It’s been a trying week to keep a politically open mind

For years, one of the non-obvious pleasures of writing about tech policy has been knowing that the good and bad ideas don’t fall along the usual right/left lines.

I might not want to hear Republicans like Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah) say a single word about Benghazi, but they were right on a lot of intellectual-property issues. At the same time, I have not enjoyed seeing Democrats I otherwise find clueful like Sen. Pat Leahy (D.-Vt.) repeat entertainment-industry talking points.

But as the past couple of years and these past few days in particular have reminded me, the GOP looks different these days. When a Supreme Court nominee can snarl about left-wing conspiracies in a way that invites the description “Justice Brett Kavanaugh (R)” as the White House rushes through an investigation of sexual-assault allegations against him, and then all but one Senate Republican approves… well, that didn’t happen under President George W. Bush, as awful as things got then.

As a voter, I find nothing to like about what’s now the party of Trump. I’m struggling to think when I might once again cast a contrarian vote for a Republican for Congress in my deep-blue district–especially since my current representative lacks his predecessor’s history of questionable financial transactions.

But at the same time, it’s not good for my health to turn into a ball of rage, and I don’t want to respond to a bout of tribalism on the Republican side by returning the favor. So I’ve been trying to keep a few thoughts in mind.

One is that coherent political philosophies can deserve respect, but blind loyalty, an unprincipled will to power or rank bigotry do not. I may not agree with your notions on government power or individual responsibility, but if I see you speaking and acting in accordance with them, I can at least try to understand where you’re coming from. If, however, you’ve abandoned past positions because they conflict with fact-starved Trump talking points, why should I take you seriously?

If the logic of your current policy positions boils down to “this will help my team,” the same response applies. And if you spout racist or misogynistic nonsense, crawl back under your rock.
A second is that today’s Republican Party and conservatism aren’t the same thing, as one of this year’s dumber tech-policy debates illustrates. It’s become fashionable to describe (groundless) GOP complaints over social-network bias in terms of unfairness to “conservatives,” but the people doing the whining are solidly in Trump’s corner and back such Trump moves as imposing a hidden tax through massive tariffs and propping up dying resource-extraction industries–neither the stuff of small-c conservatism.

A third is that Democrats left alone can still screw things up. Living in D.C. in the mid 1990s, I had the privilege of helping to pay Marion Barry’s salary with my taxes; I know the risks of unchecked one-party rule. We still need a party that can point out that market forces can solve some problems on their own and that abuse of power isn’t just a sport for big business.

I assume it will take at least one electoral wipeout to break Trump’s spell on the Republican Party and let it try to recover that role–as that bomb-throwing liberal George Will wrote in June. In the interest of not trying to pretend I have no opinion on things I see everyday, I will admit that seeing such a beatdown would not make me sad.

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Virginia voting tip: distrust constitutional amendments

Ballots in Virginia generally stay on the simple side. There’s no raft of minor-party candidates, courtesy of strict ballot-access laws, and no long list of referenda and initiatives like California’s 17 statewide propositions. But the Commonwealth’s elections do feature one enduring oddity: constitutional amendments that leave you wondering why they must exist.

Newspaper ad for 2016 Virginia constitutional amendmentsOver more than 20 years of voting here, I’ve seen these constitutional questions fall into two categories: grandstanding exercises in cementing existing laws, or unavoidable workarounds for the constitution’s micro-managing minutiae.

This year’s two amendments ably represent each genre.

Question 1 would enshrine “right to work” provisions–as in, a union can’t make you pay its dues if it represents workers in your workplace–that have spent decades facing no serious challenge.

This Republican-backed measure is a fundamentally unserious provision, as Brian Schoeneman ably argues at the conservative blog Bearing Drift: “There is no need to lard up the Virginia Constitution with policy provisions that are not fundamental to the running of the government.”

On the other hand, it’s arguably no worse than the right to hunt and fish that is now enshrined in the constitution. (I voted against that amendment but gladly voted for its sponsor–Democratic state senator Creigh Deeds, who has since endured more than any of us should have to bear–when he ran for governor and lost in 2009.) And it doesn’t stain the state’s honor like 2006’s gay-marriage ban, which statehouse Republicans apparently want to keep out of spite even after the Supreme Court has consigned it to oblivion.

Question 2 would allow localities to grant a property-tax exemption to the surviving, not-remarried spouses of police, firefighters and other first responders killed in the line of duty. That seems both an eminently fair thing to do and something that shouldn’t require a constitutional amendment to enact.

But the Virginia constitution is nothing if not specific. It nears 25,000 words–compared to that, Apple’s roughly 6,700-word iTunes Store terms-of-service document represents Hemingway-esque brevity–and refuses few invitations to plunge into the weeds. Sample quotes:

“town” means any existing town or an incorporated community within one or more counties which became a town before noon, July one, nineteen hundred seventy-one, as provided by law or which has within defined boundaries a population of 1,000 or more and which has become a town as provided by law

No rights of a city or town in and to its waterfront, wharf property, public landings, wharves, docks, streets, avenues, parks, bridges, or other public places, or its gas, water, or electric works shall be sold except by an ordinance or resolution passed by a recorded affirmative vote of three-fourths of all members elected to the governing body.

Seriously, what justifies that kind of a control-freak constitution?

We’re nearing 50 years since the adoption of a new constitution in 1971–an overdue remedy for 1902’s racist relic. I would like to see the state start from scratch and then stick to the basics. But when I look at the nonsense that goes on in Richmond, I have zero trust in the ability of the folks there to get this right. My reluctant hope is that we have many more years of silly constitutional questions.

My advice under those conditions: Keep voting no unless the amendment in question would allow something that normal constitutions don’t forbid in the first place–in which case, vote yes and feel dirty afterwards.