even Obama though, after his presidentially-appointed panel (stacked with national security veterans) backed changes that included an end to the metadata program, changed course and endorsed what became the USA Freedom Act. Consequently, a program that never stopped any terrorist attacks (as Obama's own panel told us), violated Americans' civil liberties, and made it more difficult to catch terrorists (because of the vast volume of information collected) has ended.

5. CLASSIFYING GUN SHOWS AND INTERNET SALES as entities "in the business" of selling firearms. 
There's a massive social and public health dilemma in the U.S.: the "epidemic of gun violence," to quote the President. There's a disparity between the severity of this issue -- mass shooting after mass shooting, more Americans dead thanks to gun violence than all of the U.S. casualties in all American wars combined -- and federal legislative action on it. That is to say there is no congressional action on gun violence. Nevertheless, even after President Obama issued 23 executive actions on gun violence in January 2013, there is still more the executive branch can do on their own. This proposal, put forward by Hillary Clinton in her campaign platform, is an example of such. It appears Obama will follow through on this proposal in an executive regulation of his own. It is much needed because background checks are proven to be the most likely policy to actually work in curtailing gun violence as it will keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and convicted criminals. 

Honorable Mention: The proposals put forward by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley to protect undocumented immigrants further than the deportation relief measures promulgated under President Obama 

Best Movies I Saw in 2015

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens 
Action-packed, suspenseful, straightforward, and entertaining, the latest Star Wars installment, on track to be the highest-grossing movie of all time, lived up to the hype, in no small part thanks to the valiant return of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher reprising their terrific roles in this fantastic blockbuster.

2. The Big Short
A few years ago, my friend Justin Santopietro lamented that financial reform and economics were not "sexy" for young people to understand, grasp, and care about passionately. Regardless of one's thoughts on this assessment, this film is a great stab at making these issues sufficiently sexy. Ryan Gosling, Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, Brad Pitt, and even Anthony Bourdain assist in this amusing, but deeply serious, endeavor. Through it all, superb acting and a compelling story most viewers may be unaware of make this movie a must-see.

3. Trumbo
Almost anything starring Bryan Cranston is virtually guaranteed to be a surefire hit and Trumbo, in which Cranston characteristically delivers as the blacklisted Hollywood director, the namesake of this Golden Globe-nominated film, is no exception. Beneath Cranston's masterful depiction of Dalton Trumbo is a salient and moving political and social commentary, regarding censorship in a republic, that is well worth seeing.

4. Steve Jobs
Aaron Sorkin's TV and movie productions are typically splashy so it comes as no surprise that Steve Jobs is entertaining if only for the cinematography. That's not the only reason why this movie, in which Michael Fassbender offers a wonderful performance as the film's namesake, is solid. The pace, flow, and rhythm of the movie stand out. Indeed, it weaves together the personal and professional sides of Jobs and how they merge into a single and continuous narrative that charts the trajectory of his career alongside the tumult of his relationship with his daughter. The manner in which this is all executed, courtesy Sorkin's brilliant storytelling as a director, make this a much better movie than the 2013 Jobs.

5. Grandma
Put simply, it's short and sweet. Oh, and it stars the magnificent Lily Tomlin, who never fails to be uproarious. She's a riot in this feminist comedy in which she helps her daughter pay for an abortion for an unintended pregnancy. Beyond that, Marcia Gay Harden is extremely good in her role as a hard-nosed, fast-paced, workaholic mom. For a strong, pro-women's rights message, combined with very good acting and unending laughter, check this out.

Honorable Mention: The Overnight 

Best TV I Watched in 2015

1. Breaking Bad
Ok, so, this TV show did not air in 2015 but I did not watch the vast majority of it until 2015 and I have one word: wow. 

2. Bloodline
Kyle Chandler plays a very Kyle Chandler role as a responsible, careful leader of his family in this Netflix original focusing in on the troubles behind the seemingly perfect, ostensibly values-driven fictional Rayburn family. That performance, as well as the unique fashion in which the show initially reveals the series' end and shows you how the characters get there, make this a gem.

3. Veep 
This hilarious sitcom, still the most accurate portrayal of D.C. politics in modern pop culture history, rightfully swept the Emmys this year because it is just so freaking good. Reliably funny, consistently sharp, and buoyed by charmingly great acting in Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Hugh Laurie in this season made this show a wonderful hit.  

4. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert 
Stephen Colbert proved a worthy successor to the legendary David Letterman because he showed how he could utilize his immense comedic talent, famously quick wit, and exceptional interviewing (look no further than the Joe Biden interview) skills into a masterful late-night show. He's owned his new role as a paragon of sophisticated, but sufficiently silly, network late-night banter. As such, he's already made his mark on TV history as himself and not just as a Comedy Central character (though we do miss "Stephen Colbert.")

5. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah & the last episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart's last several episodes at the helm of The Daily Show were among his best, especially his mockery of Donald Trump. Speaking of which, Trevor Noah, in comparing Trump to a lavishly dressed and supremely wealthy African general president who boasts of his greatness, developed his bearings in his first few episodes as Stewart's successor. All in all, they proved how TDS is, to paraphrase Stewart-era alum and Last Week Tonight host, the best political satire there ever was. 

Honorable Mention: The Republican presidential debates starring Donald J. Trump 

Best Essays and Articles I Read in 2015

1. David Letterman, Revolutionary Curmudgeon (The New Yorker)

2. Inside the Iran Talks (The New Yorker) 

3. For the Wealthiest, a Private Tax System That Saves Them Billions (The New York Times) 

4. The Sanders-Clinton Spat Over Middle-Class Taxes Is About A Lot More Than Money (The Huffington Post) 

5. Campaign Promises Matter (Vox) 

Honorable Mention: How Washington Derailed Amtrak (National Journal)

Best Books I Read in 2015

1. The Oath 
Though the book was not written or published in 2015, the Jeffrey Toobin bestseller was especially relevant in this hugely consequential year for the Obama White House at the Roberts Court. I spent a good portion of this summer reading the book and it was well worth it for the sake of understanding the history behind this court and how its decision are shaped. The justices' biographical background, the multilayered legal analysis, and the sharp insights -- woven together nicely by Toobin's excellent writing -- contained here make for compelling reading.

2. Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers 
For decades, Fred Rogers was a public television staple, hero to millions of children, and a widely renowned minister with a penchant for cardigans. Many Americans though were not fully familiar with his role in our public discourse as a pacifist, specifically. Michael G. Long uncovers, examines, and analyzes messages in promotion of a peaceful world and against war that were both sprinkled throughout Mister Rogers' shows and in his other work. The book is another reaffirmation of Mister Rogers' positive cultural legacy. 

3. A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety 
I was lucky enough to meet former President Jimmy Carter at the famous Politics and Prose Bookstore when I met him for the book-signing of this autobiography in July. He was as elated and exuberant as ever even through his old age and physical frailty. That's vintage Carter, the kind that shines through in this recollection of stories from his life. It is as charming and fascinating as ever though filled with tales of how he knew Rosslyn was the one he'd marry when he met her, how he sent the UAW leader to negotiate with China on behalf of the administration, and a hilarious detail regarding an impromptu CIA agent thought that saved a mission. 

4. Tort Law 
Yeah, it's a law school textbook but so what? It was a comprehensive account of consequential tort cases that explained their significance in an interesting and surprisingly fascinating way that actually made you want to turn the page. The political commentary included in here about the unfortunate nature of the right-wing push for tort reform made me realize I had a good book in my hands. 

5. Criminal Law  
The same goes for above, except for criminal cases...and, also, it added some nice social commentary about criminal justice reform. 

Honorable Mention: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The truth is Christmas Eve is actually the best day of the year.

Christmas Day is ostensibly the most wonderful day of the year: filled with good tidings of joy and hours upon hours of using your newest gifts in your pajamas (or returning them if they are socks, unless they're Christmas socks or George H.W. Bush-style socks in which case they may help you in your love life). It really is an awesome day, no doubt. It's the day Jesus Christ, our Savior, was born...or at least, the celebration of his birth! Can't get much better than that, right? It's the day we eagerly run down the stairs to see what goodies are under the tree. Can't get more exciting than that, right?

Wrong.

All that is great but the truth is that Christmas Eve is actually the best day of the year. Christmas itself can sometimes be underwhelming -- please don't accuse me of being part of the War on Christmas!!! I love this time of year, it is my favorite time as anyone who knows me can tell you, I swear!! -- but the inherent buoyancy of the anticipation of Christmas Day is what makes Christmas Eve unique and special.

Further, Christmas Day can be disappointing if you a) did not get the gifts you expected, b) if your gifts were not well-received by their recipients {that's arguably way worse}, c) are let down by the fact that the day means the actual end of the joyful, holiday music-filled, and cheery Christmas season {that's me, right here!}, or d) find yourself, seriously, unable to rise to the level of the extreme happiness that is expected of you on that day.

Sometimes, it's impossible to meet those expectations. And that's okay. For a lot of us, Christmas -- for many reasons ranging from personal tragedies that happened during the holiday season or on that day in the past to the stress of making sure everything goes swimmingly with regards to food and family plans to the constant pressure to be super-joyous despite internal struggles -- can be a bit exhausting. Beyond that, it can be truly saddening toward the final hours of the day, as you realize the time has closed on the holiday season, or, to quote John Lennon, "so this is Christmas and what have you done?"

It's not in my place to judge anyone's feelings or emotions or to be the one who decrees that "it's okay" to feel that way on Christmas. But, for what it's worth, I don't impugn anyone who does. It's totally understandable, given a lot of the societal expectations of Christmas. Then again, I still do love the holiday; there's nothing quite like it because it merges together the beautiful spirit of our Savior and the celebration of His work and life with the presence of family with the joy of generosity and loving towards one another. Also, let's be real: the movies and music are heartwarming and catchy, respectively.

Nevertheless, it is the day before Christmas that takes the cake. As aforementioned, the anticipation of Santa Claus, of the next day, and of the possibilities of Christmas is too beautiful not to adore, especially for children. One of the greatest films in American history, the inspirational It's a Wonderful Life, is on television every December 24, reminding us of how, as Mister Rogers said, each one of us makes an impact on others that can never be fully known but is real and effectual.

We go to church on Christmas Eve, a ritual that reminds us of the sacrifice Jesus paid and how significant his birth was. Going to church also reinvigorates, even for a fleeting moment, the kind of community spirit that we've been lacking in our country recently, as Robert Putnam has extensively written about in Bowling Alone. We engage in fun nighttime cultural vestiges like playing boardgames, tracking Santa Claus' whereabouts on the NORAD tracker, and leaving cookies and milk for Santa. You have some concrete plans, all centered around the magic of Christmas suspense, and, in my humble opinion, there's nothing better than that.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Comprehensive Case for Biden

Rumor has it that Vice President Joe Biden is strongly considering, and actually actively leaning towards, running for President – for a third time – in 2016. If Biden’s 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns are any indicator, his third bid is likely doomed too.

Professional political prognosticators say as much. There are a number of reasons though why this campaign may be different – or, at least, less likely to flounder than his previous presidential bids. These political reasons, as well as vital policy issues that make Biden a wise choice for president, are compelling enough that the Vice President should run.

First, the trappings, imagery, and aura of the vice presidency provide Biden with certain distinct advantages. Chief among these is the possibility that his boss, President Obama – extremely popular with Democratic primary voters – could very well endorse him. Even if Obama does not make such a move though, it is safe to assume that many Democratic voters might naturally surmise that Biden has Obama’s support.

He is, after all, Obama’s loyal vice-president: frequently by his side in public appearances, a vociferous defender of the administration’s policies, and publicly and privately very close with Obama. One thing’s for sure: Democratic voters will clearly associate Biden with Obama, endorsement or none, especially now that CNN is reporting Obama giving Biden his “blessing” to run. The Obama connection especially helps Biden with the core members of the President’s winning coalitions: African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT voters, and young Americans.

As for the other aforementioned groups, Biden has appeals to them that are key too: he can capitalize on his early endorsement of same-sex marriage, his longstanding support for immigration reform, and his decades-long backing of student loan reform and financial aid for students to win over gays, Hispanics, and young voters, respectively.

Further, Biden has other strong political attributes to offer. He is a gifted, natural campaigner, as evidenced by his performance on the stump as Barack Obama’s running mate in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Biden was, arguably, a large net asset to Obama’s campaigns, particularly in its effort to increase support among Jewish voters, working-class whites, and voters concerned about Obama’s lack of experience.

In both of his elections, in the Scranton, Pennsylvania region, where Biden is originally from, Obama’s margin of victory was so large that it was his second best performance in the state, after Philadelphia. In 2012, Obama’s margin of victory in Lackawanna County was actually larger than it was in 2008.

Beyond that though, Biden is a talented debater, as evidenced by his 2007 Democratic debate performances, and his wins against Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan in 2008 and 2012, respectively. What is also true is that his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech was the most watched speech of a convention widely considered a strong success for the party. His political appeal is also seen in his currently high favorable ratings, his high honesty and trustworthy ratings, and in his above-water job approval rating.

In a potential White House run, he would need to win South Carolina, where he has the strong backing of the former state party chair and a network of political supporters in the Democratic Party apparatus. He would also need to win Pennsylvania, if he wants to indicate he is a serious candidate, given his roots.

Biden would also need to do extremely well, or win (preferably), key states like Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, and Michigan – primaries where, for reasons ranging from his appeal among both minorities and working-class white Democrats to his close affiliation with Obama’s policies, he ideally should have strength. It should be noted though that even if Biden falls short, it is important for hime to run for the party's sake.

Here's why: if the Vice President runs, it is still likely that he loses to Hillary Clinton for the nomination. If so, if you're a Democrat, this should make you pleased for one key reason: competitive primaries like such a race -- as political science professors rightly contend -- are healthy for a party and actually help the party's eventual nominee in the general election. Consider how Clinton's staying in the race in 2008 even after Barack Obama was the clear, leading frontrunner in the Democratic nomination race actually helped Obama in the end.

Obama was forced to compete in various states which also ended up being general election swing states so he had operations set up there well before the fall campaign. He thus had an advantage, in a sense, over John McCain in these states. He also became a better, tougher, and more prepared candidate against McCain thanks to Clinton's campaigning against him. As Vox recently argued, as did First Read on NBC News, Biden can have a similar effect on Clinton. His entry into the race would also arguably make Democratic voters more enthusiastic, energetic, and excited about the primary and about the election generally. Again, that's good for the party in the general election.

It would be a tough, uphill battle to actually win for Biden but there is potential for him to break through in the primary contest if he were to earn more endorsements, especially from the President of the United States. Even outside of his home state of Delaware (where the major elected officials are signaling support for Biden), there are signs of possible supporters emerging from the party.

These include former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, Massachusetts Rep. and Iraq war veteran Seth Moulton, California governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, and even New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. Per the historic political science book The Party Decides, endorsements of party figures are key cues for primary voters so Biden would need to rack up as many as he can get but there is potential. Fundraising is vital too but signs are emerging that Biden is courting key big-money Obama campaign donors who would be instrumental to his bid.

As a general election candidate, Biden is running strongly in public opinion polling against the top-tier GOP candidates: Donald Trump, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush. He would likely be assured of victory in Pennsylvania, is leading Walker in his own home state of Wisconsin, and is popular with black voters in purple states with heavy African-American populations like Virginia. He could win and he would be buoyed by a strong convention most likely given that it is occurring in Philadelphia, the backyard of his Wilmington residence and the largest city in his native state.

Biden would also be the ultimate clarifying candidate as he has said time and time again, publicly and privately, that he would run essentially as Obama’s third term. He ran the Recovery Act and his stewardship of the economic stimulus program would certainly be front and center in his campaign to convince Americans to stay the course: a winning strategy, as any political scientist would tell you, during an economic recovery.

On governance and policy grounds, Biden is the strongest choice. Having seen the job of the presidency up close for seven years, and having served in the Senate for 36 years, Joe Biden is clearly extremely qualified to be president. His strong network of relationships on Capitol Hill, which served him well in his role as Obama’s chief negotiator for various budget deals and legislative priorities, would mean the potential for legislative progress.

Biden has also long been progressive on key issues that are of particular salience in the contemporary political atmosphere: Iran policy, gun safety laws, public transportation and infrastructure, sexual assault and rape, judicial philosophy, nuclear nonproliferation, humanitarian global leadership, campaign finance reform, and immigration.

In fact, on some of these issues, Biden was a leader. He wrote the 1994 gun control laws, crafted the Violence Against Women Act, introduced the first bill to allow public financing of presidential campaigns, was the most high-profile congressional backer of action in Kosovo, vehemently defended relief for undocumented immigrants and nuclear arms reductions in the Reagan era, and, 13 years before the Iran deal was struck, articulated his desire for a more constructive, engagement-focused relationship with Iran.

Most notably, as Biden would likely emphasize in the primary debates against Hillary Clinton, the vice president was often the voice of dovishness and restraint in the Obama White House’s foreign policy discussions. He famously was far less hawkish than Clinton on issues like the Afghanistan surge and action in Libya. Arguably, a perspective like that is vital in the White House, where the penchant for military action on any given foreign policy issue is real.

Obviously, Biden is imperfect. Politically, his appeal in the primary may be hamstrung by the fact that he is a 72-year-old white man who, in some instances, clings to decades-old Democratic Party orthodoxy. In the general election, he may be hurt by his close association with Obama, if the President’s approval rating declines – a possibility, if the economy tanks next year.

On the campaign trail, he often engages in colorful, blunt language that, while appealing to some voters, can turn off large cohorts. His long history of gaffes is ample evidence of this problem. On policy issues too, Biden has demerits, including his proud championing of a repulsive 2005 bankruptcy reform law, his flawed handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings, his vote for the Iraq war, and, most notably, his stewardship of the 1994 crime law.

Lastly, Biden is likely to draw votes away from Clinton more so than Bernie Sanders – something that could risk throwing the nomination to Sanders. However, as is made clear by the above assessment, the positives clearly outweigh the negatives when it comes to a potential Biden campaign, general election candidacy, and presidency. Vice President Biden would be well-advised to run.


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Jon Stewart's Legacy

For young Americans, there was a lot to despise about the George W. Bush era. There was the mismanagement of a natural disaster that wrecked a city we love, a misguided war that took many of our fellow young men and women, and an economy that nosedived at a time when we were slowly preparing to go to college, find work, and start our adult lives. Before the ascendance of Barack Obama as the literal, liberal embodiment of "change," arguably nobody in public life better channeled the frustrations of young voters more than Jon Stewart.

Every night on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the lovable, no-holds-barred host would unleash on Bush's dim-witted persona and his slew of controversial policies in a clever and bombastic fashion that resonated with millions. My friend Aidan Hussin once aptly described Stewart's signature style as one which basically boiled down to, "saying what everybody else is thinking."

That is precisely the  sort of comedy Stewart reveled in: unpacking the absurdities of politics, especially when it was hypocritical or, at worst, outright harmful for society. It worked and it came across as sincere because it was lastingly effective and driven by Stewart's own genuine passion, all at once. His impact on the political process should not be understated.

For instance, according to an early 2007 Pew Research Center study, conducted at the nadir of the Bush presidency, Stewart was chosen as the favorite "journalist" of Americans under the age of 30. A year later, this same cohort of Americans helped propel Obama, who ran as the anti-Bush and appealed explicitly to this group, to the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

This is not to say or even suggest that one of the central reasons for President Obama's election is Jon Stewart's performance on Comedy Central. Instead, it is to say that Stewart achieved far more than any television or political experts could have guessed when he made his debut in 1999. He played a role, even if a very small one, in facilitating political change through the power of comedy and laughter and that's no small feat.

Jon Stewart actually can lay claim to several vital legacies beyond this specific aspect of his career. There was his successful 2010 effort to pressure the Senate to pass the 9/11 health workers legislation, his famous Crosssfire 2004 appearance that led to the show's cancelation, and his cultivation of an alumni of show correspondents who went on to comedy fame (Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, John Oliver, etc.)

However, none is as broadly impactful as his influence on young Americans' political mobilization and energy. On a personal note, I can vividly remember racing home after middle school to watch the previous night's Daily Show on my DVR because I so wanted to hear how he articulated the simmering frustrations about President Bush.

He will be dearly missed by many Americans but he will be missed especially by those of us who grew up watching his show in the Bush years, frustrated by politics but relieved to see there was a venue in which our angst was understood and synthesized so well.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Dreams From My Grandfather

 August 7 will be the anniversary of my maternal grandfather's passing. I know he would have loved to be here today as I head off to law school in a few weeks and as Iran and the United States potentially improve their relationship. 

For as long as I can remember, my grandfather was a venerable, beloved figure in my family. He touched, deeply, everyone he knew. He was a vastly accomplished, and skilled, lawyer and judge. Most impressive of all though was the content of his character.

He was an exceptional husband and father -- the stoic, sober rock in a family of three self-described unapologetically, uncompromising women. They learned from each other. My grandfather was inspired by his daughters to speak out when he witnessed injustice but his daughters were compelled by him to reserve judgment until all of the facts were absorbed.

Nobody was a better teacher and student than my grandfather. He liked to learn and he liked to lecture, lovingly. Those qualities were reflected not only in his role as a husband and father but also in his capacity as a judge and, memorably, in his role as my grandfather. As a judge, he valued honesty, impartiality, and respect for the law. 

He upheld standards of public decency, preserved individual rights, and abhorred undue influence upon the law from malevolent actors. He handed down judgments that changed people's lives while, at the same time, the individuals who appeared before him gave him an informed perspective on the complicated, complex lives of everyday Iranians. 

I was lucky enough to experience his love, kindness, and compassion, as well as his aforementioned ability to listen and lecture, respectfully. I was only seven years old during the seven months he visited our family in 2000-01 but he treated me with the utmost respect. He valued my independence, which is the most amazing gift in the work when you're literally seven. 

He also learned diligently from me everything one needed to know about Thomas the Tank Engine, the geography of the Back Mountain, Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, and the history of Hershey, Pennsylvania, among other items I was obsessed with at the time. At the same time, I learned from him, even in that short time he was with us in the U.S., the importance of respecting my parents, the long-term consequence of doing or not doing my homework, and the sensation that was the Beatles. 

Indeed, he listened and, in return, he lectured -- enthusiastically so. For instance, as noted above, he told me about The Beatles. He actually bought for me in Christmas 2000 the Beatles 1 album, my introduction to their music, after picking up on how much I loved Ringo Starr's performance as the conductor in Shining Time Station. 

I taught him about Thomas' adventures and he taught me about the band of Thomas' narrator, in return. Part of this generosity of spirit, for my grandfather, was linked to his character as a husband and father and his demeanor as a judge and attorney: a great teacher and a great listener and learner.

Those qualities were also reflected in his deep appreciation for and love of America. My grandfather came to the United States to study abroad at the University of Virginia during his youth. He came to adore the U.S. in the early 1960's as a beacon of hope, virtue, and liberal progress led by a charismatic, ambitious, and youthful president.

He deeply admired America's constitutional principles of a right to a trial by jury and due process; he yearned to emulate some of those principles in his own line of work as a judge. In his attitude towards America, he showed his own penchant for learning and lecturing.

He learned a lot from America and Americans about responsibility, family, and self-care, among other values he held dear. On the other hand, he was eager to teach Americans about Iranian culture, food, and customs. He believed Iran had a lot to learn from America in terms of political and legal practices and diversity of thought but he also believed America had a lot to learn from Iran in terms of issues of economic justice, war and peace, and decency.

When he returned to the U.S. in the 1990's, for periods of months at a time, and in the 2000-01 period when I remember seeing him, his admiration of the U.S. didn't subside. He was inspired by the generosity, ingenuity, and kindness of the American people -- characteristics he always aspired to and attained in his own life.

For all these reasons and more, he would love to see this day. I try to live a life that harkens back to his personal striving for justice, learning, and teaching and his hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the just, equal America he believed in everyday. America also, in his view, through its actions had demonstrated the same qualities he demonstrated in his own life, of learning from others but teaching others as well.

In fact, he would be extremely pleased to see this day. As I go off to Villanova Law School in the fall, I can't help but think of my grandfather as the anniversary of his passing nears. He would have given anything to see one of his grandchildren begin the process of becoming a lawyer one day. My grandfather would be elated in no small part because he would urge me to learn a lot from my studies so I could be able to lecture others about it in the future.

What's more is that he certainly would also have loved to see this day of Iran and the U.S. slowly, but surely, warming relations as a nuclear accord is reached. My grandfather would've probably surmised that these countries have a lot to learn from each other, much like his own experiences of teaching and learning in return.

As I strive to become an attorney, and as I hope to continue to see strengthened dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, my grandfather will forever be in my thoughts. Those qualities of his character, of generous and kind teaching of others but learning from others at the same time, are ones I hope to see in my own pursuit as a lawyer, in our country's character as a whole, and in the U.S.-Iran relationship. These are the dreams from my grandfather and I know he would be so happy to see them come to fruition.