29 January 2010

Tea Party Convention: What's the Objection?

Who owns the Tea Party movement? That may be the question behind the exodus of organizations and sympathetic politicians from the scheduled National Tea Party Convention. The notorious Rep. Bachmann of Minnesota is one of the latest to bow out while insisting that she remains a supporter of the overall TP movement. The convention has become controversial because it is charging admission at $550 a head. A good chunk of that money goes to pay for the keynote speaker, Sarah Palin. It may be that some potential rivals object to being made to pay to promote another would-be leader of the movement. But Palin may just be hired talent, her performance being the incentive that justifies the ticket price as far as the organizers are concerned.

In any event, as you can see from my header, I can't see what the TP's are complaining about if their main complaint is about the expense. Some are saying that the admission fee belies the movement's character as a grass-roots organization. But my impression was that the Tea Parties have consistently championed the entrepreneurial spirit that supposedly comes with the "personal responsibility" ethic they preach. They should be the last to object to someone wanting to profit from the movement -- unless they believe that the movement isn't the property of the convention organizers, who thus have no right to exploit it for profit. But to whom does the movement belong? How are the TPs to decide? I might suggest that they decide democratically, but they seem generally to be the sort of people more willing to trust in the judgments of "the market" than the judgments of fallible human beings. So if the convention organizers can make the project pay, and can anoint Palin as the leader or spokesperson for the movement in the bargain, who are the rest of the TPs to object, just because they think they're being priced out of the debate? Wouldn't their complaining make them akin to the "whiners" and "losers" whose interests or needs they apparently feel entitled to disregard in their defense of their own freedom to maximize their wealth? Or does the Tea Party movement believe in something besides the unconstrained, unregulated and absolute power of The Market to determine the worth of all things? If so, I'd like to learn more about it.

28 January 2010

Are You an Idiot of the Week?

If you, like members of the news media, are wasting time worrying over Justice Alito's facial expressions during the President's annual message last night, consider yourself nominated. I'm only aware of this being an issue because the story is prominent on the homepage of my work computer, but I can only imagine what some bloggers are writing about Alito's apparent scowl or his mouthing of dissenting words after the President criticized the Court's vote on corporate political advertising. The next Joe Wilson? Must we speculate? In any event, I suppose a Justice is entitled to at least a facial reaction when the President criticizes the Court.

The more interesting angle of this story is the possibility that the President is going to go after the "conservative" majority of the Roberts Court. As an instructor in constitutional law, Obama has some credentials to question the majority's reasoning, and he has the ancient Democratic precedents of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt to stiffen his spine. The President paid lip service to the separation of powers even as he criticized Alito and his co-voters, but his real transgression is his refusal to defer to the majority the way he did during the 2008 campaign when it advanced an individual-rights reading of the Second Amendment. Jacksonian Democracy asserted that the three branches of government were all equal in their right and authority to interpret the Constitution, with the people as final arbiters on Election Day. The issue of corporate freedom of speech is a good one on which to take a Jacksonian stand, especially when the current Court majority can be accused plausibly of putting the spirit of ideology before the letter of the law. But if you scowl or mutter to yourself as you read this, I won't hold it against you.

27 January 2010

A Visitor at Tea Parties

The new New Yorker features Ben McGrath as its Reporter at Large recounting months of encounters with the burgeoning Tea Party movement across the United States. Inevitably, it's an impressionistic rather than analytic account of the phenomenon, and there's evidence of editorial uncertainty over how to present both the story and the movement it describes. The report is illustrated, New Yorker style, by a full-page Edward Sorel cartoon portraying a host of sign-waving little people led toward Capitol Hill by a giant flag-wrapped, sword-wielding Glenn Beck. But the caption reads: "Liberals saw the activists as caricatures -- mere tools of right-wing media figures like Glenn Beck. They were wrong."

McGrath seems to realize that the Tea Party movement might be better described in the plural as phenomena rather than a single phenomenon. He describes its motley nature in one paragraph as encompassing "footloose Ron Paul supporters, goldbugs, evangelicals, Atlas Shruggers, militiamen, strict Constitutionalists, swine-flu skeptics, scattered 9/11 'truthers,' neo-'Birchers,' and, of course, 'birthers,'..." It's unlikely that any one person holds all these views or all these affiliations at once. What, if anything, is the common thread? Are there fundamental points of belief that define a Tea Partier?

A reporter, especially one writing for a relatively literary magazine, is tempted to cull the most colorful quotes from his notes. Here, for instance, is a Kentucky man denouncing Republicans and Democrats alike: "Their constituency is George Soros." That reference to the foreign-born speculator inspires McGrath to comment on nativism and Richard Hofstadter's old (and I thought discredited) theory of the American "paranoid style." Here is Paul Dopp of New York state, interviewed during Doug Hoffman's congressional campaign, describing liberals: "For a lot of people, government is their religion. That's their place of worship, because they truly believe in the betterment of man." McGrath either neglected to ask whether Dopp didn't believe in the betterment of man, or neglected to include Dopp's answer in his article. And here is a Fresno man complaining about a water shortage in California's Central Valley, blaming it on "radical environmentalism." And here are Tea Partiers in New York City, singing what might become their anthem, including the line, "Our way of life is now under attack."

The main point of the article is McGrath's thesis that the Tea Parties can't be traced to any single inspiration or instigator and can't be blamed on radio talkers or Republican strategists. Despite Beck's propaganda and the activities of Freedom Works, McGrath defends the TPs from the "astroturf" charge, noting that "the blogosphere can make trained foot soldiers of us all, with or without corporate funding." He emphasizes the movement's decentralized flexibility, with New Yorkers repudiating liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava while Massachusetts members embraced liberal Republican Scott Brown. If there's a rule for all, McGrath says, it's "to respect local preferences and work selectively within the system." There's a limit to that strategy, of course, if the locality prefers liberal or progressive policies.

Nothing McGrath writes here dispels my impression that the Tea Parties are essentially anti-"liberal," but nothing in the article really lets us measure the extent or vehemence of that opposition. It would be better if a reporter would ask TPs some basic values questions, though some may be disinclined to answer. Do they believe that government can do nothing to improve the public's material quality of life? Do they admit any obligation to secure at least a minimal material well-being for all their fellow citizens. Do they claim the right to decide that fellow citizens who've committed no crimes deserve to live in misery, or not to live? Or do they claim that fellow Americans deserve misery, or worse, simply for failing to live up to some people's standard of competitiveness or productivity? We all know that they dislike or distrust "government," but what we need to know from Tea Partiers is what they think of people, or at least of fellow citizens, and what they think of community or civilization. We know that they're all for "freedom," but what does that mean, to them, in everyday life? We need to get past the jargon and the symbolism before we can know whether the Tea Parties are friends, enemies, or simply people we've got to live and compromise with, just as they have to compromise with those who may not agree with their ideals but are no less American for that.

Footnote on Populism: McGrath quotes historian Charles Postel for context on the purported populism of Tea Partiers. Postel says, "The original Populists were the ones who came up with the income tax. They were for the nationalization of everything. Their ideal of a model institution was the Post Office." But another historian, Sean Wilentz, suggests that populism is a matter of rhetoric and symbolism. "That basic kind of vocabulary, against the monarchy and the aristocracy, has informed every conceivable American dissident group in one way or another." Today, obviously, some see the government as the "monarchy" while previous populists saw "railroad speculators" and the like as the "aristocracy." The question for historians isn't so much why some Americans turned on the government their ancestors saw as their best defense against what FDR called "economic royalists," but why so many apparently stopped seeing the economic royalists as such.

26 January 2010

A Critique of Populism

David Brooks and I must have been on the same wavelength this week. The moderate conservative New York Times columnist has published a piece on populism. He takes a paradoxical position, arguing that populism and elitism are two sides of the same coin, both having in common an intent to divide the public along class lines. I might agree if I was sure of what he meant by elitism. He doesn't seem to define the word in economic terms, but more along the Republican line according to which an elitist is someone who presumes on the basis of his education a right to tell everyone else how to live. What Brooks is smart and honest enough to note, however, is that Republicans are just as elitist, only with a different emphasis. He also notes, with some accuracy, that much of the supposed populism we see today doesn't come from the grass roots, but from the top down.

[P]opulism is popular with the ruling class. Ever since I started covering politics, the Democratic ruling class has been driven by one fantasy: that voters will get so furious at people with M.B.A.’s that they will hand power to people with Ph.D.’s. The Republican ruling class has been driven by the fantasy that voters will get so furious at people with Ph.D.’s that they will hand power to people with M.B.A.’s. Members of the ruling class love populism because they think it will help their section of the elite gain power.

Because populism is espoused by different factions of the ruling class, it loses much of the economic class consciousness we should expect to see in authentic populism. Especially in its Republican form, it becomes a matter of cultural style. As Brooks puts it: populists (or pseudo-populists) of both major parties "describe politics as a class struggle between the enlightened and the corrupt, the pure and the betrayers."

Brooks is trying to warn both parties off the populist approach. Populism as a political strategy "is generally a history of defeat," he writes, because "voters aren't as stupid as the populists imagine." Never mind that the original Populists of the 1890s would not have claimed that voters were stupid; Brooks is referring to today's partisan pseudo-populists. When he describes the stupidity of 21st century populism, however, Brooks seems to be referring only to the anti-wealthy populism of liberals, progressives or Democrats, not the anti-"elitist" populism of Republicans, Tea Partiers and most conservatives. He does take a swipe at Sarah Palin's divisive populism, but his main beef against populism is over its fundamental hostility to concentrated wealth. Brooks is one Republican who embraces his party's Federalist and Whig heritage, citing Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln as two great "anti-populists." They resisted the populist (or proto-populist) temptations of their times and "were willing to tolerate the excesses of traders because they understood that no institution is more likely to channel opportunity to new groups and new people than vigorous financial markets." Neither man can be called a laissez-faire capitalist, but neither, according to Brooks, did they advocate class conflict.
In their view, government’s role was not to side with one faction or to wage class war. It was to rouse the energy and industry of people at all levels. It was to enhance competition and make it fair — to make sure that no group, high or low, is able to erect barriers that would deprive Americans of an open field and a fair chance. Theirs was a philosophy that celebrated development, mobility and work, wherever those things might be generated.

That paragraph is hard to argue against, except that while it's never been government's business to incite class war, class war has a way of coming about whether governments will it or not, and while government should never side with any single faction on an unconditionally consistent basis, it does have an obligation to decide where justice lies in any conflict among American interests and to judge accordingly. Sometimes something that looks like populism, and offends some observers for that reason, may just be simple justice. If that be "populism," make the most of it.

Landrieugate: Chapter One

Now begins a story we are sure to learn more about in coming days and weeks: James O'Keefe, the producer of last year's expose of ACORN which showed some employees of the controversial organization giving business advice pimps and prostitutes, has been arrested in New Orleans with three other men. They are accused of attempting to tap phones in the home office of Senator Landrieu, for purposes as yet unknown.

Mr. Right was just arriving in the office as I was reading the early reports. I asked him if he'd heard the story and he had. He predicted that some people will latch on to this news as a kind of exoneration of ACORN, though with his usually partisan exaggeration he claimed that the "mainstream media" as a whole will do so. Of course, he is absolutely correct to note that it does not follow that O'Keefe was wrong about ACORN because he appears to have done wrong now. It does, however, raise fair questions about the ethics of investigative reporters like O'Keefe who seem determined to bring down community activists and the (usually Democratic) politicians they tend to support. It can also be argued that investigative journalism often involves some ethical risk regardless of partisanship, based on the journalists' sense of urgency about discovering and exposing well-concealed, potentially decisive truths. Politics often comes down to a mismatch of means and ends, so it shouldn't surprise anyone if journalists obsessed with discovering abusive means or sinister ends end up unbalanced themselves.

The real issue may be whether this becomes a politicized case. At the moment, Mr. Right says he sees no way that a positive spin can be put on O'Keefe's alleged activities, but it wouldn't surprise me if other sympathizers try to find a way to characterize what's coming as a political persecution of the defendant. Some will certainly assert that O'Keefe's presence in the office proves that there's something dirty about Landrieu that needs to be brought to light. There may well be, since she's been one of the Senators most self-interestedly wheeling and dealing over the healthcare-reform legislation, according to some reports. But her story is something separate from O'Keefe's, and our attitude toward each should not be determined by our attitude toward the other. Partisanship, however, tells us that we must always consider the enemy's interest in everything we do, so many people will judge this case based on which party it seems to benefit. That's the difference between two-party politics and justice, and it should give people cause to question whether the two can co-exist.

"They Breed"

If Democrats had any say in the matter -- and to an extent they do -- they'd elect Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer of South Carolina as the poster boy for the Republican Party. His chief qualification for such a dubious honor is the statement he made at a town hall meeting last week. Criticizing welfare policies that are still too liberal for his taste after a generation of retrenchment, he compared providing for poor Americans to feeding stray animals in the woods. The worst consequence? " [T]hey breed! You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that."

A comment like this admittedly puts the "pro-life" position of Bauer and those who support him in his current gubernatorial campaign in a different light. He's attempted to clarify his off-the-cuff comment by saying that he meant to invoke the perpetuation of a cycle of welfare-dependency, not the proliferation of new generations of poor people. But the abstract concept of "dependency" that so troubles Republicans is hard to separate from the plight of actually dependent people. Even if we accept his clarification, he still seems to be saying that the cycle of dependency is perpetuated by dependent people having more dependent children on a presumption that the government will provide for them. What else can the reference to "ones that don't think too much further than that" mean? This leaves us with an avowedly "pro-life" politician implicitly arguing that poor people shouldn't reproduce, though once one gets pregnant, one presumes, Bauer will still insist that the child be carried to term and delivered to take its chances in society.

Bauer's political equivalent of a Freudian slip should force the question of whether Republicans of his stripe want poor people to reproduce or not. There's presumably a biblical imperative ("be fruitful and multiply") in play, but that may be trumped by the unwritten Republican bible that commands against dependency. I can understand if they feel that a fetus shouldn't suffer for the sins of improvident parents, but their real preference, I suspect, is that poor families avoid getting pregnant. In practical terms, assuming Bauer to be a right-wing Christian, that means poor people shouldn't have sex. I have more direct evidence of this Republican attitude from my conversations with Mr. Right, a fanatic pro-lifer who once told me that abortion wouldn't be an issue if more women would just "keep their legs closed." But these are opinions more commonly exchanged within the confidentiality of churches, I'd guess, than on the public stage.

The issue of reproductive freedom is more complex than the moral absolutism of the abortion debates allows. For one side, obviously, the right of the fetus trumps the right of the mother, but there may well be times, even in the Republican imagination, when the mother's interest in having a baby conflicts with society's interest in having fewer mouths to feed at government expense. But Republicans can't articulate this conflict comfortably because it reminds them (and Democrats also) of China's "totalitarian" policy limiting childbirth, not to mention the taboo notion of eugenics. Since Republicans hold the family to be the sovereign unit of society, they're reluctant to see the state discourage people from having kids. But if "pro-life" Republicans are willing to have the state decide whether women can abort pregnancies or not, why not grant it like power to determine whether women can get pregnant in the first place? The latter idea irritates them, perhaps because they still want to think of a child as a creation of God, not the parents, so that its birth is His will, not theirs. While some still insist that sex be undertaken for procreative purposes only, so that intercourse becomes a purposeful attempt at impregnation, they also want the results to be seen as somehow accidental, an act of providence, which the mother did not will and therefore can't unwill. Despite all this, Bauer's remarks sound like an subconscious assertion that some people shouldn't breed for the simple reason that doing so would impose on taxpayers. The easy responses to this little scandal are to call Bauer heartless or hypocritical. It would be more interesting, though less comfortable or comforting to most people, to make his supposed misstatement a subject for a further debate. Such a debate might well creatively disrupt the bipolar absolutism that makes the reproductive-rights issue a favorite of the two-party system.

Update: It may not be irrelevant to note that the American teen pregnancy rate is going up, a trend that may be linked, according to this Newsweek report, to an allegedly growing number of coerced pregnancies. The report offers some possible explanations for this development, but the author sees it as a control thing -- men knocking up girlfriends as if thus establishing ownership. A would-be patriarch might not see things exactly that way, of course, and gender issues certainly further complicate the double debate over whether some women should get pregnant and whether every fetus should come to term.

25 January 2010

The Populist Option

In the week since Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts, pundits have been offering advice on how Democrats can maintain their congressional majorities and the President can save his mandate. A word that comes up a lot in this discussion is "populism." Democrats, it's suggested, need to capture the populist initiative from the Republicans and/or the Tea Party movement. The Supreme Court decision freeing corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political advertising has given these strategy sessions fresh urgency while presenting an obvious target for prospective populist anger. Liberal pundits would have people direct populist anger at the corporations who are momentarily expected to flood the airwaves with brainwashing propaganda.

E. J. Dionne is a representative specimen. His latest column calls on Democrats to wage rhetorical war on corporate lobbyists and a "fake populism" that might be described as Teapublican. This "fake populism" focuses traditionally populist anti-"elite" hostility on the government instead of what Dionne deems its proper target, Wall Street. He admits, however, that the Obama administration has handicapped itself as a populist force through its close relationship with the big bailed-out banks. "If average voters came to see government primarily as an instrument of the banks, why should they believe that the same government could help them on matters of health care and employment?" Dionne asks.

Right now the Democrats are, to some extent, victims of circumstance. As the governing party, they have to face the implications of the "too big to fail" principle. Obama isn't willing to take the risk of the banks taking much of the rest of the American economy down with them, were they to fail as some say they should. But what's good for the banks, it seems, is a "jobless recovery" that leads American workers to assume that the government regards them as expendable in a way that the banks are not. In brute economic terms, that's exactly so, but Americans didn't elect Obama or put Democrats in control of Congress in order to be governed by economists. Understandably, many feel betrayed, but their resort to Republicans as their salvation is inexplicable apart from the panic the radio talkers and Republican extremists incited over health-care reform. Can Americans, the Tea Partiers especially, believe that Republicans in power would be less solicitous toward banks than Democrats?

Let's remember, of course, that many of the reactionary populists in the Tea Party movement believe that government, not the banks, is to blame for the economic crisis. Many espouse classic voodoo economics, believing that recovery and jobs would appear almost immediately upon the reduction of corporate taxes. To the extent that they do blame banks, and oppose bailouts on principle, they take a "let justice be done though the heavens fall" attitude, apparently caring little about collateral damage so long as the Market's supposed will be done. Their idea of populism is to let the Market do its benevolent work, rewarding the industrious and punishing the lazy, without the obstructions created by special privileges and crony capitalism, which they now identify with Democratic rule. They think the way to do away with crony capitalism is to minimize government so that it has no power to create privileges that warp the market. But the tendency of capitalism is toward crony capitalism because it's the tendency of people to hold on to their advantages by whatever means necessary. In a political vacuum capitalists will create crony governments to turn once-earned victories into indefinite privileges. The only check against the tendency to crony capitalism and crony government is to have a government that's not beholden to capital, with powers independent of the market -- exactly the sort of government that Tea Partiers have been taught to fear. Some of these people are so far gone in ideology that I doubt whether any populist stylings by Democrats can reach them. Supply-side economics are irreconcilable with traditional populism. Supply-siders embrace their dependence on the money power, while the populists of a century ago resented it with their every breath.

What a populist approach might accomplish is to reverse the demoralization of recent Democratic voters. Disappointment with Democratic performance is expected to keep many Obama voters from 2008 at home in this election cycle unless the Democrats can terrify them with the prospect of Republican revenge -- or someone else taps into their progressive aspirations as well as their populist anger. As the governing party, the Democratic party is compromised as a populist vessel. If a truly populist mood exists, who can harness it?

For more than a century "populist" has been a slippery political term. There's something slightly unsavory about it to the extent that populism typically divides the nation between "the people" or "real Americans" and those elites, "special interests," etc. who are somehow less American than the rest. Populism is arguably inherently divisive and exclusionary to the extent that it depends on identifying an enemy in our midst. In more benign terms, it might be defined essentially as hostility to special privileges rather than "special interests," but too often reactionary populists simplistically equate anti-discriminatory policies with special privileges in order to inflame jealousy against minorities on the part of the multitude who feel that they've never been given a break by anybody. At its worst, populism is akin to conspiracy theory when it presumes that the country can be saved merely by eliminating some simply-identified evil element. It's tempting to politicians who assume, with some reason, that Americans vote according to their fears, resentments and plain hatreds. But I don't think the country's problems are going to be solved just by someone figuring out the right people for Americans to fear and hate. We need more comprehensive reform than a purge would permit, and we're going to need as many people on board as possible instead of throwing as many as we can under the bus. Barack Obama became President in part by promising that "the politics of the past" would come to an end on his watch. Whether he means to fulfill that promise or not, someone should -- but populism isn't the way to go unless it can unite the American people across class, ideology and all other lines.

22 January 2010

Wall Street Votes

The stock market has fallen by more than 400 points in the last two days and has been dropping since the Republican victory in the Massachusetts senatorial election. The decline is partly attributable to anxiety over China's reported curtailment on loans by its banks, but the real provocation seems to be the President's proposed re-regulation on American bank practices. Some observers are inclined to see the daily market stats as a vote of confidence or no-confidence in the administration's economic policies, while others take the stock market as an objective measure of the nation's economic health. Inevitably, some people will conclude that, merely by proposing regulations, Obama has hurt the American economy. But if you're inclined to think that way it's not much more of a stretch to assume that Wall Street is playing chicken with the administration, expressing its disapproval of the proposed regulations by inciting a small panic in the hope that the tactic will panic the administration into backing off. If that seems too conspiratorial to believe, you should be willing to concede that Wall Street is no objective judge of policies that will probably influence their earnings in the future. If the President's proposal was a case before a court, and Wall Street the judge, Wall Street would have to recuse itself. But for some observers interest will look more like expertise, and the assumption will be that Wall Street knows better than the government what the rules should be for banks. But the present sell-off is no more reliable an indicator of the merits for the country as a whole of the President's proposal than the weekend box-office grosses are indicators of the quality of movies as works of art. Anyone who takes the market's recent behavior alone as proof that Obama should change course is letting the market do his thinking for him, and I don't think anyone really means for capitalism to go that far.

21 January 2010

Free But Not Equal Speech

A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that there is no limit on the amount of money that corporations, labor unions and similar institutions can spend on political advertising. This determination emerges from the case of the filmmakers who wanted to advertise their anti-Clinton documentary too close to an election day for existing standards. I actually thought that those filmmakers were getting a raw deal, because I don't think a documentary denouncing a political candidate should count as electioneering unless the producers explicitly endorse someone else. To assume that a denunciation of one candidate implicitly endorses another particular candidate is Bipolarchy thinking. Straightening out this case should not have required the sweeping ruling that the Court delivered today. The reactionary justices were most likely looking for an excuse to liberate corporate America from the supposed straitjacket inflicted on it by overzealous politicians. Justice Kennedy has condemned limitations on corporate or institutional spending for political causes as "thought control," arguing that government has no right to stigmatize any political expression as untrustworthy. As usual, those who reject any limit to the role of money in politics miss the real point, which is that unlimited political spending tends to undermine the equality of free speech rights upon which its utility for representative democracy depends. Unrestricted political spending inevitably creates a class system of political expression. My blog can't reach as many people as a commercial on national television, and just as the American Bipolarchy prices competition out of the market, my ideas are bound to look inferior or insignificant compared to those which, regardless of merit, achieve legitimacy by appearing in the most popular and expensive media. It's simply impractical for me or a million other people to demand our turns on national television, so the opinions and assertions of those who can afford maximum access will go less than thoroughly challenged in the "marketplace of ideas" unless the playing field is leveled by restricting everyone's access by limiting the amount that anyone can spend. Somebody should be able to make an "equal protection" argument in favor of limitations. I doubt that even the majority in Buckley v. Valeo intended their equation of money with speech to mean that the wealthy had more right to political speech than other people. But they should have anticipated the consequences.

As usual, pundits will say that there's no cause for worry. The usual statistics will be trotted out showing how often the politicians who spend the most, or for whom the most is spent, end up losing elections. The wisdom of the people and their ability to think for themselves will be affirmed. In my own office a news reporter, a character who has not appeared in my posts before, reacted to the news by saying, "I would never decide how I'm going to vote in an election based on a commercial." To which an editor responded, "But how will you know when you're seeing a commercial?" But the injustice of the Court's decision isn't a matter of the potential indirect result on Election Day. The real injustice is the majority's declaration that the public sphere of political discourse is once again open for sale to the highest bidders.

20 January 2010

Bill Clinton Comes Begging

"The loudest and angriest voices are playing politics with our lives. And this is just the beginning..." That's the salutation on an envelope that arrived in my mailbox this morning. Bill Clinton allegedly wrote the enclosed letter back on December 28 (the time was 11:30 A.M., for the record) but its arrival coincided with post-mortems from the Massachusetts senatorial election in which a Republican took over Ted Kennedy's old seat. The former President describes an "all-out [Republican] battle to undermine President Obama and our agenda for progress," and warns, "the scary thing is, history tells us they could succeed."

Clinton explains that "midterm elections are always difficult for the party in power," noting that "over the last 32 years, the president's party has lost an average of 27 congressional seats during the midterms." He anticipates lower voter turnout, recalling that the 1994 "Contract With America" congressional elections drew only 39% of voting-age Americans nationwide, compared to a 55% turnout for his 1992 presidential election. Considering 2010 specifically, Clinton observes that "the Republican base is energized" by "ultra-conservative ideologues like Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin." While some sources have reported disappointing Republican fundraising figures for House races, Clinton states that GOP Senate fundraising is up 23% from this time two years ago.

The former President is writing for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, an altruistic gesture on his part since he now has no personal stake in any senatorial election. His is a begging letter, and he makes his case quite bluntly: "I wish I could tell you that the answer is all going to come down to who has the best ideas or who cares more about working families. But this is politics, and in politics the best ideas don't always win. You also need the best organization."

In other words, Democratic Senators don't really need to refine their arguments or acknowledge how they've botched whatever mandate President Obama won for them in 2008. They don't need to adopt any policies that would convince people that they're fulfilling their promises. As far as Clinton's concerned, "America is [already] moving forward" despite Republican obstructionism. He cites "strengthened relationships with key allies and strategic partners all around the world," "a strong economic recovery plan that's putting people back to work and making key investments for the future," the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the restructuring of the auto industry, the salvaging of "thousands" of mortgages, "tough new credit card reforms," the nomination and confirmation of Justice Sotomayor, and "serious headway in the fight for real health care reform."

How shall the Democrats consolidate these gains? Clinton proposes "three keys to victory," based on his 35 years of campaign experience, that will enable Democrats to strengthen their Senate majority. He thinks that Obama has already succeeded in strengthening the economy, so that's one down. With "strong incumbents and exciting new candidates [Martha Coakley, anyone?], Democrats have his second key, "candidates who can win." The third key, inevitably, is money.

Will we have the money we need to keep pace with corporate special interests and fight back against Republican smears and to ensure that the turnout of our voters equals or exceeds theirs? That's the question that's going to decide whether we can make history and seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

It's disturbing to have a correlation between spending and voter turnout asserted so baldly. Democrats, apparently, are a mulish bunch who have to be goaded into voting by fearmongering TV ads. And that's the most positive spin on Clinton's assertion. In the old days the correlation between spending and turnout was more obvious, because the money went straight from the donor through the party into the palm of the "undecided" voter on Election morning. I'd almost rather see that than see the money go to ad agencies and TV networks. In any event, the DSCC has a surprisingly modest fundraising goal: only $625,000 by February 12. As is common now, the pitch comes with an incentive: donate before the deadline and "a group of Democratic senators" will match your donation twice over. Where'd they get their money from, one wonders, and if they have twice the goal amount already, why am I getting this letter?

Arriving the morning after a Republican upset in a deep blue state, Clinton's begging letter is a demoralizing document because it fails to acknowledge even the possibility that Democrats themselves have done anything to put the party in its apparent present predicament, or the necessity of Democratic elected officials doing anything better to regain public support. All they need to do to win, Clinton says, is buy ads and hire more campaign workers. But this should be expected from a party that might best be described as "progressive conservative." The Democratic party sets idealistic goals and espouses noble ideals. That's enough to make them superficially progressive. But the hallmark of a conservative party or institution, regardless of ideology, is its insistence that people settle for conditions that are less than ideal or less than satisfactory. We call people conservative most of the time when they insist that we have to settle for capitalism and the inequality it requires. Democrats are conservatives because, in the apparent absence of viable radical alternatives, they insist that we settle for as much reform as they find politically expedient. Bill Clinton exemplifies this progressive-conservative or progressive-reactionary tendency. His answer to the latest challenge from the "right" is to say, in effect: give us money and don't ask questions.

Amoklauf in Appomattox?

The suspect in the killing of eight people and the downing of a police helicopter in Appomattox VA has surrendered to investigators, according to the latest report. His name is known but his relationship to the victims remains unclear. I'm not sure if this really counts as another amoklauf because it took place in a private home, but the body count should overwhelm most objections. I'm still waiting for the government to take decisive action to prevent mass shootings following several incidents that have already taken place this year. To be more accurate, I'm still waiting for Americans to demand action from the government like they've supposedly demanded action following a failed terrorist attack. The lack of public clamor confuses me. It can't be that everyone is too obsessed with their own concerns in a tough economy to care, since they supposedly cared about the threat of the underwear bomber. But maybe I'm reading this wrong. It could be that most people cared no more about the underwear bomber than they do about these mass shootings, but that certain media elements saw partisan advantage in complaining about security lapses in airports, but not in protesting against the casual empowerment of average Americans to kill each other.

For my part, I worry more about amoklaufers than I do about terrorists. For one thing, speaking selfishly, I haven't flown in fifteen years and have no plans to soon. Secondly, if we must have a "war on terror" the key to winning it will lie more in our ability to endure terrorist attacks than in our ability to prevent them. But there is no reason why Americans must endure regular reports of erstwhile law-abiders exercising their presumed right to preventive self-defense by killing their supposed enemies or oppressors in large numbers. We should strive to prevent amoklaufs and other massacres, and the point isn't that anyone thinks there'll be no crime without guns. Our object should be to minimize the damage whenever human nature malfunctions by limiting the tools available to murderous impulses whenever they might arise. This shouldn't be too much to ask -- so why are so few people asking for it?

19 January 2010

Blasphemy or Hypocrisy?

The manufacturer of telescoping rifle sights used by the U.S. military inscribes references to Bible verses on these devices that facilitate killing, according to this report. The company justifies the practice by saying that prayer is part of their complete commitment to helping our boys kill the enemy. Among the verses cited on these killing tools is one in which Jesus declares himself "the light of the world." Maybe it's not my place to comment on this, but it seems to me that if you're a Christian, this is blasphemy, and if you don't think so, you're a hypocrite. Jesus of Nazareth, to my knowledge, did not sanction people to kill in his name or in their own defense. Whether he regarded military service as a duty one must "render unto Caesar" is debatable. He is reported to have said that those who live by the sword would die by the sword. We can speculate on how he'd react if Peter had one of his favorite sayings inscribed on the sword he used at Gethsemane. In any event, my understanding is that Christians are supposed to follow Jesus's example, not what generations of priests have rationalized as permissible. Few do so, a fact for which we have more proof now.

Who Wins in Massachusetts?

Republicans and their radio auxiliaries are gloating in anticipation of an epochal political upset in Massachusetts, where most recent polls point toward a Republican taking over the U.S. Senate seat that Ted Kennedy had held for 46 years. The Democratic nominee's early lead in opinion polls has evaporated after what reporters describe as a completely lame if not contemptuous campaign that took victory for granted while seeming to denigrate the necessity of electioneering. Meanwhile, the Republican nominee, who is described here as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by national GOP standards, gets to pass as a conservative in the eyes of the national media because he has promised to vote against the Democratic health-care reform legislation. On the national stage, the special election has become a referendum on health-care reform, the assumption being that a Republican victory will cost the Democrats their "filibuster-proof" majority in the Senate and end any hope for reform. Reactionaries have done a great job scaring Americans about health-care reform, and Democrats have done an awful job putting their legislative package together, making an especially poor impression with the corrupt bargains leaders had to make with their own fellow partisan Senators to advance the bills. Radical health-care reform is an eventual necessity if we wish to remain a civilized nation, but the Democrats have given us reason to doubt whether their concoction really fills the prescription. Defeat now may be the goad necessary to get principled Democrats (and maybe allies elsewhere) to work on real reform before the November elections. Should the Republican win in Massachusetts, the worst thing the Democrats could do is ram through their legislation during the interval before Scott Brown's election is confirmed by the state. That would all too easily be portrayed as the Democrats going against the will of the American people as expressed in the Bay State, and it would allow Republicans and other opponents to portray the Democrats, fairly or not, as undemocratic.

If descriptions of Brown as a RINO or as someone to the left of the benighted Dede Scozzafava of NY23 fame are accurate, it becomes more curious to see the same reactionary elements who abandoned Scozzafava in favor of a Conservative party candidate cheering Brown on. There is an alternative to Brown for anti-Democratic types in the form of the opportunistically named Joe Kennedy, the Libertarian party nominee. Brown has long wanted Kennedy to go away and long resisted his inclusion into the TV debates, while Kennedy has claimed that he's taking more votes from the Democrat than from the Republican. Kennedy has been polling in the low single digits all along, never catching fire the way the Conservative candidate did in NY23. That may be because Libertarian isn't as attractive a brand name as Conservative, and it may be because anti-Democratic and anti-liberal elements are mostly rallying around Brown in order to secure the heavily symbolic victory of conquering Ted Kennedy's seat. Depressingly most likely is the possibility that Bay Staters, spooked by the health-reform debate, are practicing preventive voting on lesser-evil principles. To stop the national Democratic party from doing something they fear, they seem to be throwing their support behind the only entity powerful enough to stop the Democrats: the Republican party. In such a circumstance the Republicans' own poor record or the ideological integrity of Scott Brown count for less than the desperate need to check one party with another.

The American Bipolarchy persists in part because of the American people's reluctance to take radical action in any direction. They still seem to prefer a two-party system in which one party is a deterrent to the other. Individual candidates are disposable and exist to be punished for party failures, but the parties themselves are kept around lest the next successful candidate mistake the punishment of his predecessor for a mandate to try anything new. The American majority is not yet desperate enough to trust government to take radical action for the public good. The real question for the next decade may be: how bad do things have to get before we wake up?

18 January 2010

The Bipolarchization of Dr. King

At the independent Poli-Tea blog d. eris has an appropriate post on Americans' collective misremembering of Martin Luther King's mission. Arguably, King was a legitimate third force in public life whose agenda could not be reduced, despite all efforts, to the convenient categories of American Bipolarchy discourse. Since his death, however, each party can reconstruct a King that suits its own agenda. For Republicans, most obviously, King's entire legacy is reduced to one sentence from the March on Washington about "content of character" as the ideal sole criterion of merit. Those words are quoted in support of an instant-meritocracy agenda that denies any further need for compensatory policies to advance victimized classes, regardless of what King himself may have thought on the subject. The Democratic distortion is more subtle, but the result is to transform King into an icon of secular humanism. Not that there's anything wrong with secular humanism, but some people are tempted to minimize the extent to which King's political principles derived from religious feeling. The reductio ad absurdam of this approach is Christopher Hitchens's contention (not that he counts as a Democrat) that anything that was good in King's philosophy owed nothing to Christianity. It can be argued quite convincingly that people can arrive at political positions like King's without believing in Jesus, -- let's hope so, at least, but it's a stretch to argue that King arrived at them that way. To my knowledge, King himself never argued that you needed to believe in Jesus to believe in social justice, but it remains a fact that some people need to believe in "the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God," in order to believe in equality of any kind. Acknowledging that fact is troubling to many Democrats, liberals and progressives because belief in God and Jesus often leads to less liberal or less progressive demands upon society. At the same time, Bipolarchy encourages liberal distrust of faith by presenting the Religious Right as an admittedly plausible bogeyman and identifying it with the Republican party. It should be obvious from this cursory survey alone that if more Americans tried to live up to King's ideals it would pose a problem for the Bipolarchy because it would throw their defining categories into question. Dedicating a holiday to King actually gives the establishment plenty of opportunities to define King on its own contradictory yet consistently reactionary terms, and it tempts the rest of us to let them tell us what King stood for. Fortunately, King's legacy in print and online is available every day in the year for those who want -- not to mention those who need -- to figure it out for themselves.

17 January 2010

Another Addict

Last night I was between buses in the middle of downtown Albany. Inside the bus shelter I heard a man outside ask a woman for a favor.

"Could you help me, please, ma'am?"


"I'm looking for half a cigarette. I dropped it on the sidewalk. Could you just help me find it?"

"Why can't you find it yourself?"

"Because my eyesight's bad and I can't make it out down there in the dark."

"I'm not going to pick up garbage for you."

"Ma'am, I'll give you fifty cents if you'll just help me."

"No, pick it up yourself."

He muttered something about the woman's weight (it sounded like "Fat as fat can be.") and walked into the bus shelter. He had a bushy beard and a bit of a glazed look in his eyes that must have had to do with his poor eyesight, and a shopping bag in one hand. I was the first person in his path.

"Sir, could you possibly help me?"

"How?" I did not want to let him know that I'd heard the whole pitch already.

"I dropped half a cigarette on the sidewalk and I have bad eyesight. Could you help me find it?"

"Whereabouts did you drop it?"

He led me out of the shelter and just a few steps in front.

"There are lots of cigarette butts out here," I told him.

"This is half a cigarette."

I looked for something larger than a butt. Actually, it didn't take long to find it.

"There it is."

"Where?" His eyesight was bad. The cigarette was right between his feet. I bent down slightly and pointed it out to him. He stooped over, examined it with some care, and picked it up. He dropped it again, but this time picked it right up.

"Thank you very much, sir," he said, "At least someone's willing to help somebody out here, not like some people."

"Oh, shut up." the woman standing outside the shelter said.

"You shut up you fucking bitch!" he replied, "Thanks again, sir."

I didn't bother asking for the fifty cents, and he didn't offer it.

14 January 2010

Bipolarchy and the "Infiltration" Option

Apologists for the American Bipolarchy of Republicans and Democrats often argue that both parties are amenable to reform through mass intervention from the grass roots. People who identify themselves by their ideologies rather than by partisanship contend that one or the other party can be made a reliable vehicle for ideology when ideologues "infiltrate" it in sufficient numbers to determine its candidates or control the drafting of its platform. Ideologues can appeal to history in order to show that infiltration succeeded when entrepreneurial conservatives conquered the Republican party in 1964 and when antiwar progressives seized the Democratic party in 1972. The GOP has required repeated infiltration since then, and in some people's opinion needs fresh infiltration now, while progressives have had cause ever since 1972 to question whether the Democracy is "their" party, as both Democrats and Republicans like to claim.

Just as Charles Evans Hughes did not know the word "bipolarchy" in 1910, he would not have described the course he recommended to principled citizens in his Third Dodge Lecture as "infiltration." But he held, as apologists do today, that there's nothing wrong with the two-party system that can't be cured by an infiltration of decent people.

Hughes acknowledged that there was room in political life for independent activity, but he isolated it in the media of his time, the "independent press" that endorsed no party consistently. The independent press, he said, represented a constituency that "constitutes in effect a party with the principle of non-partisanship" that criticizes those in power without contesting their power. He identified independence with an objective concern for the public interest rather than with disappointed ideologies, and praised it for "provid[ing] a basis for appeal over the heads of short-sighted party managers."

While he respected independents, Hughes believed that they weren't living up to their full potential in public life.

The regrettable feature of this non-relation to the great parties is that it withdraws from their active work men of weight and character who would be strongly influential in the determination of party action, and their withdrawal helps to create the conditions which they criticise. Not infrequently individual independence is a cover for disinclination to disagreeable and necessary work and shows a preference to stand aloof from the contests of democracy in which every citizen should take a vigorous part. This cannot be commended from any point of view.

Hughes discreetly leaves to his Yale audience's presumably educated imaginations what counts as "disagreeable and necessary work," but it certainly involved compromises and horse-trading, the sort of things independents are presumed to despise today. He understands that representative government itself requires compromises among diverse interests, just as Madison did. National parties, in Hughes's view, require similar compromises in order to form the governing and legitimizing majorities he considers necessary for a modern republic. In a sudden bit of sophistry he narrows the scope of democracy to party politics: if you don't like the "disagreeable and necessary work" of partisanship, he asserts, you're abandoning your duty as a citizen. You can only participate in democracy by joining the two-party system. It simply isn't enough to criticize as the independents do.

Independence has thrived on the stupidity, despotism, and corruption of party managers. It has performed notable services in voicing protest and in inflicting punishment. But we must still remember the actual necessities of the successful working of our system of government, and endeavour to put ourselves in such relation to the extraconstitutional machinery of the government, as to exercise to the fullest extent possible the privileges of our citizenship.[emphasis added]

The word "extraconstitutional" is an extraordinary confession of the Bipolarchy's usurpation of the democratic process. More extraordinary is how Hughes seems untroubled by this dubious revolution. He regards it with complete complacency, telling his hearers that any progress they hope for "must be effected through the instrumentalities at our command," --i.e. the major parties. "This does not imply that anyone of you should join a party contrary to your conscientious convictions" he insists, "but in making up your mind as to what you should do, you should have a proper understanding of the means through which your influence as a citizen must be exercised, of the actual conduct of our affairs, and of the value of party relation."

Hughes doesn't mean to condemn us all to obedience to party bosses. He expects everyone to put principle before party interest when the two conflict.

Party loyalty and patriotism should coincide, but if they are antagonistic, patriotism must ever be supreme. Important as it may be, the party is not the Nation or the State. He serves his party best who loves his country most. When, therefore, the temporary attitude of party threatens the interests of the community, when an ill-chosen policy invites general disaster, when party success means the debasement of the standards of honour and decency, the party
man should recognize the superior obligation of his citizenship. We have no finer illustration of patriotic devotion than has been afforded by party men who at critical periods have deserted their party in order that they might serve the higher interests of their country and maintain the principles of administration which were essential to the common security. At times, not simply the interests of the people at large, but of the party itself, may justify the party man in acting independently of it. It is often the only available means of rebuke and of party discipline through which opportunity may be provided for a more healthful party life.

I can't help but wonder whether the system can work as Hughes suggests when he constrains everyone's freedom of action so drastically. If we must join parties to be effective citizens, and there must be a Bipolarchy for the sake of majoritarian legitimacy, and we have no choice but to concede the Bipolarchic usurpation of representative government, what leverage, in the long run, can individuals exert against parties? In his own career, Hughes was often frustrated by partisan obstinance or the abuse of partisan power by petty bosses. But for all his progressive tendencies, he could not imagine or countenance the radical reforms that might more permanently end the abuses of partisanship. His progressivism, to the extent that it taught him that bigger was always better, may have blinded him to the possible radical necessity of overthrowing the Bipolarchy. Here, one hundred years before our own struggles with Bipolarchy, is a profoundly demoralizing admission of defeat.

Pat Robertson: Idiot of the Week

Here's a story that proves that religion is sometimes stranger than fiction. My friend Crhymethinc has a rather dark sense of humor. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, he suggested to me that it would be amusing to post comments on news sites suggesting that the disaster was God's wrath on the island for its pagan practice of voodoo. The amusing part, he emphasized, would be in seeing whether other people responded with apoplectic outrage or righteous agreement. But my friend's parodic instinct is no match for the self-parodic tendency of the American Religious Right. It was only a matter of time, after all, before Pat Robertson opined on the subject. And once he had spoken, it was a shorter matter of time before his organization went into spin mode. I really like the nice distinctions drawn by the Robertson camp. It seemed fair to them for Robertson to blame the earthquake on a curse dating back to an alleged revolutionary pact with Satan, but it is unfair for others to summarize his analysis as an attribution of the quake to God. But I suppose, based on Robertson's reasoning following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, that he could believe that God allowed the disaster to occur but did not initiate it. But of course, still following the 2001 model, if God withdrew his protection from Haiti then the Haitians, like the sinful Americans of nine years ago, had only themselves to blame for the earthquake.

As a rule, I believe in voodoo no more than I believe in the Christian mythology, but if it inspires some indignant Haitian to stick pins in a Pat Robertson doll, I'd almost be willing to pray for the pricks to have a practical effect

13 January 2010

Identity Politics and the Bipolarchy

In his 1910 Dodge Lecture on the as-yet unnamed American Bipolarchy, Charles Evans Hughes noted that the major parties -- then as now, the Democrats and Republicans -- could accommodate sharply contradictory viewpoints, allowing a wider range of disagreement within each party's ranks, he suggested, than existed between the two parties as wholes. What held the major parties, and thus the Bipolarchy, together, Hughes argued, was the imperative of electing a President and the existence of a "paramount issue," the importance of which overrode all intraparty disagreements. Hughes's thesis seems to be verified by the way the Democratic party deals with identity politics.

In New York, political commentators remain abuzz over the possibility of the ex-Tennessean Harold Ford Jr. challenging Senator Gilllibrand in a Democratic primary. Until yesterday, the focus of attention was on what looked like hamfisted attempts by the White House and the national Democratic leadership to dissuade Ford from making the challenge. Yesterday, a delegation of Democratic legislators declared their solidarity with Gillibrand as women. Not only were they suspicious of Ford's centrist record on gender and reproductive issues in his former home, but they also worried that women would be inadequately represented in the U.S. Senate should Gillibrand, Hillary Clinton's successor, lose her seat. Clinton and Gillibrand have been New York's only female Senators to date, they noted, and their time in office so far has not been enough to correct the historic gender imbalance.

Playing with identity politics in this prospective campaign could be dangerous. It might be noted, after all, that Barack Obama's ascension to the Presidency has left the Senate without black representation. It might also be noted that New York has never sent a black person to the Senate. If identity politics is about an equitable distribution of spoils, it can be argued that blacks are due for their turn in the Clinton/Gillibrand seat, though whether anyone will make this argument in Ford's behalf remains to be seen.

The feminist legislators (along with the usual blowhards in the New York branch of NOW) threaten to open the wounds that had seemingly healed since the 2008 presidential primaries by claiming women's right to a Senate seat in defiance of a black man. A fault line emerged during the Obama-Clinton race that appeared for a time to threaten the winner's chance for victory that November. This was the moment when the PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass) prowled about the Democratic convention, some promising to stay home in November if their demands were denied. The moment passed and Obama was elected. That might prove that identity politics are insufficient to split a major party. At the same time, however, the American Bipolarchy is a disincentive to identity-based party formation. In part that's due to reasonable calculations that an avowed Women's Party or African-American Party could never win a major election. But that reasoning itself depends on the presumption of a monolithic opponent, a Male or White Party which matches quite closely many liberals' perception of the Republican Party. However much black and female aspirations conflict, they can always see a common enemy in the White Male (not to mention Straight or Christian) Other, the historic oppressor who would deny all rival aspirations in perpetuating its own privileges. Black and female politicians may not always trust each other, but both groups assume that the Republicans are the common enemy. The "paramount issue" of empowerment weds both groups to the Democratic party and may do so as long as both groups perceive themselves as incompletely empowered and blame the perceived fact on the Republican Other.

In an earlier comment on the Dodge Lecture I suggested that the overarching kulturkampf pitting "liberals" against "conservatives" was the paramount issue of our time holding the Bipolarchy together. Dealing with identity politics, we could argue that black and female aspirations, and what remains of white male resistance to them, fit neatly under the "liberals vs. conservatives" heading. But we could also observe that the managers of the Bipolarchy are sophisticated enough to pitch different "paramount issues" to different constituents within each major party. There are still many white men in the Democratic party, after all, for whom the black and female aspiration to empowerment simply wouldn't be compelling enough to keep them on the team. They can be kept in line by whipping up general hostility to conservatives as enemies of the public interest or by appealing to whatever defines their particular oppressed identity -- class, religion (or lack of it), sexual orientation, etc. Republicans have to practice similar sophistication to keep their coalition of traditionalists, entrepreneurs and government minimizers together. The necessary trick is to conjure an Other who is simultaneously the enemy of each constituent group and the enemy of all within the party, the generality of its enmity defining the terms of the ideological conflict. With such a system in place, the Democrats in New York should be able to endure a Ford challenge to Gillibrand and all the feminist outrage (and black backlash) it may provoke, so long as Republicans do nothing (as they usually don't) to convince either group that a GOP victory wouldn't be the fate worse than death. Everyone ought to calm down and let the game begin.

Second Amendment Awareness

Irony of ironies, yesterday, Jan. 12, the day of the Kennesaw amoklauf, was "Second Amendment Awareness Day," at least in New York State. To give it its formal name, it was "Sportsmen and Outdoor Recreation Legislative Awareness Day." The occasion was celebrated in Albany by Wayne LaPierre, the present heston of the National Rifle Association, who spoke inside what he described as "the heart of the beast," the state capitol. While he could not know what was going to go down in Georgia, it was still something of a stretch, given last week's news from St. Louis, for LaPierre to label Democratic politicians as the "fringe" on the issue of gun regulation.

In LaPierre's opinion, domestic gun violence, the shooting of Americans by Americans, is no problem that stricter sentencing can't solve. Ignoring the strong possibility that your average amoklaufer is a first-time offender, he suggests that the source of our trouble is lenient judges letting proven violent perps back on the streets too soon. Interestingly, and perhaps in contradiction to one's assumption that the NRA is in league with small-government types, LaPierre supports expanding the federal role in prosecuting gun crimes. There's merit to his overall argument if you think that the most important gun-violence issue is conventional crime. The NRA tends to see things that way because they see guns as necessary instruments of self-defense against muggers, burglars, etc. But his demand for maximum sentencing has little relevance to the amoklauf problem that everyone seemingly wants to sweep under the rug.

LaPierre was backed by Tom King, the heston of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association. King believes that New York needs a state equivalent of the Second Amendment embedded in its own constitution, something "ensuring a right to bear arms and universal pistol licenses." This may seem superfluous given the federal Supreme Court's recent affirmation, presumably nation in scope, of an individual right to bear arms. But I have no problem with activists advocating an amendment, as long as they make their real desires clear for once. Let's have a real debate on an amendment that says what its advocates really mean: "The right of persons to kill in defense of property or their own persons shall not be infringed."

12 January 2010

Amoklauf in Georgia?

Three dead, more wounded and a camo-clad suspect is in custody according to early reports from a truck rental shop in Kennesaw GA. It's been a week since the shootings in St. Louis, and the government sat on its hands in the interim, prodded by no one to take action on the imminent danger presented to innocent Americans by inadequately regulated gun ownership. American complacency from top to bottom has caused more people to be killed. Whose resignation will the people, the pundits or the partisans demand? Second Amendment absolutists believe the uninfringed right of individuals to own as many firearms as they please is necessary to "the security of a free state." How secure are we, exactly, either against the tyrants of paranoid fantasy or the gun nuts next door? Because of its peculiar explanatory or conditional language, the Second Amendment, alone within the Bill of Rights, is capable of being proven wrong. The security of a free state, arguably, depends upon the proof.

The Ford Challenge

Harold Ford Jr. wants to represent New York State in the U.S. Senate. He's only lived here a short time, having run unsuccessfully for Senator from Tennessee in 2006, but he's convinced himself that he can do better than Kirstin Gillibrand, the upstater appointed by the governor to replace Senator Clinton upon her appointment to the State Department. Gillibrand has been a passively divisive figure, annoying some because she lacked the celebrity of Caroline Kennedy, and others because she's an upstater with the coloration of a Blue Dog. The White House, however, has been protective toward her, warning away Democrats who've pondered primarying her. Ford has cried foul because the White House, along with Majority Leader Reid, has been trying to deal with him similarly. There seems to be some upstate-downstate tension involved, as Ford supposedly has the support of Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, but as far as ideology goes there's not much difference. Ford has had to clarify his views on abortion and same-sex marriage, for instance, in order to make himself more palatable to liberals.

From a partisan perspective, the primary system exists to let the rank and file choose their candidates. It was advocated by historical progressives like Charles Evans Hughes (see below) in order to take the selection of candidates out of the hands of state and local bosses. It goes against the democratic spirit of primaries for any authority, especially from outside the state, to tell anyone, even a "carpetbagger," not to challenge an incumbent for the party nomination. It's especially inappropriate for the President, if it has come to that, to stick his nose into a state election process. The President is not the leader of his party; that's an actual job held by somebody else. He is not the boss of all Democrats, no matter how he thinks the campaign in New York will impact him in his efforts to get his agenda through the national legislature.

At the same time, I don't feel sorry for Ford. If he gets grief from Democrats in and out of state, that's the price he pays for playing the Bipolarchy game. If he's supposedly on good terms with Bloomberg, why doesn't he go independent? For the usual reason, obviously; the major parties are shortcuts to power. But the shortcut exacts a toll, and it only makes sense for New York Democrats to question whether Ford can represent them when it's an open question whether he can represent the state itself. In the past, "carpetbaggers" from Robert Kennedy to Hillary Clinton have answered that question to voters' satisfaction, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth asking anymore. But while I have little sympathy for Ford's plight, the way he's being treated should be an object lesson to those who believe that party nominations are open to all aspirants equally. The menacing noises some people are making at Andrew Cuomo for possibly challenging Gov. Paterson in a primary should be further proof. In any event, if a politician thinks that he's the best if not only hope for his constituents, -- why run otherwise? -- then why should he take a party's veto in a primary for an answer instead of making his stand in November, on his own merits rather than the party's? Here's the reason: if a politician seeks an office, yet is unwilling to run as an independent, then he's running for the party's sake, not yours.

11 January 2010

The Bipolarchy: Pro and Con

In the third of his January 1910 Dodge Lectures, later published as the book Conditions of Progress in Democratic Government, Charles Evans Hughes told a Yale audience that the "concentration of political activity in two great parties has its obvious disadvantages." He elaborated:

It would seem unfortunate to divide the people of a democracy into two hostile camps; to encourage habits of thought which engender prejudice and bitterness on the part of one-half of our citizens toward the other half; to accustom the people to regard public questions largely from the standpoint of partisan considerations rather than upon their individual merits; to make it difficult for those who belong to opposite parties to forward in an effective way some particular measure on which they are agreed; to divide the support of public officers who seek to secure the impartial administration of the public business; to make it difficult to present an issue to the people save through the devious methods of party politics and through the utterances of party platforms whose purposes so frequently are to conceal and to evade, in the interest of party expediency; to develop opportunities for chicanery and corruption, and to foster the designs of dishonourable and selfish political leaders who trade upon party loyalty.

Hughes had already admitted that national parties were a necessity in order to give the President of the United States majoritarian legitimacy, but he'd expressed surprise that American politics since the Civil War had settled into a consistent Bipolarchy of Republicans and Democrats despite serious divisions within each major party. It was time for him to decide whether that was a good thing. Having made the case against Bipolarchy, he now took up the other hand.

[W]e cannot have the advantages of a situation without its disadvantages; and the former in this case greatly outweigh the latter. Division of political opinion is inevitable, and it will exist with regard to all public questions of importance. It is essential that there should be some means of focusing controversy and of providing a main line of division. If instead of two great parties we had a large number of little groups, each intent upon its own shibboleth and pressing its own candidates and policies, we should have a series of triumphant minorities, little or nothing would be settled, and the progress and prosperity which depend upon stability of government would be impossible.

Something doesn't follow. How can we have triumphant minorities when any minority must compromise and form coalitions with other minorities in order to win majority power? Hughes seems to have lost track of Madison's vision from Federalist No. 10 of how representative government would work, but he may be thinking specifically of presidential elections and presuming that multiparty elections would invariably go to the House of Representatives. Even then, however, the three candidates who'd advance would have to make compromises with state delegations in order to win their collective votes, so the menace of the shibboleth-driven triumphant minority seems minimal.

Hughes then goes on to idealize the two-party system. He claims that "While the people are divided mainly into two parties, it is also true that in their general intercourse and through the organs of public opinion, particularly when there is no dominant issue, views are freely promulgated and a general sentiment is created which does not recognize the limitations of party boundaries. Such sentiment has its weight in party councils and much is accomplished through its existence, although it may not present an issue to be definitely passed upon in a political campaign. Through the instrumentalities of great parties the people generally do express what is uppermost in their minds."

This claim begs the question of whether individual views would be less "freely promulgated" in a multi-party system, but Hughes may mean only that views are promulgated with sufficient freedom in a Bipolarchy to render objections insignificant. But he conditions that freedom on the lack of a "dominant issue." It's somewhat unclear whether he refers to the promulgation of views across party lines or within each party. Either way, however, Hughes hints that a "dominant issue" could both embitter interparty discussion and hinder intraparty debate. If we think of the present day and propose "liberalism vs. conservatism" as the dominant issue, the limits of Hughes's idealized portrait become starkly clear.

Nevertheless, Hughes adheres to Bipolarchy as a national necessity. While Madison predicted that geographic expansion would make more voices heard in government, Hughes concludes that a continental nation requires fewer voices to be heard.

The widening scope of national administration and the growing importance of the office of Chief Magistrate which represents the entire people and not simply a State or district, makes it of first consequence that candidacies should be limited, and that the President should rest his title upon a suffrage closely corresponding to an actual majority of the electorate. This can be accomplished only through great parties. It is not consonant with human nature that such parties should be expected suddenly to emerge and as quickly to disappear. Their tendency to continue reflects the conservatism of the people and the practicality in the conduct of government which gives assurance of permanence.

Bipolarchy is a consequence of geographic expansion (along with population growth) and the growth of presidential power -- Hughes spoke less than a year after Theodore Roosevelt left the White House. In effect, Hughes has propounded a historical theory of inevitable Bipolarchy, the alternative to which is simply inefficient. At this point in the lecture, however, Hughes knows that he hasn't convinced everyone of the necessity of Bipolarchy. In the final section of the Third Dodge Lecture, he'll attempt to convince persistent independents that they can best serve their country, as apologists for Bipolarchy have argued ever since, within the two-party system.

Another Call for a Constitutional Convention

While most of the recent agitation for a "people's convention" to revise the New York state constitution has had an anti-"big government" slant, the latest call for a convention comes from the archetypally liberal Mario Cuomo in an op-ed co-written with academic Gerald Benjamin. The most interesting thing about its piece is the authors' determination to refute any argument against having a convention. Against the objection that a convention would change nothing because established politicians would be in charge, Cuomo and Benjamin propose excluding active state legislators from serving as delegates. They would force legislators to step down if they want to become delegates, but it might be a better idea to exclude them entirely. They dismiss the second objection, that "everything might change" (implicitly for the worse) as a false fear. Since the process as they envision it would involve three separate votes by the people (to authorize the convention, to elect delegates, and to ratify the revised constitution) they believe it has enough accountability built in to prevent undesirable changes. The third objection is related to the second, but the argument that "the wrong things will change" is dismissed by the authors as purely partisan. Republicans and Democrats alike, or liberals and conservatives alike, fear a convention simply because the other side might prevail. Here's how Benjamin and Cuomo answer:

There are two reasons why the argument that "the wrong things would change" is the most disheartening of all. First, it says the people are only worth trusting when the outcome is certain. This is fear of democracy. Second, it suggests that protecting particular views and interests is more important than pursuing the broader public interest. This is fear of change.

I'd add that the revision of a state constitution, not to mention the federal constitution, should be an occasion when there are no parties and, ideally, no ideology. Obviously each delegate will have some ideal of how government should work, but the real object of any convention should be the enactment of a practical system of government that would allow any ideological faction to have its way if it can win the support of the electorate, not the enactment of one that would raise ideologically motivated permanent barriers to practical measures desired by the people. The making of a constitution is one of those events that requires everyone to participate in the deliberative process at some stage or other. It's not something anyone should try to prevent because they'd rather not bother or they're afraid they wouldn't get their way. Not everyone gets his way in a democracy, but if you believe in democracy you have to acknowledge that at some level the majority does rule. So let's find out if the people want a convention or not and not worry about how messy or dangerous it might be if they do.

10 January 2010

The Playoff Payoff

As a rule I don't comment on sports here, but two related stories from the world of professional football may teach us some lessons about how business considerations designed to manipulate our desires can also disappoint them. A few weeks ago a minor scandal broke among some fans and reporters when the Indianapolis Colts, then 14-0 with only two games left in the regular season, sacrificed their chance to finish undefeated by benching their best starters in the second half of a game that they lost to the New York Jets. With the best record in football, the Colts had clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl. Having done that, management decided it would be better not to risk getting their best players injured before the playoffs. Many of their own fans were angry because they wanted to see the Colts go undefeated and accomplish what the New England Patriots almost did two years ago: finish the year as Super Bowl champions with a perfect record, as has been done only once before, when the season was considerably shorter. Some people also protested from a consumer point of view: why should they have paid regular (exorbitant) prices for tickets when their team wasn't going to give its normal full effort? In response to the complaints it was argued that the real goal of any professional team is to win the championship, while finishing undefeated is secondary at best and possibly detrimental to the team. The Patriots lost the Super Bowl, after all, arguably because by driving themselves toward a perfect season they had exhausted themselves. Apologists for the Colts soon had cause to point to the Patriots again. This year, New England wasn't undefeated but had clinched a spot in the playoffs and a home-field advantage for at least the first round. Nevertheless, they sent out their starters for the final game of the regular season last week, and one of their best pass receivers was injured. Today the Patriots were whipped in their playoff game. The injury alone seemed to vindicate the Colts' conduct, while the defeat seemed like definitive proof of Indianapolis's wisdom.

The problem lies with the concept of a playoff system itself. The idea of a playoff, to my knowledge, dates back to the creation of the World Series in baseball in 1903. The reason for a World Series was the existence of rival baseball leagues, the American League having started in 1901. In both the American and National leagues, the champion was simply the team with the best record at the end of the season. Beginning in 1903, the champions played against each other to determine the "World Champion." Other sports without baseball's divided history began to structure themselves into divisions or conferences in order to have playoffs, and in 1969 Major League Baseball divided the American and National Leagues in order to have an extra round of playoffs before the World Series. Since then, baseball has subdivided again to make yet another playoff round possible. This is justified by higher TV ratings for playoff games and higher rates the TV networks can charge advertisers for commercial time. As more teams in all sports become eligible for playoffs, some naturally clinch their spots earlier in the season, and that means more meaningless games late in the season. They're meaningless to the team, of course, but not to the people who've saved money to buy tickets to those late games, only to see second-class efforts from their heroes, many of whom won't even play.

Fans should learn that if they want their teams to play their best every game, every game has to matter. Ideally there should not be a safe haven like clinching a playoff spot that allows a team to slack off in front of paying customers. The easiest way to this end, though not perfect, is to eliminate playoffs and return to one league and one champion, the one who wins the most games, in each sport. That would get team sports back to something resembling the simple higher-stronger-faster ideal that justifies any athletic endeavor. The Patriots attempted to live up to this ideal two years ago when they tried their utmost to win every single game, and no matter what detractors say, their ultimate failure (due mainly to two "miracles" in one freak play for their opponents in the Super Bowl) doesn't besmirch the nobility of their effort. On the other hand, who beyond the home fans will remember the 2009 Colts, even if they win the championship, as anything distinct from other champions? But after this year even the Patriots may prove more cautious in the future. That will be a failure of collective character, but they'd only be a product of a system that's supposed to create heroes but actually discourages athletes from doing their best except when it's convenient for them.

False Outrage

Perhaps because it has a black man for a figurehead the Republican Party hopes Americans will believe its outrage over Senator Reid's dumb comments from 2008 about then-Senator Obama is genuine. That is, Republicans want you to think that they're really angry on behalf of black people over the Democrat's crack about "Negro dialect." To the extent that any Republican outrage expressed on this subject is genuine, it's on their old ground of resentment of the "double standard" that condemned Trent Lott for his praise of Strom Thurmond's entire career but lets Democrats off the hook for racially insensitive or even insulting comments. I expect to hear it from Mr. Right again, for instance, that Sen. Byrd is a former Klansman but has never suffered for it. Republicans want Reid's scalp as revenge for Lott's, but Reid, to my knowledge, has never even implicitly endorsed segregation in the way Lott did when he said Thurmond would have made a great president in 1948. And in the case of Byrd, the people who are qualified to judge on matters of racial sensitivity know what side he's on now. By crying "double standard" the Republicans are trying to say that anyone can call out anyone on alleged insensitivity, and that those who misspeak are objectively liable to some penalty beyond shame whether the people who would presumably have been most offended demand punishment or not. Every so often the Republicans try to remind people that they're the Party of Lincoln. On such occasions they hope that some momentary outrage against individuals might make black partisans suddenly change ideologies. The fact is that the GOP surrendered much of its credibility as a judge in matters of racial sensitivity when it embraced the likes of Thurmond in a reactionary pact to gain power in the 1960s. Having Michael Steele as a frontman will do little to correct the party's historic handicap, especially if he does no more than espouse policies and principles that blacks have presumably repudiated long ago. There's good reason for blacks and many others to be disappointed with or disgusted by the Democratic party, but one hopes that all such disgruntled people know better than to turn to Republicans as their only alternative.

07 January 2010

A Historian of the Bipolarchy

One hundred years ago this month Governor Charles Evans Hughes of New York, later a Presidential candidate and ultimately the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, delivered the Dodge Lectures at Yale University. They were printed in a volume titled Conditions of Progress in Democratic Government. In the course of my regular research for a "100 years ago today" column I found excerpts from the Dodge Lectures published in a local newspaper. One of the lectures addressed the state of political parties and the phenomenon of the two-party system. The newspaper excerpts inspired me to track down the complete lectures, which exist online as a Google Book.

Hughes had a problematic relationship with his own party. By 1910 standards he was a progressive Republican, but as governor he had to deal with local GOP bosses who were more interested in retaining local power than in furthering Hughes's agenda. The year before, in 1909, the bosses and their tools in the state legislature thwarted the governor's effort to establish direct primary elections. Hughes's objective was both high-minded and self-interested. He believed that the grass roots would choose better candidates than those dictated by local bosses, but he also expected the legislators who emerged from the process to be more compliant toward a governor who saw himself, when we get down to it, as their rightful leader.

Knowing that much about Hughes, I was interested in learning his deeper thoughts on partisanship and the party system. These are concentrated in his third Dodge Lecture, in which he acknowledges that the emergence of national parties, not to mention a two-party system, wasn't part of the Founders' plan.

It was the hope of the framers of the Constitution that they had constructed a system which would be unfavorable to party control and through which men would be selected to discharge the functions of government who would represent the larger interests of the Nation, unbiased by partisan animosities or by narrow considerations of party expediency. ...They believed that as the sphere of government was extended they would enhance the protection against factious combinations, and that in a large republic such as the Union, they
would find security by reason of the greater variety of parties and interests and of the difficulty of obtaining a majority of the same party. But unwittingly they constructed a system, to the successful working of which parties were essential.

Hughes immediately contradicts this statement by attributing the rise of national parties to an alteration of the system the Founders constructed. That change was the effective democratization of presidential elections. The Founders' original design for election by the Electoral College, Hughes writes, was "futile" because "The selection of the most important officer in the Nation could not be so far removed from popular choice." Once "the electoral college [had] come to be simply a device for apportioning the popular vote for President and Vice-President according to States," he continues, "it was absolutely necessary that [voters] should combine in groups to express their wishes with respect to candidates and policy."

National parties, then, are called into existence by national elections. Hughes's chronology, however, isn't quite right, because faction emerged in the early republic well before democratization gained decisive momentum. As of 1796 a presidential election was contested along partisan lines as Jefferson opposed Adams. We can question the extent to which Jefferson's opposition was a product of democracy rather than a product of Jefferson's ideology and sectional interests. But to challenge Adams he did have to wage a nationwide campaign, and that necessity may demonstrate that nationalism (or the national ambitions of politicians) and ideology rather than democracy fueled the rise of national parties.

Hughes is actually more concerned with explaining the nation's tendency to Bipolarchy and the then 50-year persistence of the Republican-Democratic Bipolarchy under which we still live 100 years later. Even allowing for partisanship as the appropriate instrument for democratic politics, Hughes questions whether two-party systems could ever be taken for granted.
The fact of main significance ... is not that we have parties, not that they must be regarded as essential to the working of our government instead of being considered as evils, but that the tendency has been so marked to the establishment and continuance of two great parties which for the most part dominate the field of partisan activity. It was natural to suppose that the large variety of interests would be represented in numerous and changing groups or parties, and that no great party could maintain the solidarity requisite for long-continued effectiveness. Not only was the party coherence to which we are accustomed contrary to the expectations of the founders, but it has been a surprise to the modern critics of our institutions.A great party must have its birth and grow its strength through political conviction. Where there is serious division among the people with respect to some fundamental question of national policy, or as to various related matters deemed to be of first importance, two great parties will reflect the opposing views. The marvel is that when conditions change and major issues have been determined or cease to impress the popular imagination, when new conditions arise and unforeseen questions relating to new interests are presented, the former party divisions should continue to so great a degree unaltered.

Hughes challenges himself to explain the persistence of the present Bipolarchy despite obvious centrifugal tendencies in both major parties.
[I]n both the great parties there are views extremely divergent, and in one it may be said that there are antagonistic groups, each of which is further removed from the other in political theory than it is from the position of the great opposing party. Upon most of the great questions of the day, whether we have regard to the tariff, or to our financial system, or to the future of our insular possessions, or to foreign policy, or to the extension of the army and navy, or to the regulation of railroads and other public service corporations, or to the suppression of monopolistic combinations, it may fairly be supposed that were opinion freely expressed, the line of division would run across the great parties and not between them.

To keep each party together, Hughes argues, there must be a "paramount issue" that takes priority for all members over all issues that provoke intraparty division, or else "counteracting influences" must exert a centripetal force on party members. Among those influences he includes " Habit, tradition, and the sentiment of loyalty," as well as "the exigencies of opposition which require combination. [since] there is an inherent disposition to oppose and to rally the forces of opposition under one banner upon the best available standing ground."

Parties are born in opposition, after all, or in that moment when disagreement with current leadership becomes so intense and urgent that mere dissidents must try to seize power. Parties are also born, the Founders would add, of ambition, jealousy and other vices. It's not as easy as we'd like to separate the base motives from better ones, nor was it easy for Hughes to balance the costs and benefits of partisanship in general and Bipolarchy in particular. In a subsequent post I'll review the rest of Hughes's Third Lecture, his arguments for the benefits of Bipolarchy and his exhortation to the independents of his time to infiltrate the major parties and steer them in more beneficial directions. To some readers, Hughes's biases may already be apparent. I invite all readers to follow the link and check out the entire Dodge Lecture series so they can judge Hughes for themselves.