Russell: Indians in a change election
by: Steve Russell, Posted: February 01, 2008
Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton I administration, made a remark recently that bears serious consideration. We should not, Reich suggested, pick a presidential candidate by making a list of salient issues and ticking off positions one by one, finally settling on the candidate who agrees with us the most. All of the challenges facing the country this year are interrelated, and more important than any one of them is how a candidate is able to understand and explain those connections and deal with each problem in a way that does not make too many others worse.
Some Indians claim that only Indian issues matter in their feelings toward the presidential contest, but those Indians are few for a couple of reasons. First, Indian country is not exempt from economic downturns or global warming or the military misadventures that our people always wind up fighting in disproportionate numbers. Second, there are few enough policy wonks for what Robert Odawi Porter calls “American Indian control policy” that most candidates’ positions could have been spit out of the same copier.
Reich says our troubles all fit together. My son just got back from Iraq, so the war has been worrying me, the war of choice in Iraq where the issue appears to be the identity of the proper Caliph at the time Mohammed ascended to heaven. This is the theological dispute between Sunni and Shi’a. I was raised to think, contrary to the Bush II administration and the debate in the Republican primaries, that the United States has no public policy on theological issues.
Everyone but a purblind Bush II sycophant knows it’s about oil. As is the economic downturn about oil – both the rise in energy prices and the funding of the oil war on credit rather than by raising taxes like countries normally do when they fight a war. As is the global climate change problem. Our reliance on fossil fuels and the growing economies of China and India doing the same lead directly to the destruction of habitat that is ruining subsistence hunting for Inuit and Athabascan Indians.
There is another American Indian side to the energy policy issue that is not so bleak. Most people agree that one solution is to remove the incentives (read “corporate welfare”) for fossil fuels and replace them with incentives for renewables, except the Libertarian Ron Paul, who thinks the market can fix it all magically because if climate change is really a problem every single consumer will pay to stop it on an individual level whether that individual has any money or not and in spite of the fact that government has spent over 100 years tilting the playing field the way it is now – in favor of Big Oil.
Should national energy policy move to renewables – solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass – Indian country is well positioned in every way except for having transmission lines to become a major source of clean power. Tribal governments have the authority to issue tax-free revenue bonds for governmental functions such as power generation. The trick is to issue bonds to power the reservation and build in a manner that allows the tribe to feed the U.S.-Canadian electrical grid. It’s not that hard, since power generation is normally built in modules to accommodate growth.
Turning energy policy to renewables is far more important to much of Indian country than an increase in social spending. With such a turn we could prosper far beyond the Bush I policies that depended on the fact that a rising tide lifts all boats and certainly beyond the Bush II policies that depended on the fact that a rising tide lifts all yachts.
It’s a cliche to call 2008 a change election but it’s not an empty cliche. A Clinton II administration or an Obama administration or even a McCain or Romney administration will at the very least have to change back to what Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff under Bush II, disdainfully called “reality-based politics.” His disdain was based on the conviction that power defines its own reality, as when the administration was able to find several grown men with college degrees who would profess not to know whether waterboarding is torture.
If Rove had been in charge during the Reagan administration, ketchup would now be a vegetable in the eyes of the school lunch program because the evidence we used to beat back that nonsense would have been inadmissible. What Bush II has given us that could never have happened even under Bush I is a government where facts don’t matter, where employees of the National Park Service tell tourists that the Grand Canyon is evidence of Noah’s flood and where there is no moral distinction between a glob of human cells and a human being.
The biggest change we can anticipate in 2008 with any candidate except perhaps Mike Huckabee is that we can negotiate differences because we once more agree on the nature of reality and we once more feel a shared obligation to explain our values to each other. Huckabee is now only a player for the vice presidency on a McCain ticket.
Even with McCain/Huckabee or Romney and whoever, I think we are about to re-enter a time where evidence matters and persuading others to our positions is more important than being able to bludgeon anybody who dissents. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo used to say we run in poetry but govern in prose.
For many years, the United States has been awfully short of political poetry, the importance of which traditional Indian leaders certainly understood. It often takes an orator to create consensus. Sen. Barack Obama’s speech upon winning Iowa was political poetry of the highest order and those who complain that “change” is not a platform miss the point. That speech recalled Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and for those of us who remember a vision of what might have been. The recollection was strong enough in me to awaken assassination fears, so it’s ironic that Obama’s base appears to be young people who can’t possibly have such memories.
So while Robert Reich is correct that our problems are interconnected and involve all our relations, I do not join the cynics who claim that “change” is by its nature an empty promise. When electoral cynicism is the subject, I remember Vine Deloria Jr.’s bon mot that Indians tend to elect crooks and white people tend to elect morons. Not this election. Coming off eight years of reality defined by power, there is little room to be more crooked or more moronic than the status quo. When a candidate calls for “change,” most voters of all ethnicities understand we are so far down that any change is up.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University – Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today.