29 October 2010

The Nation: Mouthpiece of the Working Families Party

Katrina vanden Heuvel says, "...if you can vote for the WFP this election, do it." She's the editor and publisher of The Nation, the small-n nation's leading liberal weekly, and the WFP, of course, is the Working Families Party. The WFP has sent me a mailing reprinting vanden Heuvel's blanket endorsement, which originally appeared on the Nation website. It follows closely after the magazine's November 1 issue, featuring Alyssa Katz's cover-story defense of the WFP against "the corporate backlash."

While both vanden Heuval and Katz admirably accentuate the positive and refuse to cast slurs, I infer from this campaign that The Nation has either no use or no liking for the Green party. The magazine's hateful attitude toward former Green standard bearer Ralph Nader is well known, but I'm surprised that vanden Heuval and her writers still hold such a grudge. You can read an implicit criticism of the Greens in the editor's endorsement letter, in which she emphasizes "the importance of being principled and pragmatic -- striking a balance between a transformative politics aimed at a fundamentally different, humane and sustainable society, and the compromises often necessary to address people's immediate needs and begin moving toward bolder reforms."

Between the lines, vanden Heuval continues to advocate constructive engagement with the Democratic party instead of competitive confrontation. Greens may dream of replacing the Democrats someday, or simply surpassing them, but vanden Heuval hints in her reference to "people's immediate needs" that compromise and accommodation will always be necessary for progressives. Any sustained campaign to replace the Democrats as the dominant progressive party (in the public mind, however belatedly) will inevitably mean Republican victories. Those are sacrifices vanden Heuval is unwilling to make, and she clearly believes that poor people shouldn't have to pay whatever price comes with the sacrifice.

Of course, The Nation has to prove that the WFP's constructive-engagement policy actually has a progressive effect on Democratic party politics. The simplest approach is to credit Working Families with anything progressive accomplished by the Democrats, not to mention the election of any progressive Democratic candidate. Perhaps more significantly, Katz credits the WFP with getting progressive candidates elected in Democratic primaries, citing this year's primary for attorney general and the toppling of the vulnerable, scandal-plagued Pedro Espada as examples of the New York party's continued strength despite a succession of scandals presumably manufactured as part of the "corporate backlash." Throughout her article, Katz repeats the WFP line that voting for Democrats on their line gives Working Families special leverage with Democratic winners. A more implicit argument is that people who vote WFP but remain registered Democrats can have a decisive influence in Democratic primaries. That may be true in some races, but local experience proves that both Democrats and Republicans often have decisive influence in WFP primaries wherever the party has failed to maintain or even establish cohesive local organizations.

Some readers may choke on their chuckles as Katz describes the "uncompromising demands" of the WFP and its "power over the Democratic Party" in light of the party's utter capitulation to Andrew Cuomo's austerity agenda. Katz can't avoid the story, and acknowledges that the WFP's likely "deference" to Cuomo presents a challenge to the party's integrity and future. "Why have a progressive party if it isn't free to be, well, progressive?" she asks, while an unidentified "consultant close to the party" asks, "How much is too much? At what point have you lost your way?" The questions hang in space while Katz recites a litany of "stunning success," but she returns to the challenge near the end. "The party must look ahead to a fresh, Cuomo-friendly way to advance its vision," she writes. Her own recommendation: "That means pressing legislators and agencies to invest in everything from energy-efficiency retrofits to public transportation, not only to create good jobs but to lower the cost of living and raise the quality of life for everyone." That sounds like lobbying to me, and there may be a place in politics for a lobby based solely on numbers of voters, not millions of dollars. But the WFP model remains ultimately complacent, grounded in enduring faith in the malleability of the Democratic Party and a fatalistic concession of its permanence. Since WFP partisans accept the Bipolarchial premise that Republican rule for any time would be an immediate if not irrevocable disaster, they can never truly force any issue on Democrats or threaten to withhold their support. And if, after all these reputed successes, their own seal of approval is assumed by them to be insufficient to win 50,000 votes for an independent candidate for governor, how powerful are they, really? Working Families may brandish vanden Heuval's letter or Katz's cover story as important endorsements, but they strike me as desperate cries for help. "Who's Afraid of Progressive Power?" The Nation asks, but its editorial line is a fearful admission of progressive powerlessness.

28 October 2010

Who's Afraid of Warren Redlich?

Earlier today I suggested that truly competitive multiparty elections would reduce the volume of negative campaigning. As if to prove me wrong, my mail this evening includes not one, but two pieces of negative campaign literature targeting neither Republicans nor Democrats, but Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Warren Redlich.

The first is a mailing billing Anti-Prohibition candidate Kristin Davis as "the real libertarian candidate." One side slams Redlich for proposing higher gas taxes. The other touts the Davis platform of eliminating capital gains taxes, slashing business franchise taxes, cutting state income tax rates, ending marijuana prohibition and legalizing casino gambling.

The second is a sleazy production from "People for a Safer New York," a group so obscure that you can't google it. This mailing is a sealed fold-out billing itself as a "Sexual Predator Alert." Open it, and you read that Redlich allegedly "defends sex with children." For that reason, he "constitutes a public danger." Losing track of the narrative, the flier identifies Redlich himself as a "sick twisted pervert...advocating his sick views running as a libertine candidate for governor." It goes so far as to tell readers to "Call the Police!" if they see Redlich in the neighborhood or near a public school. The authors' basis for this hysterical screed is a blog post Redlich wrote in 2008 on the controversy over a racy Miley Cyrus photoshoot. He recalls that no such fuss was made when Brooke Shields filmed The Blue Lagoon, and notes the Shakespearean precedent for sexually active teenage girls. He speculates that it was once considered normal for older men to be interested in Juliet-aged girls, but adds, as a parent of two, that he'll need "a shotgun or two" to keep men away from his daughters. From such slight stuff "People for a Safer New York" have concocted the most despicable piece of campaign literature I've seen in some time.

As everyone will tell you, Redlich has "no chance" to be elected Governor next Tuesday. So why is anyone spending time and money attacking him? Davis's attack is probably more understandable. In the current angry environment there may be enough votes out there to earn a libertarian party a guaranteed ballot line for the next state elections. Anti-Prohibition is arguably competing with the Libertarian Party for 50,000 gubernatorial votes, so Davis wants to prover herself more libertarian than Redlich. As for "People for a Safer New York," I have no idea who they support, but I have to assume that they, too, don't want the Libertarians to get that ballot line. It almost makes me want to vote for Redlich next week just to stick it to those jerks.

Negativity Defines Bipolarchy

On the radio a morning or so ago NPR played some excerpts from a California gubernatorial debate. Whoever else was running, the stage was reserved for former Governor Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee, and EBay magnate Meg Whitman, the Republican. Their contest must have been tough for Californians to watch until then, for the crowd rose in stormy applause when the moderator challenged both candidates to dispense with "negativity" for the duration of the campaign. When Brown argued that negativity was "in the eye of the beholder," he was booed loudly. When Whitman insisted on her obligation to call attention to aspects of Brown's record, she was booed, too.

Both candidates must have considered both the question and the booing unfair, without necessarily understanding why they may have felt that way. But on some level, both Brown and Whitman must have understood that without negativity, they had nothing to say to voters. They are the approved contestants of the California Bipolarchy, and under bipolarchy conditions candidates always feel a strong temptation to go negative. It's easier, almost instinctively so, to tell voters that your opponent is bad than to prove that you are good. When there are only two "real" choices, you're tempted to portray your opponent as the worst case scenario and an inevitable disaster to your constituents. Bipolarchy depends on there always being a "worst" candidate, one whose election can be portrayed as intolerable, so that voters feel compelled to choose either the next-strongest or the already-stronger candidate as a matter of moral (if not mortal) necessity. Bipolarchy depends on reactionary voting, on people voting against someone even while voting for someone else. Brown depends on Californians voting against Whitman, while she thinks vice versa. It makes one wonder why we don't tell voters to choose the candidate they fear the most and give elections to whoever earns the least negative votes. We don't do that, of course, because we expect citizens to vote affirmatively for the individuals they deem best qualified for office. But under bipolarchy condition the affirmative vote usually is negative in spirit. If more voters would take a wider range of candidates and parties seriously the temptation to go negative would abate, since one party's attack ads would not be guaranteed to benefit that party alone. Voters everywhere need to overcome fear -- not only the manufactured fear of the alleged worst candidate but the naive fear of entrusting power to those who don't have it already. If the voters of California despise negative campaigning so much, they should prove it by repudiating both major parties whenever the opportunity presents itself. Not until they have real rivals to deal with will Republicans and Democrats eliminate the negativity and accentuate their positives -- whatever those may be.

27 October 2010

God of Liberty

"[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

--Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia.

"Let my neighbor persuade himself that there is no God, and he will soon pick my pocket, and break not only my leg but my neck."

-- William Lind, Serious Considerations on the Election of a President (1800)

One of the ironic details Thomas S. Kidd puts toward the front of his new book, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution is the fact that, at the end of the 18th century the religious denomination perhaps most in favor of the "separation of church and state" as understood by Jefferson were the Baptists, the group perhaps most identified with the modern "religious right" and as such presumed to oppose the separation principle. Likewise, many Baptist voters supported Jefferson despite negative campaigning that portrayed him as a militant atheist, because he was understood to support the separation principle. It helps to understand what Jefferson and his Baptist supporters understood by the "wall of separation," and God of Liberty is an admirable exercise in clarification.

Kidd contests extremist interpretations of America's founding that would portray the Founders as mostly rational Deists, on one hand, or as born-again Christians on the modern fundamentalist model, on the other. Some were one, some the other, and some were Anglicans and some were Quakers. There was no American consensus on Christian doctrine during the Founding era, though there was general agreement that belief in a creator and a day of judgment was useful if not essential to maintaining public order. Even those like Jefferson, Franklin and Washington, who verged on Deism, readily made public statements endorsing religious faith as the foundation of virtue. Beyond the two most general premises -- God and Hell, if you will, -- Christians differed on points of doctrine. That forced the question: if the state should encourage religious observance, what sort should it endorse? That question formed the context for the First Amendment and Jefferson's understanding of it as a separation of church and state.

Taxophobia in America has roots further back in time than the usual revolutionary narrative reveals. Before colonists complained against taxation without representation, many protested against one form of tax that could almost literally be interpreted as robbing Peter to pay Paul. That was the tax levied by colonies with official religious establishments for the support of sectarian clergy. Your tax dollars went to support Congregationalists in Massachusetts and Anglicans in Virginia, whether you were a Congregationalist, and Anglican, or not. As the "Great Awakening" accelerated the growth of dissenting sects like the Baptists and Methodists, dissenters increasingly resented having to subsidize denominations they didn't agree with, whose faith they sometimes questioned. The "birthers" of the 1740s were those dissenters who openly questioned whether established, subsidized pastors were really born again -- call them "rebirthers" if you like. For their trouble, dissenters often suffered persecution in colonies with official churches, at the hands both of governments and mobs.

In their long struggle against religious establishments (Massachusetts subsidized the Congregational church until 1833) the dissenters found forceful allies in the rationalists and Deists among the Founders who saw no reason for colonies or states to favor one denomination, or even one religion, over others. Under their combined influence, an American public Christianity emerged that was a kind of minimalist monotheism, acknowledging the existence of a creator (or a less anthropomorphic "Providence") and the certainty of afterlife rewards and punishments, but indifferent to finer points of controversy beyond those. Even this, however, was not a state religion, as the Framers resisted demands to embed religious qualifications for political office in the Constitution. As some critics realized with horror, the Constitution itself placed no barrier blocking Catholics, Jews, "Mahometans" or even atheists from participating in public life. Nor, Kidd adds frequently, did it block any of these people from acting publicly on the basis of their faith. None of the Founders, Kidd argues, contemplated the total "privatization" of religious morality now identified by some as a condition of the separation of church and state. None of them would have seen "legislating morality" as a breach of the Jeffersonian wall of separation. They believed it the state's essential business to encourage public morality -- which extended in their minds to the people fulfilling their obligations to the state by paying their taxes promptly.

As a "Religious History of the American Revolution," God of Liberty demonstrates how Christian concepts shaped perceptions of the conflict between the colonies and Britain. Even then, I'm afraid, people were crazy about the End Times. During the Seven Years' (French and Indian) War, colonial preachers denounced Catholic France, or the Pope France presumably served, as the Beast of Revelation. That made the British Empire a godly force for righteousness and religious liberty. But when Britain subjected the colonies to new taxes and regulations after the war, and took steps to accommodate the Catholic populations of conquered Quebec, the mother country itself assumed the Beast's role, while America became a providential nation in its own right. Even a scheme to have the Archibishop of Cantebury appoint a bishop to supervise American Anglicans drove Anglicans themselves nuts; they'd grown accustomed to local control over clergy and didn't want to give it up to an implant from Britain. Anti-Catholicism subsided once the former French enemy took the Patriots' side in the Revolutionary War, only to resurge in different circumstances in the 19th century.

On a more intellectual level, Kidd emphasizes the Christian origins of the egalitarian ideal that drove many Founders. Jefferson himself described equality as a fact of Creation in the Declaration of Independence, and Kidd shows that Jefferson gradually revised that crucial document to make God's role more "theologically explicit." This was consciously done to make the Declaration accessible to the general public, consistent with what Jefferson called "the harmonizing sentiments of the day." He could have toned the rhetoric down by following the model of his own state's Declaration of Rights, which stated simply that men were "by nature equally free and independent," but Jefferson's goal was to persuade the broadest possible American audience. This may be disappointing to some modern readers, but Kidd's account does make it clear that the Declaration's invocation of a Creator is primarily a rhetorical device rather than an affirmation of Christian faith.

Kidd saves his own editorializing for an epilogue which warns against both the abuse of Christian doctrine and rhetoric by politicians (e.g. George W. Bush) and a secularist impulse to purge religion entirely from public life. He advises today's skeptics to adopt Jefferson's pragmatism, and to recognize that "there are times when the challenges facing us require transcendent justification and moral courage beyond mere pragmatism or political preference." The Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King's leadership was such a time, Kidd notes. He concludes that "from the Revolution to today, many Americans cannot make sense of equality and justice as rootless human preferences." At the same time, "Believers should not seek to use government to coerce anyone into religious practice." In Kidd's opinion, "it is still difficult to imagine a better source than religion for channeling American freedom toward benevolent ends." In his defense, it wasn't his job, as a historian of the 18th century, to do that imagining. But a determined secularist can still note that this final statement is something that Kidd does not prove with the thoroughness of the rest of the book. Whether the situation is really unchanged from the 18th century, or is essentially unchanging, must be learned elsewhere.

On Elites, Elitism and living in a 'bubble'

Whether Democrats lose control of Congress next week or not, tens of millions of Americans will vote for Democratic candidates, not just for the House and Senate but for statewide and local offices. Are all of these voters elitists? You'd think so from the rhetoric of some Tea Partiers, their radio idols and their Republican candidates. The word "elite" either no longer has a meaning, or the meaning has been mutated into something like "busybody," the elitist, on that dubious understanding, being anyone, regardless of class or education, who dares claim, on the basis of alleged knowledge, to tell other Americans how to live.

It's understandable if many observers dismiss this thin-skinned anti-elitism of Tea Partiers as a collective delusion, but Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame) suggested over the weekend that there is some substance to TP suspicions. There is a "New Elite," Murray writes, if not necessarily a "New Elitism" of the kind that irks the teatotalers.

Murray points to college admission statistics, SAT scores and New York Times wedding notices that appear to prove the Bell Curve prediction of increasing "cognitive stratification" in American society. After a generation or so of leveling and relative equalization of opportunity following the opening of colleges to previously excluded groups, class divisions began to widen again with the emergence of a more meritocratic "New Elite."

The more efficiently a society identifies the most able young people of both sexes, sends them to the best colleges, unleashes them into an economy that is tailor-made for people with their abilities and lets proximity take its course, the sooner a New Elite -- the "cognitive elite" that Herrnstein and I described -- becomes a class unto itself. It is by no means a closed club, as Barack Obama's example proves. But the credentials for admission are increasingly held by the children of those who are already members. An elite that passes only money to the next generation is evanescent ("Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations," as the adage has it). An elite that also passes on ability is more tenacious, and the chasm between it and the rest of society widens.

While Murray notes a "left" ideological bias among the New Elite as a whole, he's quick to point out that many right-wing decision and opinion makers also belong to the New Elite. "[T]he politics of the New Elite are not the main point," he clarifies, "When it comes to the schools where they were educated, the degrees they hold, the Zip codes where they reside and the television shows they watch, I doubt if there is much to differentiate the staff of the conservative Weekly Standard from that of the liberal New Republic, or the scholars at the American Enterprise Institute from those of the Brookings Institution, or Republican senators from Democratic ones."

Membership in the New Elite, then, doesn't automatically instill the "elitist" attitude perceived and abhorred by Tea Partiers. If anything, Murray suggests, the New Elite is guilty of a more passive elitism, an elitism of alienation or ignorance of "mainstream America." The New Elite, he claims, is increasingly segregated residentially from the rest of America due to its tendency to mate within its own ranks. It's increasingly segregated professionally, holding few "jobs in businesses that provide bread-and-butter goods and services to individual Americans." As a result, the New Elite lives in a kind of bubble, isolated from contact with non-elite America.

With geographical clustering goes cultural clustering. Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, and they can probably talk about a few trendy shows -- "Mad Men" now, "The Sopranos" a few years ago. But they haven't any idea who
replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right." They know who Oprah is, but they've never watched one of her shows from beginning to end. Talk to them about sports, and you may get an animated discussion of yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking, but they are unlikely to know who Jimmie Johnson is (the really famous Jimmie Johnson, not the former Dallas Cowboys coach), and the acronym MMA means nothing to them. They can talk about books endlessly, but they've never read a
"Left Behind" novel (65 million copies sold) or a Harlequin romance (part of a genre with a core readership of 29 million Americans)....There are so many quintessentially American things that few members of the New Elite have experienced. They probably haven't ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or lived for at least a year in a small town (college doesn't count) or in an urban neighborhood in which most of their neighbors did not have college degrees (gentrifying neighborhoods don't count). They are unlikely to have spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line (graduate school doesn't count) or to have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian. They are unlikely to have even visited a factory floor, let alone worked on one.

These distinctions may be trivial in detail, but Murray believes that they add up to a cultural gulf that leads those self-consciously outside the elite, the Tea Partiers in particular, to feel that the New Elites "don't get America." Murray himself is more generous, but still critical. "They are not defective in their patriotism or lacking a generous spirit toward their fellow citizens. They are merely isolated and ignorant. The members of the New Elite may love America, but, increasingly, they are not of it."

Being part of an elite and living in a bubble are two different things, however, and living in a bubble is not a privilege of class. Murray is guilty of a crude majoritarian presumption that whatever is popular is thus "quintessentially" American. For every proof Murray offers of the elites' bubbled isolation, an equivalent proof can be offered to show how a similar bubble isolates NASCAR-loving, gameshow-watching, Harlequin-reading, Rotary Club America from a "high" culture that has just as much claim to be "quintessential." Would Murray agree that there are at least some "quintessentially" American experiences from which Tea Partiers are isolated, of which they are ignorant, willfully or not? Would he concede that some phenomena that TPs deem quintessential aren't necessarily so for all Americans? In a demographically pluralist polity, no raw numerical majority can dictate that its experiences and interests are quintessential, just as no group has the right to call another a "special interest." Our political leaders need to understand the economic interests and public-safety needs of all classes of Americans, but cultural empathy is a lower priority. Someone's indifference to Oprah's schedule of guests should not disqualify them from public trust. Nor should a willingness to tell Americans how to live, as long as the final decision is put to a vote. Democracy, after all, is nothing but all of us telling each other how to live -- and somehow living together anyway.

26 October 2010

Is independent centrism impossible?

Newsweek gives historian Kevin Baker space this week to scoff at Thomas Friedman's call for a new party of the "radical center" to challenge the increasingly polarized two-party system. Baker dismisses similar advocacy from David Brooks as well, arguing that insurgency in American political history always comes from the fringes, never from the middle -- or what Baker sneeringly calls the "Terribly Sensible Party." Baker makes the common claim that third parties have been useful only insofar as they force major parties to address the concerns of newly articulate and organized outsiders. Outsiders, by Baker's implicit definition, can't be centrists. They make demands that are always seen as extreme by the establishment, whether the outsiders stake their positions on the "left" or the "right."

Moderation or centrism implies a principled willingness to compromise that Baker deems alien to American political experience. Compromise, he claims, comes only when one side is exhausted or intimidated into backing down from its extreme demands. " Change in America is all about large, often primal forces smashing into each other, until somebody gives ground or a ramshackle compromise is finally hammered out," he writes, "That's democratic politics in all its awful splendor, and it's especially true when times are bad and radical solutions are seen as necessary."

Baker sees less willingness to compromise than ever on the contemporary political landscape. He takes the ideological bipolarization of the majority of the electorate for granted. "Where are the voters for the would-be sensible third party?" he asks, "Liberals think we can have big public projects and pay generous wages and benefits to public employees, too. Conservatives aren't clamoring to slash these same wages and benefits so they can make judicious new public investments. Instead, they want to shrink government, privatize it as much as possible, and turn the savings into tax cuts. The differences on any number of other issues are just as deep and unbridgeable."

Today's mood is especially uncompromising, Baker claims, because the nation is torn between two simultaneous insurgencies. "Over the last two election cycles, both the right-wing, libertarian Tea Party and a rather inchoate, more or less liberal movement centered around Barack Obama have sprung up. They are likely to battle it out for some time to come. The argument they are having may often be ugly, but there is no common ground between them, sensible or otherwise." Despite all his wishy-washy qualifiers, Baker wants us to think of Obama's constituency as an insurgency, and by his own implicit definition extremist. Whether Obama-ism (for want of any other label) or Tea Partyism really represent any kind of uprising of the excluded, or anything new under the political sun, is highly debatable.

Thomas Friedman holds out hope for a now mostly silent but subterraneously simmering radical center. By his definition, it would not surprise Friedman if Baker can't see the radical center on the field right now. Friedman's salvation might seem too technocratic for some people's taste, and the columnist has been accused for some time now of a longing for authoritarian rule. But the concept of the radical center remains promising despite its oxymoronic sound. How can a center be radical? How about when it's the "center" only in the imagination of the "left" and "right," each of whom see the center only as a realm of compromise and weak will? Draw two halves of a circle to enclose a space on the page. The enclosed space is of the same substance as the space outside the circle. The center is the same as the outside. Left and right tell us that our options are constrained by the barriers they draw to contain us. Under such conditions, it may well be radical, if not extreme, to observe that the circle does not contain everything, and is arbitrarily drawn. For all I know, Baker may think of himself as a moderate trapped in the center of the eternal circle of ideological bipolarchy. From what I can tell, he thinks that right and left are intractable facts and permanent organizing principles of the political cosmos. How much more radical can you get than to say that he is wrong?

25 October 2010

They're out to destroy ME?

To be specific, the scare quote on the front of the envelope read, "They're Out to Destroy You." The envelope came from The Nation, and inside was a pitch for The Nation Associates. The revered progressive weekly can't support itself on the income from subscriptions, newsstand sales and advertising alone, the pitch explains so on top of my $79.95 subscription The Nation wants a further subsidy from me in the form of an Associates membership of $35 or more.

But no, it's not The Nation that's out to destroy me or my bank account. Actually, their sole authority for anyone's destructive intentions toward me is an unidentified "political analyst" who actually said, "They are out to destroy progressives."

"That's you -- and that's us," the pitch writer helpfully adds. But this was an Edmond O'Brien moment when, in the manner of the crazy old coot from The Wild Bunch, I have to ask, "Who the hell is they?" The answer was prompt.

Who? The conservative elite that increasingly controls this nation's wealth -- and the credulous media they can buy to advance their ultimate end game: the abolition of Social Security, minimum-wage laws, gun control, a woman's right to choose, all personal and corporate income taxes, corporate regulation.

Find someone who advocates all of the above and you do have a bad guy, but I'm not sure if any politician has been so bold, even in this season. But it isn't the politicians driving the agenda; according to the Nation Associates, it's the Koch Brothers, fast becoming the counterparts in progressive demonology to George Soros for the right-wingers. The Koch's most terrifying donation, or at least the scariest one the pitch writer cares to cite, was to the diabolical Cato Institute. I'm sure all of you tremble at the thought of a richly-funded libertarian think tank, but fear not: your donation to the Nation Associates will help rebalance the scales, since the magazine's "influence in exposing the motives and malfeasance of corporate power and media is huge -- and as the country's oldest magazine of opinion -- peerless." The Kochs and Catos of America fear The Nation because it's "a united voice that gets heard above the din" and "still the most widely read and highly respected weekly journal of news and opinion in America." Believe it or not.

I read The Nation loyally but I think they flatter themselves here. I doubt that America's evil billionaires feel threatened by an opinion magazine that by its nature preaches to a choir and is unlikely to change anybody's mind about anything. It's more likely that they remain more concerned with stamping out what remains of "liberal bias" in television news, or with their new project of ending government's token support for National Public Radio. The Nation also exaggerates its stake in the midterm elections. "If we lose this fight," the letter reads, "and the major test that is just ahead with the November elections -- things are going to get a lot tougher." In fact, the worst case scenario for the country may be the best for The Nation. When conservatives rule, progressive media flourish in opposition. The George W. Bush years were a bonanza for dissident media. Print media still faces the challenge of perceived obsolescence in the internet age, but it's a stretch to tie that to a conspiracy of reactionary oligarchs.

Almost all opinion journals make this kind of pitch these days. They're the equivalent of pledge drives for public radio, and I sympathize with the straitened circumstances that force them to beg for something above and beyond a subscription renewal. I'm just not in any position to help them, beyond renewing, and some of these journals (like The American Conservative) may be beyond help, not because of any conspiracy against them, but because of changing times and changing channels of intellectual communication. When print magazines cry, "they're out to destroy us," the correct response may be less Edmond O'Brien and more Clint Eastwood -- something along the lines of, "you've all got it coming" and "deserve's got nothing to do with it."

Are the People never wrong?

In a column picked up by the Albany paper, San Antonio columnist Jonathan Gurwitz scores some cheap populist points against Democrats. Taking the anti-elitist argument nearly as far as it will go, Gurwitz equates the Obama administration to the East German communist regime of 1953, the object of a famous satire from Bertolt Brecht, himself a German communist, who suggested speciously in the face of strikes that the government might be better off appointing a new population in place of the present uncooperative citizenry. To Gurwitz, any attempt to attribute opposition to Democratic policies to error or unreason is equivalent to the Communist attitude satirized by Brecht. It's easy to take quotes out of context (specifically the context of Republican fearmongering) to make Democrats look smug, arrogant and, yes, elitist. For Gurwitz, such quotes prove the Democrats to be tone-deaf egoists asking for their comeuppance. Daring to tell voters that they might be wrong is the same as wanting to "elect the citizenry," East German style.

It was a predictable enough conservative commentary and probably not worth commentary from me, except that I found myself thinking what Gurwitz might think about the situation in France. There, a conservative government (by French standards) is ramming through an increase in the state pension age as the entering wedge of an austerity program. The government is meeting mass resistance in the form of demonstrations and some rioting. Gurwitz may have his own opinion on the propriety of street demonstrations, but would he consider it President Sarkozy's business to tell the angry masses in the streets of Paris and other cities that they're wrong, that their opposition to an arguably necessary reform is irrational and possibly self-defeating in the long run? If Gurwitz himself is conservative, he probably has had some sharp words in his head for the demonstrators, if he's given them any thought. Would that mean that he thinks that Gurwitz should dismiss the current French population and elect another? What about when the next Republican government in this country actually tries to push through an austerity program of massive cuts to social welfare programs? What if Americans, through some prodigy, take to the streets to resist. Would Gurwitz be willing, on behalf of a Republican regime, to tell the people that their opposition is based on error, unreason or poor moral character? American conservatives often console themselves with the thought that a "silent majority" always agrees with their views, but when confronted by the most vocal minority, would Gurwitz expect Republicans not to make the same arguments that Democrats have made in the face of the most vocal opposition to their policies?

In order to play the populist for a day, Gurwitz is trying to throw out the baby or leadership with the bathwater of alleged elitism. Some Republicans (Cal Thomas is a noteworthy example) acknowledge that their plan to wean Americans off dependence on government will require some form of moral or intellectual leadership when it comes to educating the public about the supposed necessity and desirability of the changes they propose. Thomas has no illusion that austerity will be an easy sell, and his ideal of moral leadership includes a readiness to tell the people when they've gone astray. A litany of Republican apologetics could end up looking as selectively damning to the knee-jerk anti-elitist as Gurwitz's anthology of Democratic condescension. Would Gurwitz respond to it similarly, or would that be when he'd choose the Brechtian option, "to dissolve the people and elect another?"

If the President doesn't toe the party line, why should you?

The Democratic candidate for governor of Rhode Island is pissed at the President of the United States. Readers may recall that Barack Obama is a Democrat himself, but he has decided not to endorse the Democrat, nor any other candidate, in the Rhode Island race, a four-way campaign. The aggrieved Democrat believes that the President has denied him the endorsement he considers his partisan due in order to pay a political debt to Lincoln Chafee, a renegade Republican who endorsed Obama for President in 2008 and is running as an independent for governor this year. It's a small debt if it didn't oblige Obama to actually endorse Chafee, but all involved probably realize that it would be a step too far in the current political environment for a partisan President to declare in favor of an independent over a fellow Democrat. Nevertheless, Obama's refusal to endorse the Democrat may be seen as a passive endorsement of Chafee, if not a statement of principled indifference to the outcome in Rhode Island. However, die-hard partisans might well ask whether the symbolic leader of the Democrats himself suffers from the dreaded "enthusiasm gap" plaguing the party's traditional constituencies this year. Throughout the country this week, Democratic spokespersons are asking voters to hold their noses, literally or not, and vote the ruling party, if only to prevent the fate worse than death, Republican rule in Congress. Die-hard Democrats might well expect the President to set an example of closed-nose voting for the straight ticket. Instead, he has taught a lesson whether he meant to or not. Without putting it in so many words, he has told Rhode Islanders that the future of their state, at least, doesn't depend upon the election of a Democratic governor. It makes you wonder why that shouldn't be true elsewhere.

22 October 2010

An exclusive Senatorial debate and a rhetorical question

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat appointed by the governor of New York to fill the vacancy created by Hilary Clinton's elevation to the State Department, and one of her challengers for the remaining two years of Clinton's term, Republican Joseph DioGuardi, held a one-hour debate in Troy last night. It was a dull affair with mostly predictable answers to predictable questions. A low point seemed to come during a "lightning round," when the candidates were obliged to give yes or no answers to a rapid succession of questions. Some questions were suited to the rule, and some were intended for laughs, e.g., "Is the rent too damn high?" In the midst of the flurry, my ears perked up when the moderator asked, "Should Andrew Cuomo and Carl Paladino hold a one-on-one debate?" DioGuardi said yes. Gillibrand said no. Then DioGuardi ad-libbed, "We are."

It was a succinct exchange of honest exclusionary impulse and hypocrisy. Whether Gillibrand meant to say that any future gubernatorial debate should also include the five independent candidates, or that Cuomo was under no obligation to debate Paladino alone, her opposition to the idea was put in contrast to her own participation in an exclusive debate. DioGuardi's affirmative answer, meanwhile, was a blunt endorsement of the exclusionary principle.

Last night's debate organizers had, in fact, excluded four independent candidates for Gillibrand's seat. Vivia Morgan is the candidate of the Anti-Prohibition party; she supports the legalization of casinos and marijuana as well as tax cuts for working people and businesses alike. Cecile Lawrence, the Green candidate, wants to end American subsidies for polluting corporations, an 85% reduction in American military presence abroad, single-payer national health insurance, and free undergraduate college education for all Americans who graduate high school. John Clifton, the Libertarian candidate, also wants to bring the troops home, but would also end the "war on drugs," along with the IRS and the Federal Reserve. Finally, the Rent is 2 Damn High party has Joseph Huff on the ballot, but the candidate's website was recently shut down, and this interview from September expresses his ambivalence about associating with James McMillan. To my knowledge, Charles Barron's Freedom Party is not running a candidate against Gillibrand, who is herself endorsed by the Independence and Working Families parties. DioGuardi appears on the Conservative and Taxpayers lines.

Can anyone who watched last night's debate argue that more "ideas" were expressed or exchanged between the two Bipolarchy candidates than were expressed at Monday's inclusive gubernatorial debate? At best, biased observers can claim that they heard more of the ideas they consider legitimate or viable, but what they've really wanted all along in every race is a clear, simple presentation of the candidates already determined to have a "real chance" of winning, hardly considering that it should be up to them, as viewers of an inclusive debate, to decide afterwards which candidates have real chances. Too many Americans are still concerned more about being on the winning team or betting on the winning horse than with making the best choice or simply expressing their own reasoned preferences. They're afraid of feeling like fools for picking someone without a "real" chance of winning, even within the privacy of the secret ballot. Why they don't feel more foolish constantly shuttling back and forth, if they're "independent," between the two big parties, is to date an unsolved mystery.

21 October 2010

No 'Exchange of Ideas' in Inclusive Debates?

James V. Franco took his parting shot at the seven-candidate New York gubernatorial debate in today's Troy Record. Before the event took place, he complained that the inclusion of five independent candidates would divert the debate from what he deemed its proper purpose, which was to put front-runner Andrew Cuomo on the spot throughout. He reports today that the event itself left him "just shaking my head."

A candidate from The Rent is 2 Damn High Party. A former madame. A candidate who during his introduction said a black person or an Asian should be asking the questions. There were seven in all and each was given the same amount of time to answer and rebut the same questions.It was a circus, not an exchange of, or challenge to, ideas.

Franco's comments beg the question of how he defines "ideas." My hunch is that he simply didn't hear enough of the "ideas" he already believed in, nor the "ideas" he dislikes challenged often enough. He makes clear yet again today that the only proper subject for a gubernatorial debate in his mind is "Is Andrew Cuomo qualified to be governor, pro or con?" Nothing that is not a direct challenge to Cuomo and his "ideas" is worth Franco's time. That's why, even though he's given up hope for Carl Paladino's Republican candidacy, he still feels that Cuomo should debate Paladino mano-i-mano. Monday's debate was worthless, in his view, because "Having seven people [ad hominem comments redacted] dilutes Cuomo’s exposure." He thinks that Cuomo insisted on having all the independents on stage Monday for exactly that reason, when it was Paladino, from what I've read, who insisted on the most inclusive debate.

Since his last, pre-debate column, Franco has looked up the debate mandate of the Commission on Presidential Elections. He's found that the CPE is supposed to “ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners." The "best possible information" clause would be his justification for excluding Kristin Davis, for instance. "Somehow, I get the feeling a former madame making homophobe jokes wouldn’t get an invite," he writes. Davis isn't running for President, of course, but Franco has written previously that the CPE's more exclusionary debate guidelines should have been applied to the gubernatorial candidates in New York. Never mind that she played by the rules and has an equal ballot line to the Democratic and Republican candidates; Citizen Franco has judged her a second-class candidate.

My own proposal for revamping the debate format, which I posted yesterday, would give voters an opportunity to pass just such a judgment, but not before Davis or any other allegedly frivolous candidate has at least one chance to make her case to the state as a legal equal to all the other candidates. People like Franco are annoyed at Davis or James McMillan getting even that one opportunity, as their criticisms of the Hofstra debate attest. They have an objective cause for complaint in the debate organizers' failure to take more time for seven candidates than they usually reserve for only two. But I doubt whether Franco would have been more satisfied with the exchange of ideas in a longer format. While he makes a favorable mention of Lincoln and Douglas today, he thinks that their 1858 three-hour debate format "may be a bit much" by today's standards. Worse, no extension of time is likely to make him more tolerant of alternate voices. He still finds Paladino "refreshing" because he "talked like he was hanging out at a diner or a pub not like he was on stage reading a script," but I wonder whether he'd be as tolerant of Paladino's refreshing manner if the Buffalo businessman were only the Taxpayers party candidate distracting from Rick Lazio's challenge to Cuomo. Without the GOP brand label, unconventional oratory only irritates Franco. He claims to want an alternative to business-as-usual in Albany, but his attitude toward indisputable alternatives standing in front of him makes me wonder how badly he actually wants change.

Admit Islamophobia and You're Fired

The conservatives are going to be right about this one, I think: in an excess of political correctness, National Public Radio has fired longtime correspondent Juan Williams for admitting to a degree of Islamophobia during an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor. Williams is a regular sort of house progressive for Fox News, and was debating O'Reilly about the Islamophobic comments the host himself had made as a guest on The View last week when he admitted that he felt uncomfortable riding in airplanes with Muslims. He then went on to transcend his emotions and criticize O'Reilly for generalizing about Muslims in more overtly offensive fashion -- the right-wing talker had said that he opposed the "Ground Zero mosque" project because "Muslims" had destroyed the World Trade Center, but apologized later on The View.

Based on the excerpts from the O'Reilly-Williams exchange published by MSNBC, Williams was clearly talking about his own feelings and not actually generalizing about Muslims in an accusatory fashion. But the Council on American-Islamic Relations missed the distinction and accused Williams of saying that all Muslims on airplanes were security risks. Meanwhile, MSNBC makes it sound like NPR was looking for an excuse for dumping Williams, having disliked the implication that he somehow represented the radio network on Fox News.

Predictably, some reactionaries, already resenting the network's "liberal bias," are using the Williams affair as an excuse to pressure Congress to withdraw funding from NPR. That's excessive, but this is clearly a case in which political correctness deserves criticism. Williams himself appears to have made the correct distinction between gut feelings and public policies that should not be determined by gut feelings, while CAIR appears to have taken the unrealistic position that no one should even admit to gut feelings in public. While the state should still presume individual Muslims innocent until they give material cause for suspicion, nothing short of thought-control can force all individuals to make the same presumption, and nothing short of censorship can compel them to keep their suspicions quiet.

If I may be allowed to generalize, too many Muslims are thin-skinned. I won't attempt to speculate on the reasons, though I will acknowledge some understandable anxiety about the possibility of hate crime, but Muslims often seem to be more intolerant of perceived insults than any other group of people on earth. Few people other than Muslims seem so ready to answer perceived insults -- even unintended ones -- with violence. In this country, some people would resent Muslims for their thin-skinnedness (i.e. "political correctness")alone, before you add history and current events to the equation. In the U.S., we may still dream of brotherhood as children, but most of us are reconciled to the fact that many of our fellow citizens will never like us, for political reasons if not for anything else. We are able to live together regardless of mutual dislike by refusing to resent the fact. Muslim Americans are understandably resentful of the suspicion aimed at a once-model minority only recently, but suspicion and dislike are not crimes. Muslims themselves should avoid generalizations: not everyone who looks crossly or worriedly at you is going to beat you up or burn your mosque. Not everyone who admits to nervousness in the presence of observant Muslims is their enemy. I have no way to know whether CAIR's complaints influenced NPR's decision to fire Williams. But if I were part of CAIR, I wouldn't care to claim credit for it. Today's news won't make any American respect Muslims any more than they did before; I hope it won't make them respect them any less.

To judge Williams for yourselves, take a look at the complete transcript on this site of his dialogue with O'Reilly.

20 October 2010

Turning Inclusive Debates into 'Reality'

The aftermath of Monday's inclusive New York gubernatorial debate, which spotlighted all seven candidates who'll appear on the November ballot, raises questions about the need for balance between inclusiveness and seriousness. The talk of the night and day after the debate, when not focused on the two major-party candidates, focused on James McMillan, the flamboyant candidate of the "Rent is 2 Damn High" party, who was said to have stolen the show with his eccentric appearance and mantric insistence on the driving issue of his campaign. For some observers, McMillan's performance proved that inclusive debates were a bad idea, since his time took away from whatever they considered the crucial questions of the race. A disillusioned Carl Paladino, who had insisted upon an inclusive debate, decided afterward that the format was "terrible," apparently because he expected all the other candidates to join him in attacking Andrew Cuomo. Some, notably Charles Barron and Howie Hawkins, embraced the task, but Paladino seems to feel that any time spent not attacking Cuomo at Hofstra was wasted time. He reflects an attitude expressed in many places that the subject for debate Monday should have been the front-runner's qualifications for office, not the full range of options for the state's political future. Meanwhile, even people who applauded the debate's inclusiveness could be troubled by the focus on McMillan at the expense of more credible independents like Barron, Hawkins and Warren Redlich. But to express reservations about McMillan (or Kristin Davis) begs the question of anyone's qualification to dismiss a duly accredited candidate as frivolous or a crank before a larger audience of voters gets to judge. We don't want some censorious counterpart of Iran's Guardian Council to decide whether people otherwise qualified are actually unfit (by what standard?) to run for office. But if the joint appearances we call political debates are to be meaningful, shouldn't there be a way to insure a more substantive discussion of the issues and choices facing the electorate?

Inclusive debates require some revamping of the debate format to avoid the conditions under which the Hofstra event will likely be the only and thus inevitably disappointing occasion when any of the candidates confront one another. If we want to commit to debates as essential to informed voting, every accredited candidate -- those with automatic ballot lines and those who meet the petition threshold -- must commit to a sequence of debates.

How should the sequence work? For those who think that the only proper debate format is one-on-one, the ideal might be a round-robin format in which each candidate faces off against each of his or her rivals one at a time, so that Paladino, Barron, Hawkins et al each get an individual shot at Cuomo but also have to debate each other along the way. The likely flaw in this approach is the likelihood that most voters won't bother tuning in for any debate in which the Democrat or the Republican candidate isn't involved.

An alternative debate schedule might incorporate some of the principles of so-called reality (i.e. "unscripted") TV, particularly the principle of audience elimination as practised on American Idol. In this format, all accredited candidates would appear in an inaugural debate -- which, to be fair to all participants, should be longer than subsequent encounters. Afterward, registered voters would be encouraged to call in or log in and determine which candidate would be eliminated from the later debates.

A candidate could be eliminated in one of two ways. It could be done simply by eliminating the candidate who gets the fewest positive votes from viewers, or viewers could vote expressly to eliminate a most-disliked candidate. Either method is vulnerable to abuse by irresponsible voters. The popularity-contest model runs the risk of what those with a little historical memory will recognize as a "Sanjaya" effect, in which transgressive jackasses conspire to promote an objectively unqualified yet perversely entertaining candidate. In our present context, the worst-case scenario could be Howard Stern fans or other trolls pooling their votes for McMillan after every debate until he made the final round. It might not improve his chances of actually winning the real election, but it would go a long way toward discrediting this debate format. On the other hand, if we have the audience vote against a candidate, we can anticipate that the first person eliminated would most likely come from one of the major parties, thanks to collusion between acolytes of the other major party and independents or pure trolls. While hardcore critics of the Bipolarchy might not object to such a result, it would most likely undermine the credibility of the remaining debates until viewers grow more accustomed to independents dominating the spotlight. In either case, the possibility of viewer/voters not behaving objectively is a cause for concern, but since that's never stopped us from having elections, we probably shouldn't worry too much when the stakes are lower. We might make the stakes higher for the candidates themselves by linking participation in the debate series to a self-imposed limit or outright renunciation of campaign advertising, but the viability of that idea is probably a subject for another time.

19 October 2010

Money doesn't buy elections, but does it buy politicians?

David Brooks's latest New York Times column is his attempt to dismiss concerns over the amount of money being spent on campaign advertising this year. His contention is that, beyond the most local level, money won't make a difference in any election. It's actually an argument against the effectiveness of campaign advertising, however. Brooks doesn't believe that campaign ads change people's minds, nor that a deep-pocketed candidate can buy enthusiasm through advertising when it doesn't already exist. He trots out the usual examples of John Connally in 1980 and Phil Gramm in 1996, which demonstrate only that the richest candidate doesn't always win, not that riches make no difference. His main point is that "money follows passion but doesn't ignite it." Money alone, he insists, can't create a successful candidacy from nothing.

Brooks also attempts to vindicate campaign donors, including those who donate anonymously to independent groups. These people aren't trying to buy elections, Brooks claims. "The donors give money because it makes them feel as if they are doing good and because they get to hang out at exclusive parties," he suggests, "In the end, however, money is a talisman. It makes people feel good because they think it has magical properties." The only people who don't feel good about campaign donations, he concludes, are the sour-grapes losers in the "political class" who find money an easy scapegoat.

The columnist's vague psychoanalysis of campaign donors misses the point of most complaints against money in politics. The deplorable fact of our political moment is not that money spent on campaign ads can buy an election, but that every politician who isn't a self-made multi-millionaire is dependent upon some fundraising apparatus during an election campaign. The centrality of the supposedly meaningless TV ads to every campaign forces politicians into a state of dependency that would certainly have troubled the Founders and Framers. If they were worried about the economic dependency of voters, imagine their concern over the economic dependency of elected officials. In their own time they knew an evil precedent in the Kingdom of Poland, a nearly-unique electoral monarchy where foreign money in the form of direct bribes to noble electors corrupted the process and fatally weakened the nation. Money may circulate differently here and now but politicians can't help but feel their dependence upon the fundraising process itself as it claims more and more of their attention while in office. As long as we accept the possibility of a difference between good political ideas and ideas that draw money, the role of money in politics should trouble us, regardless of who actually wins any given contest. For Brooks to dismiss our concerns and excuse the fundraising culture as an exercise in self-actualization is irresponsible to the point of frivolity. He assumes that people will simply tune out the ads, and his column advises us, "Don't Follow the Money," but the trends are too disturbing to ignore.

France: Entitlement in the Flesh

Americans across the national ideological spectrum are likely to scoff at the sight of French citizens rioting in the streets to protest a proposed advance of the age of eligibility for retirement benefits from 60 to 62. The (by French standards) conservative government of Nicolas Sarkozy has determined that such generous benefits are no longer sustainable, and an objective analysis of longevity might back up advocates of advancing the retirement age in any industrialized nation. The change is up to the national legislature and from what I understand it's a done deal, with the mobs in the street unlikely to terrify legislators into reconsidering. While an objective case could be made for this particular change, the protesters aren't necessarily wrong to see it as a first step in a Sarkozy scheme to reduce the French welfare state until he deems the nation safe for "American-style capitalism." Entitlements, as many an American will tell you, may be incompatible with such an economic system, but the French protesters may be more interested in a civilized society than with maximizing wealth creation for an entrepreneurial class. Theirs isn't necessarily an unsustainable viewpoint. In simplest terms, the only legitimate reason to have a nation-state is to keep the people within its borders alive and in enjoyment of what the majority deems a decent standard of living. Civilization itself, as I've written before, is an entitlement claim, whether it's based on natural law, the general will, or some other abstraction. Anyone who wants anything different from the strong simply taking what they want from the weak, or a gang taking what they want from an individual -- anyone who claims a right to keep something they could not keep by pure force in a state of nature -- is making an entitlement claim. The French protesters represent entitlement in relatively raw form. They reject accommodation with alleged economic realities because they have a shared notion of civilization that takes priority over debatable economic considerations. The age of retirement isn't necessarily the ideal battleground to fight for their sense of entitlement, but there may be real battles yet to fight -- and not just in France. While some Americans will look at scenes in Paris and sneer at the tantrums of spoiled dependency, I can't help viewing the same scenes with a certain sense of envy. If some tea-drinking Congress of the future decrees an end to American entitlements, and Americans don't protest the way the French are now, will that be because Americans are more reasonable, because they're more conditioned to take "personal responsibility" for their futures, or because they're simply more passive -- or bigger cowards?

18 October 2010

The Return of the Repressed: A History of Glenn Beck's History

In last week's New Yorker, historian Sean Wilentz investigated the intellectual roots of Glenn Beck and discovered a historical phenomenon he could not fully account for. The centerpiece of Wilentz's "Confounding Fathers" is a quick study of the works and thought of Willard Cleon Skousen, a reactionary Mormon academic whose writings have been touted by Beck and boosted to the upper ranks of Amazon best-seller lists. Skousen, a onetime FBI man who alienated J. Edgar Hoover, was a practitioner of what Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style," with strong affinities with the John Birch Society. Like the Birchers, Skousen believed that an American establishment of financiers and politicians were collaborating with the international communist conspiracy to impose "one world government" and all its evils upon mankind. Beck is reportedly most impressed by Skousen's tome The 5,000 Year Leap, which claims that the U.S. Constitution was a divinely-inspired endorsement of laissez-faire principles. Wilentz exposes the quality of Skousen's scholarship by turkey-shooting his assertion that the Founders themselves established "In God We Trust" as the national motto when it didn't even appear on coins until 1864. From Skousen, Beck inherits a belief that American decline began with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, followed closely by the creation of national income tax and the Federal Reserve. Beck and his audience hate Progressivism in general, whether practised by Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt, because it's the original instance, in their minds, of government (or an academic elite) telling people how to live.

Curiously, Beck's intellectual lineage intertwines with Bill Clinton's. Skousen, Wilentz notes, published a book called The Naked Capitalist, a conspiracy-mongering critique of "the world's secret power structure." What Wilentz doesn't mention is that Naked Capitalist was inspired, albeit unwittingly, by the work of Harvard historian Carroll Quigley, unorthodox despite his credentials for speculating and attempting to substantiate the role of "secret societies" in American history. Clinton has acknowledged Quigley, who taught one of his classes, as an important influence, though that implied no endorsement of his secret-society research. Quigley himself repudiated Skousen's interpretation of his work, especially Skousen's conclusion that the "secret power structure" actually subsidized the international communist conspiracy. It's all on Wikipedia, folks; make of it what you will.

For Wilentz, Beck's revival of Skousen's canon signifies a dangerous revival of Birchite paranoid conservatism, more than 40 years after Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley purged pseudo-intellectual extremist elements from the Republican leadership and think-tank establishment. The four-year reversal from Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964 to Nixon's narrow victory against a liberal Democrat and a reactionary independent in 1968 represents Buckley's triumph in Wilentz's account. Ronald Reagan, who first seemed suspiciously susceptible to or tolerant of Birchite influences, actually carried on what Wilentz calls the pragmatic conservative approach. But by 1994 the Buckley-Nixon-Reagan Republican consensus was crumbling, a new extremism arriving with the Contract With America. Now, Wilentz worries, no one in the Republican party or the conservative movement is showing the "forthright leadership" to stand up to the paranoid reaction exemplified by Beck and the books he promotes. Fear of the Tea Parties' influence over primaries, he implies, has stilled the tongues of the remaining responsible, pragmatic Republicans.

Wilentz describes something important that happened starting in the 1990s without really attempting to explain it. The paranoid, conspiracy-mongering elements whom Buckley and Nixon had driven to the fringes in the 1960s now seem poised to become the Republican mainstream. How did that come about? Are there demographics to explain it? My own guess is that it's become impossible for a new Buckley to become the kind of intellectual or cultural gatekeeper the original man supposedly was. There are too many channels for the works of Skousen or other Birchers to circulate through away from establishment surveillance in the Internet Age. It may be a related development that people are probably less willing to defer to whatever intellectual prestige a modern Buckley might possess. Our era has empowered autodidacts by making available to them the widest range of texts from which they can select those that best confirm their prejudices. Buckley could keep the crackpots out of National Review; now it's hard for anyone to keep them off the comments pages of websites. More people have access to Birchite literature now than did 50 years ago. Whether this material's greater accessibility has changed people's minds or whether a change in the national mood has assured its greater popularity is a subject for new historians to contemplate.

Inclusive debates 'waste' small minds' time

Andrew Cuomo and Carl Paladino, the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor of New York, have agreed to share a stage at Hofstra University with five independent rivals for an inclusive gubernatorial debate tonight. Appearing alongside the Bipolarchy candidates will be Charles Barron, the Freedom Party candidate, Kristin Davis of the Anti-Prohibition Party, Howie Hawkins of the Greens, Jimmy McMillan of the Rent is 2 Damn High Party and Libertarian candidate Warren Redlich.

The debate announcement has compelled Troy Record city editor James V. Franco to notice the alternatives to Andrew Cuomo he had ignored in his previous column last week, when he claimed that Paladino's apparent implosion left the state without alternatives to "the same ole' Albany" represented by the Democrat. You might expect Franco to express relief upon discovering that more choices exist. Instead, his attitude toward the five independents is unapologetically contemptuous. Since the five "have no chance at winning anything," Franco concludes that "the debate's format is an exercise in futility" that "doesn't do the voters any good." That's because, even though "all six long-and no-shots [will take] pot shots at Cuomo,...we're not going to hear Cuomo's ideas questioned and challenged by candidates who have their own real ideas about fixing Albany. Rather, precious time will be wasted talking about legalizing prostitution [by Davis, presumably] and rent prices in New York City [McMillan, obviously]."

Howie Hawkins and Warren Redlich in particular will be shocked to learn that they have no "real ideas about fixing Albany," while Davis and McMillan may ask who James Franco is to decide what the meaningful issues are in the gubernatorial campaign. Franco's diatribe exposes him as a reactionary interested only in an ideal debate between Cuomo and anti-Cuomo. He claimed last week that he wanted someone who could have "shaken things up" in Albany, and had rooted for the ostensible outsider Paladino for that reason, but outsiders, whatever their potential for shaking things up, have remarkably limited appeal for Franco when they lack the Republican brand name. Only by becoming part of the establishment, apparently, can an outsider hope to shake the establishment up.

Franco repeatedly (if grudgingly) acknowledges the independent candidates' right to recognition as equals to the Bipolarchy candidates. But every acknowledgment leads into a dismissal of the Hofstra debate. "Yes, each of the candidates did get the required number of signatures to appear on the ballot and as such should be afforded the same opportunities as any other candidate," he states solemnly, "but the debate is going to be one waste of 90 minutes." An inclusive debate will be a "circus," or "entertainment rivaling the depth of a sit com."

The joint appearances we call "debates" today often are circuses, but comparing them to sitcoms may be too generous as estimate of their entertainment value. Lincoln and Douglas would have agreed to sneer at the format, which has reached the point of degeneracy when candidates are required to answer certain questions in less than one minute. The debate process should be reconsidered -- a round-robin format of one-on-ones might be the ideal. Franco proposes that New York State "adopt a commission to establish a debate's parameters -- kind of like they do with presidential debates." That can mean only one thing: excluding independent candidates from high-profile media events until they reach a popularity threshold most likely attainable only through high-profile media exposure. He'd restrict debates to those candidates who have what he'd consider a realistic chance of winning, when debates should ideally help give every candidate a more realistic chance. Franco's attitude is spiteful and defeatist. He clearly felt, for who knows what reasons, that Paladino was the only real alternative this year. Convinced now of Paladino's failure, he seems to think that the rest of us shouldn't have alternatives either.

The Unknown Idiot of the Week

He stood outside a Dunkin Donuts yesterday during one of those walkathons to support breast cancer research, and had apparently done some walking himself. He wore the pink ribbon. His face was painted pink. He wore an American Cancer Society sweatshirt. He was smoking like a chimney. Politicians and pundits have a long way to go to top that.

15 October 2010

Bipolarchy Believers 'Mad as Hell' at Self-Limited Options

Charles Krauthammer may be an ideologue, but he isn't blind. In his latest column he's just dubbed Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor of New York, as the "most suicidal candidate" of 2010 for his habit of embarrassing himself and appearing as a bully or a bigot. That may be a signal that the reactionary pundits are ready to write off the Buffalo businessman who rode a tide of tea to victory in the GOP primary. Whether they agree with Paladino's views on homosexuality or not, they seem to feel that, by raising the topic and returning to it, the candidate has made a fatal blunder and distracted the public from the issues that ought to have ensured his election.

A day before our local paper ran Krauthammer's column, local columnist James V. Franco declared himself "mad as hell" at Paladino as well as the political scene he hoped Paladino might fix. Franco is especially disappointed that Republican has gotten bogged down in cultural issues because he saw Paladino as the only real hope on the horizon for reform and fiscal responsibility.

In my mind the man had some promise — a businessman who has never held public office and who promised to shake things up in Albany. And if there was any place in the world that needed a good shaking up, it’s Albany and it will take a Paladino or someone like him to do it....He might be a bit on the nutty side, but at least Paladino would have shaken things up. Despite his reform rhetoric, I just don’t see Attorney General Andrew Cuomo doing much shaking up of anything.

"With Cuomo," Franco adds, "I fear it will be more of the same ole’ Albany." He despairs not only at Paladino's apparent self-destruction, but the parallel degeneration of the Tea Party movement that lifted him to his present prominence.

In my mind anyway, the Tea Party wasn’t a bunch of extreme right wing nut jobs it was a bunch of people sick of being taxed to death and sick of government intruding into every aspect of our lives. It had nothing to do with social issues.That foundation, so to speak, has been distorted in part by whacky candidates who picked up the banner, in part by the media sensationalizing everything and in part by the entrenched politicians who realized the Tea Party people don’t really like them much and if enough people join the cause they might lose their job. I’m talking about both parties too, not just the Democrats. Republicans don’t much like the Tea Party people either. But, then again, there is little difference between the two anymore.Regrettably, the Tea Party now is about witchcraft and masturbation, thanks to Delaware Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell, and grinding homosexuals in Speedos thanks to Paladino.

With the Tea Parties watered down or grown cold, and Paladino virtually discredited, Franco sees nothing on the horizon but "high taxes and big government and being mad as hell." Regrettably, he published this confession of hopelessness after I'd personally informed him that there was at least one other candidate who advocated fiscal conservatism, who was (to my knowledge) not entangled in social issues and (ditto) not a short-tempered punk. That would be Warren Redlich, the Libertarian candidate. I won't be voting for him next month, but given the state of the New York Republican party with Paladino as its figurehead, I consider it a public service to those "mad as hell" about taxes, bureaucracy, etc., to let them know that they still have a way to register their opinion without feeling embarrassed. The only embarrassment I can imagine coming with a vote for Redlich would derive from the silly notion that voting for the person who best represents your views is "wasting" your vote if that candidate has "no chance" to win. People who feel that way ought to feel embarrassed, but they should blame themselves, not Redlich -- and that goes for people who hold their nose to vote for Cuomo when their hearts and minds are for Howie Hawkins, the Green candidate. Paladino was never the only hope for fiscal conservatives; they never have an only hope as long as Libertarians run candidates. Republicans are their only hope only if they think exclusively in Bipolarchy terms. If they can only think that way, they deserve to be hopeless. And if that leaves them "mad as hell," it's worth my time to remind readers yet again that those three beloved words were the slogan of a madman.

What Are Anti-Elitists Against?

For Anne Applebaum the last straw was Christine O'Donnell's campaign commercial, in which the controversial Republcan nominee for U.S. Senator from Delaware boasts to viewers that she didn't go to Yale and thus was "one of you." The author and columnist is exasperated at the disdain shown for academic accomplishment during the backlash against the Obama administration, but it hasn't entirely surprised her. In an article for Slate she points out that the phenomenon had been predicted, seriously or not, half a century ago by a British writer. In his scenario, the replacement of the British monarchy and aristocracy by a pure meritocracy is followed closely by a populist uprising against meritocracy, the people apparently resenting earned privilege more than unearned privilege. American sociologists, meanwhile, have been predicting such an outbreak in our country, allegedly meritocratic already, since at least the 1970s. With the rise of the Tea Parties, Applebaum believes that the moment is upon us. That forces her to ask why people should resent meritocracy more than aristocracy, if indeed they do.

Her initial conclusion has an ad hominem quality to it: meritocracy is resented because those outside the "elite" know that they're absolutely excluded by an objective lack of qualifications.

The old Establishment types were resented, but only because their wealth and power were perceived as "undeserved." Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier, and they could blame their failures on "the system." Nowadays, successful Americans, however ridiculously lucky they have been, often smugly see themselves as "deserving." Meanwhile, the less successful are more likely to feel it's their own fault—or to feel that others feel it's their fault—even if they have simply been unlucky.

Applebaum also sees that there's more to anti-elitism -- and outside of her timeline, an earlier generation called it anti-intellectualism -- than simple envy. She cites Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Thomas of the Supreme Court, who denounces an "elite that thinks it knows better than we know." This is the anti-elitism I've seen for the last two years. What makes someone elitist to the reactionary mind isn't education alone, or even education itself, but the perceived presumption that education entitles the alleged elitist to "tell us how to live." Someone with the same degrees who espouses libertarian principles and praises the innate know-how of the common man wouldn't be resented as much, I presume.

Anti-elitism isn't entirely a matter of envy or resentment. Part of it has to do with the instinctual sense that people can get on without "book learning," and the corollary suspicion that too much book learning actually detracts from the common sense that comes only with hands-on experience. Mark McDonald, one of the readers who commented on Applebaum's article, expresses this viewpoint:

The anti-elites do not resent hard work, education, etc., they just hate that these Ivy League are all the same and really not that impressive. This has nothing to do with upward mobility. It has to do with the incompetence of the elite and their inability to lead. Democrats used to use the same nonsense. Have you not been alive long enough to know this Anne? Sometimes a bunch of people reading the same books assigned by the same professors at the same universities become like all other elites in all previous sociieties: inbred and out of touch; and this despite their sometimes humble backgrounds.

Andrew Fisher, another respondent, seconds this viewpoint somewhat:

People tend to equate "education" with being intelligent,smart, more aware etc. It just isn't so. I voted for Jimmy Carter in '78 [sic] because he was "smarter" than Reagan and had been more effective during the debate. Reagan's first 100 days changed my views forever. We need leaders who are committed to a ideal.

Another factor in anti-elitism is arguably inherent in democracy itself, at least as understood in the U.S. Our understanding of the concept comes from Thomas Jefferson, who asserted in the Declaration of Independence that government derives legitimacy from "the consent of the governed," without qualifying either consent or governed in any way that explicitly imposes an intelligence test on anyone. Jefferson himself put restrictions on whose consent was needed, but they weren't meritocratic in any way, except to the prejudiced minds of his time. But while he thought that the franchise belonged to those who had a stake in society in the form of property, people today believe that everyone has a stake in government because government influences all our lives. If it affects us regardless of our educational attainments, those shouldn't decide our ability or right to influence government. These observations may beg the question of whether democracy is actually the ideal form of government, so long as you believe that "objective" national or global interests require that measures be taken regardless of majority will. Some people will never accept that premise, whether on moral grounds or a failure of conscientious imagination. Some will always insist that the national or people's interest is whatever the people say it is, while anything else is an elitist imposition on everyone else. As long as we have democracy, these arguments will be part of the debate. Why they are argued more forcefully at times like the present, rather than why they're made at all, may be the more important question to ask right now.

14 October 2010

A philosophy of partisanship?

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic, where he's allowed to pontificate as a "Washington Diarist" on the back page of most issues. In the current issue, he complains of "the strange soullessness of this thoughtful man," referring to the President of the United States. Wieseltier speculatively attributes that perceived soullessness to the President's supposed belief "that he is the beginning" and his apparent dismissal of the past as "a long era of errors." Obama, in Wieseltier's view, is a creature of his time, a time characterized by an "idiotic belief in the complete transfiguration of human life in our time, in the final banishment of opacity and obscurity, by means of data and the quantification of inwardness," etc. Deploring this modernism, Wieseltier would have us keep mindful of the "ghosts" of history, whose "public role" is to "spoil the adoration of the new" with "a certain shaming force." The ghosts themselves seem to be haunted by both the anti-political mentality of Tea Partiers and Glenn Beck and the post-partisan pretensions of the President, for which the traditional term is "Mugwumpery." Wieseltier sees Obama as a politician who thinks he transcends politics, or at least partisanship, in keeping with his purported sense of "the superiority of the very latest." In short, Obama is one of those Democrats The New Republic frequently criticizes for putting on airs above the old-school horse-trading and compromising of party politics. Against such heresy, Wieseltier submits this peroration:

For there is honor in partisanship, when the differences are philosophical; and for the purposes of social change, politics is all we have. Faction is not only a reality, it is also a calling.

My own view is that once partisanship becomes philosophical, all is lost. Wieseltier is using "philosophical differences" as a euphemism for ideology, a habit of thought that ascribes philosophical (if not eschatological) significance to practical questions and conflicts of interests. Once the Framers constituted a federal democratic republic, philosophical differences were automatically minimized. The size of government does not rise to the level of a philosophical subject. Disagreements over tax rates are not philosophical, nor are debates over the necessity of regulations. All such questions were meant by Madison and his collaborators to be resolved by compromising interests, not through the refutation of some so-called theory of government by another. There are no "philosophical" differences between the Republican and Democratic parties; believing so would be giving them too much credit. Ideology, like religion, is a matter of faith, the conviction that one's side has all the correct answers in advance of most of the questions. Partisanship may be honorable when forming a party is forbidden and the partisans are honorable in the first place, and in such cases faction may well be a "calling" in the inspired sense of the word, but there is no inherent honor in the pooling of electioneering resources on behalf of ideological conformity. As for the claim that "for the purpose of social change, politics is all we have," all I ask is: how does the honor of partisanship follow from that?

Wieseltier waxes poetic to finish his column: "The Beltway is a venal place, but the streets of Washington are paved with the Constitution, the Constitution is the mortar between every brick of every building, it is in the air and the light, you can find it even in a brandy glass, and it can get you through the day." That last is perhaps a telling metaphor for someone apparently hooked on old-school politics, even if he's only a hanger-on. A lot of people have nostalgia for a bygone day when pols dickered cordially over drinks, and that kind of government may still be preferable to TEAtotaling, but writers like Wieseltier have an almost too sensual appreciation of the old art, not to mention a characteristically liberal emphasis on process over result. He worries that politics is getting too dull or too coarse, but politics isn't meant to entertain us or even provide stimulating company. But a more effective politics suitable to a time that is different from the past could well be less exciting or even less sociable than what Wieseltier prefers. I'm sure he considers himself a man of moderation, but I wonder whether he's had too much of the metaphorical brandy and mistaken it for his meal.

13 October 2010

Is 1877 in our future?

Is the great working class oppressed? Yes, undoubtedly it is, both by the Governments and the rich men, and by the educated classes. This is not because the Governments, the rich men or the educated classes desire to oppress them, but because it must be so....When men are ignorant and poor and weak, they can't help being oppressed. That is so by a great natural law.

- Henry Ward Beecher, July 1877
Michael A. Bellesiles' 1877: America's Year of Living Violently is harrowing reading. Bellesiles is the award-winning historian whose reputation was ruined when critics found holes in his research for Arming America, a study that attempted to show that America had no real "gun culture" before the 19th century. 1877 is his bid for renewed respectability, based entirely on verifiable, published sources but notably published by a "progressive" company, The New Press, as if to signal an ideological slant. Reading 1877 may slant one's ideology, because it's hard to get through without feeling bloody outrage at the way ruling classes and their auxiliaries treated black freedmen, Native Americans, striking railroad workers, the unemployed, etc. Bellesiles episodically chronicles the year when Republicans sold out former slaves to their former masters in order to win the Presidency, an underpaid and understaffed army hunted down the Sioux and the Nez Perces, and the President called out more of the army to restore order in major cities amid the nearest thing to a general strike in American history. Blackening the national mood and hardening its collective heart in the face of the first wave of mass unemployment and homelessness in industrial America was a barbaric, half-baked "social darwinism" that twisted Charles Darwin's theories into a doctrine of "survival of the fittest" that even self-professed Christians like Henry Ward Beecher espoused. The quotes dug up by Bellesiles to illustrate this pseudo-darwinism are bracing stuff and make the rhetoric of 21st century Tea Partiers taste quite tepid. Bellesiles is dealing with people who didn't even believe in charity, since they thought that mass unemployment would only end when lazy, ignorant working class people had no choice but to work or starve. If they starved, it was their own damn fault, and if there was no way out of starving, they should do so without complaining. "Compete or Die" was a new commandment for these purported Christians. The starving unemployed and underpaid should "bear matters unflinchingly," Beecher said, "In losing everything else a man should not lose his manliness." We assume that the reactionaries of 2010 want to take the country back in time, but I doubt they want to go that far. They may agree with some of the doctrines of 1877 deep in their hearts, but they won't necessarily admit it to themselves. Or if you prefer, none of them have the guts or gall to say such things openly. In any event, today's reactionaries boast too often of their charitable impulses to adopt the merciless attitude of their ancestors. If the economy gets worse, however -- who knows? In 1877 many Americans probably did feel sincerely that their survival depended upon the economic decisions they made; if so, they were perhaps understandably less charitable toward those who chose wrong, or even those with hard luck, than people would be in a less desperate era. For us, 1877 is a cautionary tale of an America without either a safety net or, momentarily, opportunity for many of its people. It's impossible to say that such a situation can never recur, but we might take hope in the thought that even the worst minds of today don't approach the depths of misanthropy that one fell upon frequently once upon a time. It'd be interesting to take the author's name off the cover, give the book to a Tea Partier, and ask: "Is this what you want?" The answers would be even more interesting.

'Mama Grizzlies' and the Men Who Love Them

Much as Theodore Roosevelt identified the Progressive movement of a century ago with his own self-image as a "Bull Moose," Sarah Palin has coined a new political species by identifying herself and similarly reactionary women as "Mama Grizzlies," a presumably more savage form of the "Soccer Mom" of civilized times, or else a maternal type more suited to territory unsuited to soccer. Last week's Nation devoted a cover story to the Mama Grizzly phenomenon, caricaturing Palin and other prominent Republican femmes as the cast of Sex and the City as a GOP elephant leers admiringly. Inside, author Betsy Reed contends that MG politicians often lack a MG constituency. Right-wing women, Reed writes, are more popular with men than with women. In a theoretical Obama vs. Palin 2012 scenario, for instance, women surveyed favored Obama handily while Palin prevailed by a small margin among men, and her margin grew among white men.

Reed considers possible explanations for the gender disparity. While she entertains the idea that conservative men are simply turned on by relatively attractive politicians like Palin (or pundits like Laura Ingraham), she also notes that women as a whole still prefer activist government and welfare-state programs to the rugged individualism presumably espoused by the MGs. The gender disparity got me thinking on my own track about the prominence of strong, self-reliant female archetypes in pop culture, from superheroines in comic books to Angelina Jolie's superspy in Salt. Feminists have applauded this trend (while often deploring the continued eroticization of heroines) as preferable to the old archetype of the helpless damsel in distress. But the popularity of the superwoman archetype, and the MG as her political counterpart, may reflect not only the abandonment of patriarchal patronization and its presumption of female incompetence but an abdication of traditional male responsibility along with any sense of collective interdependence. That is, guys may dig superchicks, and may dig Palin and other MGs, because they can feel that they don't have to do anything to take care of them. The contemporary pop-culture superwoman is arguably an icon of self-reliance for men who feel no instinct or obligation to support anyone.

Such an analysis may go against some observers' gut feeling that the MGs themselves uphold "patriarchal" values as creatures, in many cases, of the Christian Right. That element isn't as sexist as many suspect, however, if women like the MGs can get nominated in the first place and depend on CR support. Whether patriarchal traditionalists are enough to get any MG elected on a state level is also debatable. If we see MGs like Meg Whitman, Sharron Angle or Christine O'Donnell win elections next month, it may be men who think the way I describe above who put them over the top.

12 October 2010

The President Double Dips

Checking my mailbox this morning I was amazed to find inside not one but two begging letters from the President of the United States. He wants me to give redundantly to both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The DNC letter makes a more forceful case and comes with a charming suitable-for-framing snapshot of a pensive President with the legend, "I value your ongoing support" and a scrawl distinguishable only by a big B at the beginning. It's also a longer letter and addressed to me by name, while the DSCC is mistakenly addressed to "Dear Fellow Democrat."

Both letters make the same point that Obama inherited a collapsing economy from the Bush administration and make the same cute argument against giving the car keys back to the party that drove the vehicle into the ditch in the first place. In the DNC letter, however, the President appears to have taken Michael Tomasky's advice to tie his policies to patriotic appeals. At the very least, he dares suggest that Republicans have been unpatriotic during the economic crisis.

When our country is suffering, we can't be Democrats or Republicans first. There's just no time for political games. We must be Americans first -- period. But it seems the Republicans don't share my commitment here. They've gone on record saying: 'We've made a political decision. We stood to gain nothing from cooperating.' They knew things were going to be bad. But they figured if they did nothing and just let Americans keep hurting, the other side, the Democrats, would take the blame. Well, they've done their best to gum up the works; to make things look broken; to say no to every single thing. They made it all about politics.

This line of argument is grimly amusing to those who remember how Democrats whined recently when they thought that Republicans had questioned the patriotism of dissidents. Now as then, like it or not, many in the opposition are motivated by principled objections to the administration's policies. Do you really think that any congressional Republicans actually believe that Obama's policies are correct, yet resent them only because he's a Democrat? They resent him as a person because he's a Democrat (for starters) but their opposition to his policies is as much ideological as it is unconditional. A Republican has every right to ask what makes Obama's program "American first" rather than "Democratic first" other than his occupancy of the White House. A case can be made that Republicans are unpatriotic because their ideology places the individual right to become a billionaire over the well being of all the American people, but to say they're unpatriotic simply because they're partisan is simply cynical so long as the government itself is partisan.

It's easy to make a case out of giving Congress back to the Republicans -- it should be easier than it seems to be for Democrats, at least. But that doesn't dictate an obligation to vote for the Democrats unless you buy totally into the logic of the American Bipolarchy. Since I don't, I have to advise the President that he should save that paragraph for speeches to voters rather than letters begging for money. Since he makes such a convincing case against the Republicans (again, it isn't as hard as it looks), I'm inspired to do my part for good government by stating here and now that no one should vote for a Republican candidate this year. Since American politics is reactionary in nature, I believe I can be more useful arguing against Republicans than for Democrats. I don't need to tell people who don't like Republicans to vote for Democrats instead. They can vote Green or Libertarian or Constitution or Socialist Worker for all I care, as long as they don't vote Republican. If no one votes Republican, it won't matter who actually wins, because it won't be a Republican. How's that for lesser-evilism?