Writing

The Rising Tide of Nationalism

The global elite adopted a consensus centered on democratized political institutions and liberalized economic systems after the Iron Curtain fell. This consensus gelled in an era of rapid technological, social and economic evolution. Globalization, the information revolution, and terrorism have shaken the post-World War II status quo to its core and created anxiety in industrialized and developing countries. This anxiety has facilitated the rise of nationalism as a potent political force, which creates three primary challenges to world order.
It has been said that “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The rising tide of nationalism in previous eras has empowered authoritarian leaders. Authoritarian leaders have proven to be threats to world order, primarily due to their disregard of the rule of law and international norms. The Russian incursion into Georgia in 2008 is a recent example of an authoritarian leader thumbing his nose at the international establishment.
Authoritarian regimes have a disastrous record on domestic human and political rights, with examples ranging from the use of chemical weapons by dictators in the Middle East to the suppression of political opposition by President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
Nationalist political movements are also more hostile to liberal trade policies. Free trade has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the developing world.

Industrial economies enjoy the benefits of lower prices for goods and specialization of labor. But a rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats. The working class in industrial economies have felt left behind by globalization and trade. These citizens blame rising economic anxiety on free trade, which creates an incentive for political leaders to adopt anti-trade and nationalistic rhetoric and policies. The British referendum to exit the European Union is one such example.
Protective tariffs and other anti-trade policies are harmful to all economies and increase the threat of armed hostility. Nations who trade with one another are less likely to engage militarily with one another. Germany’s relative pacifism in response to recent Russian aggression in Eastern Europe can be explained at least partially by the trade relationship between Germany and Russia. The trade relationship between China and the United States has prevented an escalation in military hostilities over disputes in the South China Sea.

The facilitation of authoritarian leaders and hostility to free trade policies are domestic threats attributable to nationalism. The threat to international cooperation is the most acute and troubling in the long-term. Perhaps the three most pressing issues of our time- nuclear nonproliferation, terrorism, and climate change- will require international cooperation. Nationalist political movements make it more difficult for leaders of nations to engage in the diplomacy necessary to address these issues, especially when substantial concessions are necessary.
Such movements demand that leaders “look tough” and “stand up for us” by not “giving in” to “enemies.” Any practical and sustainable climate change accord would require some degree of economic sacrifice by China, India and the United States, among others. This economic sacrifice is difficult for leaders to pitch to domestic political audiences in the most benign circumstances, and impossible if the domestic political culture includes a large nationalist faction.
The rising tide of nationalism is a phenomenon that threatens the political, social, and economic well-being of all citizens. The Europeans learned this lesson the hard way one century ago. Moreover, this tide will prevent world leaders from tackling the pressing global issues of our time. Our successors may learn this lesson the hard way one century from now.

The Declaration Project

For the past year, I have had the opportunity to serve on the Board of Directors for Democracy Cafe, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to facilitating “grassroots democracy” through conversations about current events, the U.S. Constitution, and philosophy.

The Declaration Project is in a Democracy Cafe initiative inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which states as a matter of moral principle:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

MyDeclaration gives everyone the opportunity to compose and post his or her own declaration, and for others to respond to it.

My declaration is entitled A Declaration of Liberty & Order. Here it is in its entirety:

The primary responsibility of a government is to provide for the common defense, maintain social order, promote liberty, provide for the equal treatment and protection under the law, and to ensure economic and social opportunity for its citizens. These rights extend to all citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sex, sexual orientation, or medical condition. Transparency and democratic accountability are the pillars that protect those fundamental rights, and every measure should be taken to strengthen those pillars.

The consolidation of decision-making power in the political and economic spheres will inevitably lead to tyranny by a ruling class that will become increasingly unaccountable. Institutions should be structured in such a way to disperse decision-making power to the extent feasible to maintain social order. The ultimate destiny of a culture will be dictated not by measures adopted by the government; but by evolving social norms that will ultimately influence the measures adopted by the government.

In matters of military and foreign affairs, decision-making power should be consolidated in such a manner to prevent cursory factionalism from usurping international order. This consolidated decision-making authority, however, must remain ultimately accountable to the citizens.

The Importance of Green Space

The following is a transcript of the remarks I prepared for this morning’s Constitution Cafe event about green space in American life at East Central High School:

I know that many of you- in your Social Studies classes- have learned about “Manifest 12524102_682124118597294_4396878881265881789_nDestiny.” At the founding of the American republic, our ancestors believed that it was America’s destiny to settle the entire continent- from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. At the time, our natural resources seemed inexhaustible.

But over 100 years later- after explorers settled the west and our economy underwent an Industrial Revolution- it was becoming more and more clear that a commitment to conservation would be necessary to protect not only our natural resources, but some of our national treasures.

By the time he took office at the beginning of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt was a committed conservationist. He wanted to leave pristine American land for posterity. So during his presidency, he protected more than 200 million acres of public land and dedicated or expanded six national parks.

In 1916- one hundred years ago this August- President Wilson created the National Park Service when he signed the National Park Service Organic Act.

I understand that a group of students was able to see the wonder of Big Bend National Park for the first time just last month. And there are many many other natural treasures I would encourage you to visit: from Shenandoah to Yellowstone to Yosemite to Redwood.

The National Park Service oversees 59 national parks, which will be preserved in their natural beauty forever. And I hope that each of you has the opportunity to enjoy one or more of them in the coming years.

I know that- at times- it seems like politicians can’t get much done. But protecting our green spaces is a priority for officeholders at all levels. And we are actually making a lot of progress.

The Let’s Move Outside campaign over at the U.S. Department of the Interior is committed to ensuring that all of our youth has an opportunity to play, learn, serve, and work outside. I know that there are some representatives from Let’s Move Outside here and hope each of you can get engaged with this worthy effort.

At the state level- just this past year- the Texas Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Bexar County State Rep. Lyle Larson that will increase funding at state parks.

And here locally there is a whole lot going on. Over the past decade, Bexar County, the San Antonio River Authority, and others came together and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the Riverwalk’s reach for miles to the north and to the south. This year, the City of San Antonio is spending $100 million on its Parks and Recreation Department. And last May, San Antonio residents approved $80 million to expand our citywide trail system by dozens of miles.

Why are we doing this? What makes citizens and representatives at each level of government so eager to invest heavily in stewardship and our park infrastructure?

One reason could be to improve our quality of life. Who among us doesn’t feel more at peace emotionally, intellectually and spiritually when we are with nature? I am sure that the students who visited Big Bend know what I am talking about.

Another reason could be to improve our health. In the past four years, I have been fortunate to lose a significant amount of weight. I attribute this weight loss to the investment our community has made in the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails and Riverwalk expansion projects.

Mayor Taylor is committed to the SA2020 goal of San Antonio being one of the healthiest communities in the nation and it now leading “Walk with the Mayor” events as part of her Fit City SA initiative. My boss, Councilman Nirenberg, shares her commitment.

But aside from improving quality of life and public health, there seems to be something deeply ingrained in us as humans. Do we feel a connection to the land around us? Do we feel that we have a responsibility to leave the natural wonders around us pristine for the generations that follow?

And this leads to even more questions. What is the role of stewardship? What can young people do to get involved?

There are no right answers to these questions. And before we get started on our conversations, I want to close with President Roosevelt’s observation that our “great central task” is leaving this land even better for our descendants than it is for us.”

 

UTSA Civic Engagement Summit

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak at the  UTSA Civic Engagement Summit, hosted by the UTSA Center for Civic Engagement. My speech was entitled “Building a Culture of Engagement in Public Schools.” Below are my prepared remarks:

Thomas Jefferson said that every citizen has a responsibility to be a “participator in the government of affairs.” This Civic_engagement_summit_flyer_2015participation necessarily requires what he called a “more general diffusion of knowledge.”

The debate about public education has become one about workforce development. While this must be a vital component of our public education system, we need to remember that the public education system in America was originally seen as necessary for the survival of the republic- a recognition that the republic can only be governed by well-informed citizens who engage in debates about public affairs.

I don’t know about you, but my recollection of discussing current events in high school includes one of two scenarios: 1) a sleepy-eyed recitation of the Preamble of the Constitution; or, 2) a teacher telling one student that she is anti-gun control and another that he is pro gun-control and making them contrive a debate on the subject. A version of this scene is playing out at every public school I have walked into: rural and urban, privileged and underserved.

Our understanding of the nation’s history and the philosophical underpinnings of our great debates must be informed by something better than distilling controversial issues into lists of pros and cons or mind-numbing memorization.

To say the least, we are falling short of Thomas Jefferson’s vision.

Students are leaving school soured on exploration and civil discourse. And then they see institutional failure everywhere:

They see Enron and 9/11 and the financial crisis and government shutdowns.

They see crippling student loan debt with bleak job opportunities.

They see their parents and neighbors who are police officers and firefighters mired in a prolonged stalemate with the City in the collective bargaining process.

They see a hyper-partisan media culture that rewards horrific remarks about menstrual cycles over serious public debates about nuclear treaties with Iran.

There is a gentleman I know who thinks there is a better way. Dr. Christopher Phillips is a fellow at Harvard University and the National Constitution Center. And he had a great idea.

He said that debate can lead to discovery if a diverse group of people come together to explore current events, constitutional controversies, and philosophical questions only if the discussion unfolds in a civilized and respectful way.

He formed a nonprofit called Democracy Café to fulfill this mission, which I have had the pleasure of serving on the Board of Directors for some time now.

Today, you can go to public libraries or coffee shops in Oakland or Milwaukee or Newark, and you can find groups of people participating in what he calls “Constitution Cafes.”

The concept behind Constitution Café is relatively simple: there is a facilitator who prompts discussion about a constitutional issue- say, the War Powers Act. Small groups discuss those issues for 30 minutes. And after the small groups have their conversations, they report out to the larger group in a discussion moderated by the facilitator.

I know when I first heard about it, I thought, “what group of nerds does this on a Friday night?”

It turns out that Dr. Phillips understands Jefferson’s vision quite well. And so does a brilliant and innovative educator named Patti Reyes.

Patti Reyes is a coordinator for curriculum and instruction at East Central Independent School District. Now, East Central is a mostly rural district here in Bexar County.

She saw that Constitution Café could be a way to get students jazzed about the issues they were learning about in school.

So she started hosting Constitution Cafes in the mornings at East Central High School. And dozens of students would arrive. They would talk about the implications of privacy on social media. They would talk about free speech. These are issues that are esoteric in a textbook but come alive when they are described.

It started out in the mornings before school. But the demand grew and more students wanted to participate. East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano and East Central High School Principal Shane McKay saw that they could integrate this programming with the school day.

The Constitution Cafes became part of the school day, so that reduced-price lunch students and those that rode the bus could participate.

The students are hungry to be engaged, and there are long waiting lists.

The last Constitution Café, which I had the pleasure of attending had more than 320 students attend. We discussed the Affordable Care Act. And the students visibly came alive at the knowledge that we cared what they had to say.

There have been some preliminary findings at East Central: students who participate in Constitution Café are more likely to go to college and they are more likely to be ready for college.

But the most important finding from a civic engagement standpoint it qualitative- and that is that the students who participate in these Constitution Cafes don’t regurgitate what they have heard on Fox News or MSNBC when they discuss current events. They think about public policy and they think about it critically.

This paradigm shift has long-term consequences.

My boss is Councilman Ron Nirenberg and civic engagement is his passion. In fact, at this very summit, he called for moving municipal elections from May until November to increase participation. He spent almost a decade working at the Annenberg Public Policy Center engaging students on a wide range of issues and they would study the long-term effect.

The findings were clear: two semesters of engagement in schools yielded higher participation four years out and eight years out.

Our public school systems should be positioning students to compete in an increasingly globalized and digital economy. But we should never forget that we cannot have a truly democratic society without a focus on civic literacy.

Constitution Day 2015: A Conversation With The Constitution

Last week, I had the opportunity to address an assembly of East Central High School students who were participating in a Constitution Day event called “A Conversation with the Constitution.” We used the Constitution Cafe format to engage students on the constitutional issues surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I have had the pleasure of serving on the Board of Directors of Democracy Cafe for the past several months and am excited about continuing and expanding our efforts to engage students on current events and the Constitution. Below are the remarks I prepared for the event:

The American Constitution sets the rules and establishes the field upon which all of our political battles are waged. 12004912_639918656151174_6325504966234393744_nSince the Founding Era, one of those battles- and perhaps the most fundamental philosophical debate- has been about the proper scope of the federal government’s authority to regulate a wide variety of activities in the United States.

We tend to think and talk about this debate as one about civil liberties and equality- from slavery to Emancipation, from Jim Crow to Civil Rights. But since the turn of the 20th century- as the United States rose to become a great industrial leader- the proper role of the federal government has been central to Supreme Court cases and controversies about economics.

Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate commerce between the states. When I hear that, I think of a train hauling materials across the Red River from Texas into Oklahoma. For 150 years, the Supreme Court viewed it just that way. The Court would uphold laws addressing a train crossing state lines with materials, but strike down many laws on what it considered local economic matters. For example, if I grow cotton on my farm and sell it at the market a few miles down the road, the Court said that doesn’t touch interstate commerce. Which seems sensible.

But then a Great Depression swept across the nation, and people were desperate for the newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt to provide them with relief. So he pushed for a bold legislative package known as the New Deal, which gave the federal government the power to use emergency measures to provide more economic opportunity to the American people.

The chief problem with the New Deal became that the Supreme Court kept striking down the laws! Saying that the federal government was overreaching its granted power. People were outraged, and after President Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936, the Supreme Court finally relented. The court began granting Congress and the federal government more and more power to regulate the national economy, and this trend continued and accelerated through the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

Before the New Deal, the Supreme Court said the cotton I grow on my farm doesn’t touch interstate commerce. After the New Deal, the Court reasoned that the cotton I grow on my farm impacts the national price of cotton and does touch interstate commerce. This same line of reasoning applied to every industry.

Health care is no exception. For the last fifty years, medical breakthroughs and technological innovation have improved quality of care and extended our life expectancies. As with most technological breakthroughs, not all of the fruits have been enjoyed equally.

A great lot of people have been bothered that the richest country in the world didn’t provide adequate health care for all of its citizens. Presidents- all Democrats and, yes, even a Republican- have tried to provide a universal system of health care for all Americans for the better part of a century. And until recently, every president failed.

But five years ago, President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law. The Affordable Care Act- also known as Obamacare- financially penalized any citizen who refused to purchase health insurance and could afford to. This law was very controversial for several reasons, but the most important constitutional debate became about whether the commerce clause gave the federal government the power to penalize an individual for his or her refusal to purchase a product.

On one side, people argued that the commerce clause gives the federal government the authority to regulate what people do, but not what the do not do. They argue that “Congress has the power to regulate commerce, not compel it,” and that allowing such a penalty paves the way for a slippery slope and that one day the federal government could require us all to eat broccoli for dinner. I know that I am not the only one in this room who would find this a bit unappetizing.

The folks on the other side have a point too. They say the federal government should have the power to compel each of us to purchase health insurance because of the total impact that the uninsured have on the national health care system. Every one of us who drives a car is required to have auto insurance, so why shouldn’t health insurance be treated the same? They say that providing adequate health care is such a pressing public policy priority that the penalty is definitely connected to interstate commerce.

While the Supreme Court has made a series of decisions upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the debate over the extent of the powers granted to the federal government by the commerce clause is far from over.

It is actually a debate that is never supposed to be fully settled. At the Constitutional Convention almost 230 years ago, they knew that we would be sitting in rooms like this with groups like this discussing how the issues of our time fit into the framework they adopted. So let’s get to it! Happy Constitution Day!