29 April 2011

Are Independents Clueless?

Michael Kazin is a historian of Populism, but reveals himself in The New Republic as no friend of today's independent voters. The results of a poll taken by Democracy Corps provoke him into asking rhetorically whether independents are nothing but a "clueless horde." Among the "mildly hilarious" findings of the poll are that majorities of independents agree with propositions Kazin presumes to be completely contradictory to one another. For instance, they believe that Paul Ryan’s budget plan “changes the reckless path of over-spending and borrowing,” yet also affirm that it will “eliminate guaranteed Medicare and Medicaid coverage” and “force seniors to negotiate with private insurance companies, which are free to raise rates and deny coverage.” Kazin apparently believes that you can't agree with all these propositions without being a fool. Call me foolish, then, but I don't see the necessary contradiction. Can't a person believe that overall the Ryan plan does what the first proposition claims and yet criticize the same plan for doing violence to health insurance? Or is it Kazin's belief that no one can criticize "reckless...over-spending" yet defend Medicare and Medicaid? Perhaps it marks one as an independent to think otherwise. One would at least be independent of Michael Kazin.

Similarly, majorities of independents told pollsters that “Over-regulation and high taxes punish companies for success," and that “decreas[ing] taxes for CEOs and big corporations [is] giving millionaires another huge tax break.” Again, Kazin sees a "clueless" contradiction, but he seems to underestimate the populism of the respondents. A populist might well say that taxes unfairly punish the successful small business or other members of the truly productive classes, but might also be less sympathetic to the allegedly overtaxed super-rich. Independents may simply be more capable of making distinctions than Kazin allows.

Kazin's own conclusion is that independents "appear to be seduced by the last thing they have heard." How he can make that claim, unless the Democracy Corps poll shows them agreeing with everything proposed, is unclear -- unless we make the easy call and assume that Kazin considers party-line politics the only option today. Anything short of 100% agreement with either the Republican or the Democratic line, he concludes, indicates that an independent "seems to stand for very little -- or, perhaps, for nothing at all." The presumption, of course, is that both major parties stand for a coherent, consistent policy. I'll leave it to others to list the contradictions within each party's body of collective opinion. But there remains an observation that should have been obvious; whether they meet Kazin's standard of coherence or conscientiousness or not, the independents polled clearly find neither major party position entirely satisfactory. How clueless is that?

27 April 2011

The Death of Birtherism? Don't bet on it.

In an extraordinary capitulation to mass unreason, the President of the United States has released his "long-form birth certificate" in a final effort to convince millions of Americans that he was born in this country and is not President by fraud. In his statement for the occasion, Obama expressed his hope that the birth-certificate question would no longer be a distraction liable to exploitation by political carny barkers. If he knows his history, however, he should realize that, at best, he can minimize but not eliminate the issue. As "truthers" continue to prove, the credulous minds of conspiracy theorists, especially those who fancy themselves skeptics, are quite capable in this postmodern age of dismissing any inconvenient evidence as a fabrication of reality. Just as the trash of Islam said in September 2001 that Hollywood special effects could fabricate any alleged footage of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., so the trash of the U.S. will still insist that the long-form birth certificate is a counterfeit or has been tampered with. Paranoia assumes omnipotence on the part of its imagined oppressors, and since no birth certificate will convince current birthers that the President is not an oppressor, most will continue to imagine him perpetrating elaborate frauds, though their focus may turn to whether the 2008 election was stolen by ACORN or other conspirators.

Now that Obama has released the coveted document, people will ask why he didn't end the distraction long ago and make the long-form certificate public back in 2008 or earlier. Despite what Donald Trump thinks, I doubt today's release was motivated by any desire to deflate the movement for his presidential candidacy, since I assume that Democrats would love to run against a stereotypical blowhard plutocrat. It's more likely that Obama simply refused to indulge the birthers for the same reason that so many Americans despise that faction. Whether our opinion was reasonable or fair or not, we have felt that birthers had no moral right to demand proofs of citizenship from Barack Obama. I've put in writing my suspicion that all birthers are racist -- or in the case of a handful of black birthers, paranoiac xenophobes. Their sense that Obama was essentially "alien" encouraged them to extrapolate from the years of his childhood spent abroad that he might have been born abroad; while ostensibly demanding proof of his legitimacy, they were most likely hoping all along for a smoking gun that would prove his illegitimacy. In their hearts they remain unconvinced; for many, Obama remains illegitimate or un-American because of his alleged beliefs: his hatred of capitalism, according to Mr. Right, or his atavistic African hatred for the West, according to Dinesh D'Souza.

But whether we're right or not in our suspicions about birthers' motives, an objective analysis might suggest that these are all ad hominem arguments against their demand for proof. Does it follow from their obnoxious motives that they had no right to make their demand? To the extent that democracy depends upon accountability, how selective should we be toward claims of accountability to supposed unreason? For most of the decade, loyal Republicans probably felt the same way toward anyone who questioned the legitimacy of the 2000 or 2004 presidential elections that loyal Democrats and other enemies of Republicanism have felt toward birthers, while a bipartisan consensus feels the same way toward "9-11 truthers" today. No leader or party is immune from apparently irrational dissent, and no one has the power to silence it. The best we can hope for is to find some authority, official or not, of unquestioned reasonableness who might be able to explain convincingly why some charges are not worth our attention. The worst-case scenario would be if Americans are no longer capable of that kind of objectivity. In that case, our 21st century Diogenes might have a long journey in store for him.

26 April 2011

Partisan gridlock and independent paralysis

Rush Limbaugh was playing on the radio in an office I passed through this afternoon, and I heard him rave at independents: "How can you call yourselves independent if you support the Democrat party? They're the party of dependence!" This post isn't about Limbaugh, who was mixing political metaphors, but his remarks reminded me of the David Brooks column that appeared in the local paper today. Brooks was lamenting the fact that, while frustration with both major parties is near all-time high levels, nothing seems to follow from that frustration. His own frustration with the Bipolarchy is clear enough.

[T]he two parties are about to run utterly familiar political campaigns. The Democrats are going to promise to raise taxes on the rich to preserve the welfare state, just as they have since 1980. The Republicans are going to vow to cut taxes and introduce market mechanisms to reform the welfare state, just as they have since 1980.
The country is about to be offered the same two products: one from Soviet Production Facility A (the Republicans), and the other from Soviet Production Facility B (the Democrats). It will react just as it always has. From this you could easily get the impression that American politics are trundling along as usual. But this stability is misleading. The
current arrangements are stagnant but also fragile. American politics is like a boxing match atop a platform. Once you’re on the platform, everything looks normal. But when you step back, you see that the beams and pillars supporting the platform are cracking and rotting.

As more long-term structural problems go unaddressed in any serious way, Brooks warns that "Americans have lost faith in the credibility of their political system." Their political malaise has not lifted with signs of economic recovery, as it usually does; a growing number of people believe that things are still getting worse despite the official statistics. But what are they doing about it?

If you dive deeper into the polling, you see the country is not mobilized by this sense of crisis but immobilized by it. Raising taxes on the rich is popular, but nearly every other measure that might be taken to address the fiscal crisis is deeply unpopular. Sixty-three percent of Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling; similar majorities oppose measures to make that sort of thing unnecessary. There is a negativity bias in the country, especially among political independents and people earning between $30,000 and $75,000 (who have become extremely gloomy). It is hard to rally majorities behind immigration, energy or tax reform.

Brooks suggests that only a more extreme crisis or trauma might shake many Americans out of their demoralized paralysis. Then, he suggests, voters might turn to a charismatic crackpot like Donald Trump who projects or promises decisiveness, or else they might defer to a "centrist" establishment faction like the present bipartisan "Gang of Six" in the Senate. Neither prospect sounds especially appealing, but they appear likely only because most of the Americans who call themselves independent seem incapable of acting independently. If they remain dismissive of the potential of existing independent parties, they have no clue about creating a movement of their own to contend for political power. Trapped in a party system, they seem intimidated by the institutional challenges of fielding their own candidates and building their own platforms. They apparently prefer to wait for someone like Trump to make them an offer. This passivity, the implicit concession that a political campaign is something best left to expert professionals, is the dependence that really belies the protests of so many self-proclaimed independents. We depend too much on institutions that generate candidates for us, while other institutions discourage us from generating our own candidates. Democracy has become a matter of choosing among the powerful rather than the electorate asserting its own power. Brooks doesn't make such a stark forecast, but in his predictions we can see a choice looming for us all when a true crisis comes: take the reins or accept the saddle.

25 April 2011

A 'Politics of Freedom' for the Left

On the assumption that "freedom" has been a rhetorical trump card that beats whatever liberals and progressives have in their hand on any given occasion, Corey Robin proposes that Democrats and their allies cultivate a "politics of freedom" of their own to seize the rhetorical high ground. Specifically, progressives have to challenge the Republican thesis that freedom can be found in the Market. Robin proposes an emphasis on freedom from power that identifies where power is really found.

We must confront this ideology head-on: not by temporizing about the riskiness or instability of the free market or by demonstrating that it (or its Republican stewards) cannot deliver growth but by mobilizing the most potent resource of the American vernacular against it. We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job.

Robin warns against envisioning government as a bulwark unto itself against the domination of bosses. That kind of thinking encourages the kind of dependent mentality that conservatives, he implies, rightly criticize. A progressive "politics of freedom" shouldn't envision citizens as passive recipients of government goods; it should envision government as citizens' instrument for enforcing their own freedom from domination by employers. Similarly, Robin prefers emphasizing "freedom" over "equality" because "equality" implies a passive reception of government's distribution of goods. Equality, he argues, is only a means to the end of freedom, not the other way around. Equality secures freedom by limiting the power of employers to control employees' lives. The state, he writes, is "an instrument for disrupting the private life of power," i.e. for disrupting private citizens' power over others.

Robin's argument is forcefully stated, but I'm not sure if his opposition of freedom and power will be compelling for many Americans. I suspect that a lot of us think of freedom as a means to power -- power over things if not necessarily power over other people. In either case, power is probably something many of us think we are free or should be free to earn. If so, then to say that freedom is the absence or constraint of private power might sound like freedom contradicting itself. People are likely to ask what the point of freedom is if we can't reap its fair rewards. The answer is that Robin isn't really arguing for "freedom" in the simple terms in which many Americans understand it, but for a variation on the "ordered liberty" philosophical conservatives and classical liberals have long advocated, under which raw freedom is harnessed by moral or ethical restraints into an instrument for the public good. In Robin's version democracy becomes the vehicle of enforcement, liberty ordering itself. Unfortunately, Robin is less interested in arguing his point on intellectual or philosophical grounds than in seizing a buzzword for the purpose of demagoguery. His plan to appropriate a Republican slogan, no matter whose intellectual property "freedom" actually is, ends up looking like a cynical ploy. There are arguments to be made for ordered liberty -- it's the only kind that's sustainable -- but Robin will need to figure out how to sell "order" to the masses before he can make an argument himself.

An outside agitator on the letters page

By now I'm not shocked by the sentiments expressed in the letter that ran in the local paper's "Pulse of the People" column last Friday, but I was surprised by the return address. James Roehrborn hails from Alexandria, Minnesota, but saw fit to send the Troy, NY, paper a comment in praise of the divine intervention that gave Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives last fall.

I believe the Tea Party movement was a great influence that brought about this amazing victory. But, I also believe that God intervened to save this nation in which He had a crucial role in founding, winning the Revolutionary War, writing the Constitution and many other ways.

George Washington himself was wont to credit "Providence" for his victories over the British, but I suspect that Alexander Hamilton and James Madison would challenge Roehrborn's account of the Framing. The Constitution is a notoriously secular document, though pious legend credits Benjamin Franklin's call to prayer for resolving many of the disputes that delayed finalization of the new plan of government. I doubt, however, whether any of these Founders would recognize Roehrborn as a spiritual brother.

But what business has Roehrborn writing to a Troy paper all the way from Minnesota? I did a Google search of his name and learned that he's sent versions of the same letter to papers as far afield as Connecticut and Arizona, and sent a diatribe against evolution to a black newspaper in Alabama. The man doesn't appear to have a blog of his own, but he may be sending his letter to papers electronically. For all I know, many times the number of papers that have printed his current letter have turned it down. But leaving aside the dubious content of Roehrborn's missive, I have to say "more power to him" for his determination to spread his message. If local papers across the country are willing to publish letters from anywhere in the country, then anyone willing to make the effort to send a letter hundreds of times over has an opportunity to reach more readers than he might on a blog like this one. Roehrborn probably isn't the first person to attempt such mass-mailings, but he ought to be an example to others, in form if not in content.

22 April 2011

Martin Van Buren: Partisanship against Civil Society

In totalitarian states, we're taught, there is nothing but the Party. A totalitarian regime, identified with the rule of an ideological party, is said to be incompatible with "civil society," the proliferation of autonomous institutions through which individuals form social connections and some sense of public identity. If the totalitarian party can't suppress (or somehow co-opt) the spread of civil society, its monopoly on power is assumed to be doomed. From the totalitarian perspective, meanwhile, "civil society" promises only factionalism -- but according to John L. Brooke's Columbia Rising, such was also the perspective of Martin Van Buren, a man who has never been accused of being a totalitarian, but is often credited with creating the American political party system as we know it.

Columbia Rising traces the intertwined, conflicted evolution of party politics and civil society in Columbia County, New York, climaxing with Van Buren's rise from inkeeper's son and poor law student to President of the United States. According to Brooke, Van Buren's beliefs were influenced by his class-conscious encounters with the patroon and manorial aristocracy of his county and the personal factionalism that made early party politics unstable. He espoused limited government because he worried that "Aristos" and would-be Aristos would only exploit a stronger government to enrich themselves at the expense of the "plain Republicans" he wished to represent. In Brooke's account, Van Buren was suspicious to the point of fanaticism about the menace of aristocracy, while disciplined partisanship was his remedy. His suspicion extended from banks, which he saw as tools of aristocratic domination, to innocuous seeming cultural organizations through which Aristos might influence people to vote their way. Brooke portrays Van Buren's analysis as the antithesis of Tocqueville's.

Tocqueville saw the institutions of civil association as a bulwark against the state, or an alternative form of governance in the absence of a strong state. For Van Buren these institutions, in alliance with a strong state, threatened to undermine the will of the people, the legacy of the Revolution (450).

Van Buren meant party structures to minimize aristocratic influence. Writing for a newspaper that served as a Van Buren mouthpiece, John W. Edmonds wrote in 1824, "[T]he great object of the organization of a party is the advancement of principles not men. It will support, with all its power, regular caucus nominations, convinced that hereby the man is obliged to yield to principle." Van Buren's career was a struggle to structure party in order to tame "aristocratic" personal factionalism. His commitment sometimes took him in anti-democratic directions. In 1824, for instance, he supported William H. Crawford for the Presidency. Crawford had been nominated by the old Republican party, which by then had become the only national party. Crawford's rivals claimed that the congressional caucus that had nominated Crawford was an undemocratic institution, since it did not represent the rank and file across the country, among whom Crawford was far from popular. In November, after surviving a stroke, Crawford finished third in a field of four major candidates, all ostensibly belonging to the same party. According to the rules laid down by the Constitution, Crawford made it into the next round after no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College, but was no real factor in the eventual election of John Quincy Adams by the House of Representatives.

In 1824 the system worked as the Founders designed it, but Van Buren and many contemporaries, not to mention most observers ever since, considered the outcome a debacle. For Van Buren himself, it was nothing but an unprincipled clash of personalities, since it was hard for him to imagine anyone defying Crawford for reasons other than personal ambition. Worse, for many Americans, the final result was considered doubly undemocratic, first because Adams had won despite winning fewer electoral or popular votes than Andrew Jackson, and second because Adams allegedly won by making a "corrupt bargain" with Henry Clay, who had finished fourth in the general election, through which Clay became Adams's Secretary of State. Van Buren responded to the backlash by the still-unproven corrupt bargain by building a new party based on opposition to Adams and Clay. He threw his support behind Jackson's 1828 challenge to Adams, but for Jackson's victory to mean anything it had to mean more than Jackson's revenge on Clay. The key was to make the party ideological, as the Republicans had been when Jefferson and Madison built it in the 1790s. According to Brooke, Van Buren wanted every election to be treated as a "crisis" re-enacting the original crisis of the Revolution. The opposition to Van Buren's party had to be portrayed as neo-Tories who hoped to undo the American experiment or neo-Federalists hoping to resume Hamilton's alleged agenda of aristocratic consolidation of power. The first point to note is that Van Buren apparently saw ideology (or whatever he'd call it) as a force hopefully stronger than personal ambition. Loyalty to an idea, especially if that idea was conflated with the survival of the republic, would bind otherwise ambitious men to support of the party. The second point to note is that Van Buren's system requires the existence of a second party, and would ideally have no more than two to make the choice for voters as stark as possible. A multiplicity of parties might reduce an election to a clash of personalities and muddy what Van Buren considered the essential issues. An "Era of Good Feelings," like that said to prevail during James Monroe's Presidency (he enjoyed an uncontested reelection in 1820) would be undesirable for Van Buren, since it would tempt the ambitious to buck the rule of the caucus or the convention.

My point here isn't to say that Van Buren was a totalitarian. He was no collectivist in any sense of the word. But he did share something of the totalitarian's belief -- if you believe in totalitarians -- that the People have no political existence outside the Party or parties. Van Buren's idea of the People seems to have been very atomistic, given his distrust of so many "civil society" institutions that might bind people to the will or supposed aristocrats. His world was really one of sovereign households, each ideally vigilant (according to what Brooke calls Van Buren's "monitory" notion of politics) against aristocratic incursions on its rights or wealth. He opposed the politics of economic development and "internal improvement" espoused by Clay, Adams and the eventual Whig party because, like many "Jacksonian Democrats," he could only see government support for such projects benefiting ambitious individuals at everyone else's expense. For him, unlike the totalitarians, the party was not an instrument for consolidating state power. But if Brooke describes him correctly, Van Buren had an antagonistic view of partisanship's relation to civil society that's disturbingly similar to the attitude that anti-totalitarian polemicists attribute to their antagonists. There is, at the least, a monopolistic (or duopolistic) notion of party's role within the body politic that is arguably still disturbingly present in American partisanship today.

20 April 2011

The Immortalization Commission

The title of John Gray's newest volume refers to the body of experts commissioned by the Soviet government to preserve Lenin's corpse. Gray makes perhaps too much of some extreme optimism about the prospects of eventually resurrecting the Soviet founder, but that allows him to attach his Bolshevik story to a short history of late Victorian spiritualism and present both as post-Darwinist follies in pursuit of life after death. In Gray's account, Darwin's narrative of natural selection made it impossible for many Victorians to take bible mythology and its promise of Heaven seriously. To compensate, they sought proof of the soul or mind's survival after physical death as a natural phenomenon. For Gray, this spiritualism was not a superstition but a pseudo-science, since organizations like the Society for Psychical Research aspired to an objective standard of empiricism rather than appealing to faith. For his spiritualists, the stakes were high, since many feared that life could have no meaning, and people would have no motive to better themselves, if they could not believe that their selves were both eternal and perfectible. The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, approached their "god-building" work in more antinomian fashion. While allegedly striving to conquer nature and make man immortal in the process, they considered themselves unconstrained by conventional morality and positively entitled to kill anyone who did or might stand in their way.

Gray's Russian section is the weaker of the two, since he quickly exhausts the immortalization theme and resorts to a familiar catalogue of atrocities to fill pages. The Soviet material is also of questionable relevance to Gray's concluding chapter, which is a jeremiad against "progressive" thinking along the lines of recent work like Black Mass, his critique of militant atheism. Gray is a philosophical but not an ideological conservative. He claims that a true understanding of Darwin would lead us to abandon any utopian aspirations or hope for perfection in this life or another. For Gray, the key point of Darwinism is that natural selection is random, not progressive. Despite popular misunderstandings, evolution isn't automatically improvement, and Darwin gives us no reason to assume that humans will steadily grow "better" by any measurement. There's even less reason to believe that we'll ascend to a "higher" plane of existence when we'll die. We could well enter another plane, Gray allows, but there's no guarantee that it'll be a "higher" plane or that we'll be better off there. There's not even any real guarantee that what we think of as the afterlife would be the final stage of our spiritual development if we even reached a second stage. The universe is simply too chaotic for progress to be certain or even likely.

Gray is a long-term pessimist, but he believes that progress is possible, if perfection isn't. While skeptical towards science's claim to reveal universal laws, he remains a strong believer in the scientific method, which he considers antithetical to science's law-giving temptation. He clearly believes that some of the world's ills can be alleviated, but his anti-utopian attitude leaves a reader wondering what would motivate anyone to attempt to alleviate the lot of others. Assuming that the world can't be perfected doesn't give us much of a guide for determining how much we ought to try to do to improve it. Since the most Gray can recommend to us is that "we might live more calmly, and more pleasantly" in the present rather than constantly looking toward saving ourselves in the future, he doesn't seem to leave us much room for forward thinking. His problem may be that he identifies forward thinking with selfishness. His assumption seems to be that we're concerned with the future because we don't want to die, and he'd like us to understand that "the self we want to save from dying is itself dead." He means that we want to preserve an unchanging self when we should instead accept the reality of perpetual change, including death. In that, he resembles those ideologues who, while always denouncing an alleged "culture of death," urge us to embrace and appreciate our mortality. Gray's idea of immortality is dystopian, a vision of inevitable stagnation and indolence. That view is based on questionable assumptions, and it seems unduly judgmental toward speculative immortals who'd have no obligation to entertain or stimulate them with meaningful activity. But his desire for meaningful existence ultimately comes up against his pessimism. He appears to believe that only mortality can motivate meaningful activity, but how motivated can we be to do anything meaningful if Gray himself has convinced us that all human endeavors are futile? The answer should have occurred to him during his defense of religion from its literal-minded militant atheist enemies. Repeating his argument from Black Mass, Gray explains that religion and myth aren't theories of natural history but mechanisms for coping with the tragedy of life that will always be useful to man. Conceding his point for the sake of argument, it follows that belief in the perfectibility of the world and mankind is another such coping mechanism that arguably has more real benefit than the myths of millennia past. If so, then Gray has no more business bursting the progressive or utopian bubble than he'd grant to anyone attempting to extinguish religious faith. If we must make up stories to make life meaningful, then the story of progress and perfection seems like one still worth telling.

18 April 2011

Who keeps serving the tea?

Rachel Maddow was just on her show asking why the news media doesn't acknowledge the fact, apparent to her, of the decline of the Tea Party movement. Her latest proof is reported poor attendance at Tax Day rallies this year, compared to turnouts last year and in 2009. She didn't suggest a reason for this decline, but believed that it should be recognized and taken into account by politicians. In her view, the Tea Party has been the reason why Republicans have taken supposedly extreme positions on fiscal questions, and her hope seems to be that, were the TPs' dwindling power more widely known, GOP congressmen could no longer plead TP pressure as an excuse for their extremism. But Maddow seemed convinced that the media was missing the story, continuing instead to hype the TPs as a decisive force on the right. But before she or we blame the media, liberal, corporate or otherwise, for missing or ignoring a story, let's remember that the Republican party isn't the only entity currently staking a lot on the strength of the Tea Party movement. I get mail all the time proving the extent to which the Democratic party plays up the menace of the TPs in order to scare liberals into donating to various campaign funds. The Democrats want their own base, as well as moderates and independents, to understand that the lunatic TP tail is wagging the GOP dog, while the prospect of Tea Party rule from 2013 forward is expected to goad the fearful into offering all their treasure to the one power that might save them -- the Democratic party. Just as the Koch brothers are the Democrats' answer to the demonization of George Soros, so the Tea Parties take the place of the international communist conspiracy within the liberal persecution complex. If Americans are increasingly tired of partisan polarization, the Democrats will build up an enemy that arguably transcends partisanship, yet can be identified with a particular political party. If the Tea Parties don't continue to exist, the Democrats may have to sustain them, at least in the public imagination, for months or years to come.

16 April 2011

Back to Wisconsin

Sarah Palin was in Madison WI today for a tea-party rally interpreted by reporters as a reassertion of her relevance to the 2012 presidential campaign. She appeared under the auspices of Americans for Prosperity and was met by counterdemonstrators who claimed to have outnumbered the Palin fans by as much as four to one. The hecklers had their own rally to attend and their own speakers to here, but all accounts agree that they were more interested in trying to shout down or drown out Palin and her friends. This strikes me as bad form, but many progressives have convinced themselves that Tea Partiers aren't deserving of respect for their opinions because those are seen to be bought and paid for by the Koch brothers. Neither side seemed to be interested in debate, and today wasn't designed as an occasion for it. From what I've read Palin kept her composure but another speaker told the hecklers to go to hell. More ominously, this same speaker, the blogger Andrew Breitbart, looked forward to the end of "community organizing" with the victory of Gov. Walker over the public-employee unions. Breitbart applauded the triumph of a "silent majority" in Wisconsin and the nation as a whole, and the implicit contrast is telling. Rather than community organizing, the majority should be silent. Is this what Brietbart meant to say? Historically, the "silent majority" has symbolized those essentially conservative Americans who don't form mobs and make noise. It's a strange symbol for a TP-sympathizer to invoke, since the tea movement seemed to represent an end to right-wingers' inhibitions regarding gathering together and demonstrating in public. But Republicans have a habit of appealing to a silent majority whenever the opposition is particularly loud. Objectively speaking, they always have a point; there's no reason to believe that any large crowd, even if it numbers in the millions, represents the majority of the American people. But there's no more reason, given registration and participation stats, to believe that any election represents the majority of the American people. TPs may think of themselves as a silenced majority whenever the hecklers get too loud, but the real majority is most likely still silent, represented neither by TPs nor profligate progressives. Democracy should not have to presume the existence of a silent majority, and "community organizing" of some sort (the term itself has evil associations for Republicans who identify it with that sadistic butcher Saul Alinsky) is essential if the opinion of the majority is not to be a matter of inference. Why anyone who isn't irrationally disturbed by the phrase should desire an end to community organizing is a mystery to me, especially since the TPs have proven pretty good at it. Their confusion is understandable, or at least it comes as no surprise.

Fukuyama on revolution

History still hasn't ended, so Francis Fukuyama, who infamously announced the end in 1989, has a new book to promote. That means doing an interview with Newsweek which focuses more on Fukuyama's estrangement from the neoconservative movement. He'd been involved with the Project For a New American Century in the 1990s, and earlier had stated that the collapse of the Warsaw Pact had left liberal capitalism the sole viable model for social and political organization -- hence the "end of history." He recanted long ago, and was eventually repelled by his neocon colleagues' hubristic "triumphalism" during the invasion of Iraq. It's not that he's renounced the intellectual premises of neoconservatism, but that he dislikes Americans dictating arrogantly to the rest of the world. In foreign policy, apparently, Fukuyama is more of a "realist." What about history, then? Fukuyama's new book is about the origins of political order, the prerequisite being, in his view, the transcending of tribalism. I can't argue with that until I read the book itself, but I wonder whether Fukuyama still thinks that history has a forseeable end point. The point of declaring an end to history, I thought, was to rule out any further revolutionary change in society or politics. Does Fukuyama now think revolution is still possible on the Marxian model? The subject comes up in a discussion of the "Arab spring," about which Fukuyama is pessimistic. Arab societies lack the civil and economic institutions that actually motivate and sustain revolutions, in his opinion. On the other hand, while China is more efficient about suppressing dissent at the present time, Fukuyama is more optimistic about long-term prospects for revolution. But what does he mean by revolution? Let him explain.
Revolutions, he argues, don't come from the disenchanted poor, but from an upwardly mobile middle class fed up with anachronistic government that does little but keep them from achieving their potential.
Such a definition pretty much rules out the ideal Marxian revolution -- though not a Leninist revolution if you think of a Bolshevik as a frustrated manager who wasn't getting his chance in the old order to show how well he can run things. The really interesting thing about Fukuyama's notion of revolution is that it also describes, to an extent, the rise of American entrepreneurial Republicanism after World War II. The New Deal/Great Society regulatory state might not have been perceived exactly as "anachronistic," but the reaction against it (I'm still reluctant to call this impulse revolutionary) was definitely fueled by a feeling that government was holding back entrepreneurship. Given my reluctance, I suppose we should ask whether what Fukuyama describes can actually be called revolutions. I'd suppose so if the result is a radical transformation in government, and even a Marxist might agree if he perceives the result as one class supplanting another. But Fukuyama's description forces a question of who benefits from revolution. If revolution is incited by middle-class frustration, will revolutions inevitably benefit middle classes more than other segments of society? And here's another question just for fun: does middle-class frustration justify revolution in all cases? This may be the relevant question if we see entrepreneurial Republicanism as a revolutionary movement on Fukuyama's model. Are there circumstances when the political order could be justified in restraining a class of people from "achieving their potential?" It depends, obviously, on how some people propose to achieve their potential, and how it might conflict with the realization of other people's potential. The same standard should be applied to a proletarian revolution, should one actually take place. Ideally, a revolution should take place not when one class among many is especially frustrated, but when people, acting consciously as a nation or other class-transcendent polity, recognize the necessity of change against all factional objections, even when those come from the ruling classes. But if that happened, would we recognize a revolution when we saw it?

12 April 2011

The Late Unpleasantness

Fort Sumter was fired upon 150 years ago today, making this the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. In anticipation of the occasion Time magazine has a cover story this week in which a weeping Lincoln metaphorically mourns a continuing division within the Union over the meaning of the war. For a long time the lack of consensus was almost a national joke. I don't know when exactly "the Civil War" became the conflict's default label, but the official documentary history called it The War of the Rebellion, while southern die-hards referred to it as "The War of Northern Agression," and others affecting neutrality opted for the grammatically questionable "War Between the States." The tag I've adopted for today's title was perhaps the ultimate in euphemism. For many years the Union itself strove to downplay the differences that provoked the war for the sake of national harmony, but that usually meant downplaying the enduring grievances of black Americans at the same time. All the while, historians debated the distribution of blame, on the assumption that the conflict was not so irrepressible as William Seward once claimed. Disagreements linger today over Lincoln's supposed agenda, with a "neo-Confederate" fringe and a handful of allegedly disinterested intellectual sympathizers denouncing Old Abe as an aggressor bent on imposing Big Government on a still-innocent nation. For the past month or so I've been dipping into the Library of America's The Civil War: The First Year, the first of a series of primary-source anthologies collecting first-hand accounts from politicians, generals and ordinary Americans. The first volume starts with Lincoln's election in 1860 and offers representative statements of southern grievances. While my thought has always been that the Civil War was really a war for empire, and that Lincoln's determination to stop the westward spread of slavery was what made his election provocative of secession, the samples published in The First Year suggest that proto-Confederates' biggest grievance was Republicans' assumed refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law against alleged nullification by northern state governments and actual resistance by northern citizens. While some moderates, noting Lincoln's promises to uphold existing laws, urged the fire-eaters to give the President-elect a chance to prove his good faith, many secessionists took it for granted that Lincoln, as a "black Republican," would not respect their rights. For those who idealize the Confederates as apostles of limited government, it might be alarming to see the terms they set for remaining in the Union. These usually involved forcing northern states by any means necessary to assist slaveholders in recapturing fugitive labor, up to sending federal troops into recalcitrant regions to secure the rights of distant slavedrivers. Such demands clarify what Lincoln meant when he warned that a "house divided" could not stand, but must become all one thing or all another. Lincoln himself made clear repeatedly that he would enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and that he had no intention of abolishing slavery where it already existed. But he was convinced that, if the spread of slavery was not checked by barring it from the western territories, slaveholders' demands would eventually make it impossible for any community, north or west, to decide for itself that slavery wasn't welcome. His implicit fear was that, if slaveholders could take slavery with them everywhere they went, then every state in the Union would once more become a slave state, and slaveholders would effectively rule the country to the inevitable detriment of the "free labor" Republicans like Lincoln claimed to represent. As far as secessionists were concerned, Lincoln's desire to close the west to slavery belied his promises not to interfere with slavery in the south, since Lincoln himself had said that restricting slavery to a limited area would put the peculiar institution on "the course of ultimate extinction." Since his stance seemed innately dishonest to them, few saw any reason to trust his assurances regarding the Fugitive Slave Law. And since Republicans would not agree to compromise proposals that would have embedded slavery in the Constitution beyond the reach of amendments, southern leaders decided to take their chances on secession. Something doesn't seem right when you read writings and speeches from the last advocates of compromise admonishing extremists of north and south alike for endangering the world's greatest example of liberty and justice. Since the compromisers were usually committed to perpetuating slavery, one is tempted to echo Dr. Johnson in asking why the loudest cries of liberty came from the drivers of negroes. But a little historical perspective is probably in order. In the world of 1861, monarchies and republics alike condoned slavery. A compromiser might well ask whether you preferred a republic with slavery or a despotism without. The flaw in their reasoning was the assumption that secession would mark the end of Americans' experiment with republican government. Their fear seemed to be that a smaller United States would not be so powerful, so inspiring to oppressed people elsewhere, so menacing to the great powers of the age, or so capable of defending itself against them. If anything, of course, the Civil War left the U.S. a much stronger nation, but was it worth all the dead? That's the question that still haunts some people after 150 years. Was it worth the hundreds of thousands killed to suppress secession or free the slaves? It probably tells us something about our national character, for good or ill, that some of us still think the question worth asking, and that some are unsure of the answer.

11 April 2011

The Sports-Industrial Complex and its enemies

Last month, voters in Miami-Dade recalled their mayor by an overwhelming margin, in large part to protest the city's plan to build a new baseball stadium at considerable public expense. Since then, the scene has shifted to Arizona in what seems to be a bubbling conflict within the Republican party, or among Republican constituencies, over public spending for the benefit of private sports franchises. In Glendale AZ city fathers want to issue bonds to finance a Chicagoan's purchase of the troubled local NHL team, on the understanding that the businessman will keep the club in Glendale. An additional enticement in the form of a management contract may be unconstitutional, according to the Goldwater Institute, which has warned Glendale authorities that it intends to sue to block what it considers an illegal "gift" to the prospective buyer. As George Will explains it, the Goldwater Institute leans libertarian rather than strictly Republican, but by naming itself after the founding father of modern-day Republicanism, the Institute lays a contentious claim on the late Senator's ideological legacy. For it's trouble, the Institute is likely to be sued by the city, and it's been denounced by Sen. McCain for illegitimate interference (because it's a "non-elected organization") in a transaction that supposedly would keep 1,000 jobs in Glendale. Will recognizes what's afoot in Glendale as a classic case of crony capitalism, noting that the gift clause in the Arizona constitution was designed to suppress that tendency. To make his indignation more palatable to his conservative audience, Will uses a synonym that he apparently coined three years ago -- "booster socialism." His terminology is a little archaic -- he uses "booster" in the old Chamber of Commerce sense of the word -- but it conveys his meaning reasonably well. The tendency he describes -- call it one thing or the other -- combines the worst of both worlds when the state taxes the public or puts itself deeper in debt for the benefit of private concerns, no matter how many jobs are supposedly at stake. Like other occasionally intellectual Republicans, Will occasionally reminds himself that this is how capitalists do business whenever they can get away with it, and that Republican politicians, like their Democratic counterparts, are often all too happy to do business with them. On the evidence from Glendale and Miami-Dade, the fiscally conservative, small-government types within the GOP are increasingly alarmed about "booster socialism," while Republican establishment types are alarmed about the alarm. As in Miami-Dade, the mayor of Glendale is "non-partisan," but as Arizona is a "red" state the dispute over the "Coyote Preservation Act" (referring to the hockey team's name) reveals another fissure in a "conservative" consensus that has never been especially stable. Since the Miami recall was overwhelming popular in an obviously non-partisan way, every uprising against the influence over governments of a sports-industrial complex (to suggest yet another label) is definitely worth watching, no matter what the source.

09 April 2011

Amoklauf in the Netherlands

In a shopping mall near Amsterdam, a gun-club member apparently intent on death has taken at least six people with him. As I write, police are searching nearby shopping malls for bombs the killer claimed to have planted. His motive for suicide remains unclear to the general public. This is the part where I probably should say that not all gun enthusiasts, especially outside the U.S., are "gun nuts," though the shooter, who apparently had a legal wrangle over an alleged illegal firearm, might well merit the label. But while it is objectively true that not all gun collectors or hobbyists are "nuts" in the American sense of the term, it is also objectively true that any concentration of collectors or enthusiasts in an area makes an amoklauf more likely. Does that mean there shouldn't be gun clubs? I wouldn't go that far, but any such club should feel some responsibility to monitor its members more closely. I don't know if the shooter's club was dedicated to the history or craftsmanship of firearms, but distinctions should be drawn between presumably innocent reasons for collecting guns and more questionable motives. While I doubt his club membership had anything to do with the shooter's suicide run, we might wonder, and investigators will ask, whether other members noted anything worrisome about the man, and whether any kind of bias related to their common enthusiasm led them to give him a benefit of the doubt that has proven unwarranted. Let's put it this way: if some people believe that Muslims ought to monitor their own mosques for signs of "radicalism" that might result in violence, shouldn't they request the same of organizations whose ownership of or access to weapons is not in doubt.

08 April 2011

If Glenn Beck lost, who won?

The impending end of Glenn Beck's nightly Fox News program is being portrayed as a meteoric fall of a demagogue, and on an objective level it's hard to argue with the assessment. Over the past year, during which time he loomed in liberals' minds as a kind of antichrist (or anti-King, given the timing of his Washington rally), his program lost ratings and advertisers, with some of the latter explicitly boycotting the show. Beck is a tailor-made villain for the "liberal" media, which likes to see people like him as the leaders of demagogic extremism. Accordingly, Beck's departure from daily television is being portrayed as a defeat for the "right" as a whole. More than that, it's being portrayed by some interested parties as the victory of a concerted "progressive" effort to drive Beck, an alleged hater, from television. But while their pressure probably has much to do with many advertisers quitting the Beck show, can progressives take credit for the drop in Beck's ratings? It depends on who was watching Beck in the first place. In the progressive account, Beck is presumed to have attracted gullible independents and populists, many of whom were eventually repelled by his hateful or merely crazy rhetoric. But do people who are not on some level, in their own minds, "conservative" actually watch Fox News? I suppose that some do because they like to get infuriated by the talkers, but if getting infuriated was the object I'd assume that they're still watching Beck. My own hunch, based on the little second-hand information I have on Beck's beliefs, is that he lost otherwise loyal Fox viewers as it became clear that he was not an orthodox Republican propagandist. He seems to have been too particular, idiosyncratic, or "crazy" to follow a party line. He may have been a spokesman for Tea Partiers for awhile, but I suspect that the latter have moved on to new idols like Donald Trump, about whom Beck recently expressed his own skepticism. To sum up, my guess is that the "right" itself repudiated Beck for its own reasons to the point that he was deemed no longer ready for prime time (or thereabouts). If so, to call Beck's apparent fall a defeat of the right by the left, or a defeat for the right at all, is an idle boast that indicates a bipolarchy mentality. But whether the right is made stronger by what looks like its amicable purge of a loose cannon, or whether Beck has been freed to change the ideological landscape by staking out his own territory, remains to be seen.

07 April 2011

Cal Thomas's Social Contract

"There is a kind of wealth spreading" Cal Thomas writes, "that ought to meet the political litmus test of conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and radical Independents." From the past rhetoric of hardcore Republicans like Thomas himself, that may seem hard to believe, but let's read from his latest column.
At a time of high unemployment, too many layoffs and too few new jobs in the private sector...it is disheartening to see so many CEOs having recovered enough from their personal recession to pay themselves salaries and benefits that would have shamed the super-rich in America's Gilded Age.
There's a thin line separating reaction from populism and Thomas occasionally crosses it. While he's quick to remind readers that "unlike my liberal friends, I don't obsess about how much money other people make," he adds that "the moral issue in executive pay is whether management deserves these high salaries while employees are laid off, or denied pay increases." He goes on: "If I were a CEO being paid such astronomical amounts and people were being laid off, or struggling in a recession, at least in part due to the lack of pay increases, I would feel morally obligated to take less money. "One doesn't have to be a liberal who believes in income redistribution to see the unfairness in disproportionate pay," Thomas emphasizes. Unfortunately, Republicans and conservatives have done the most to create the impression that Thomas tries to dispel. He'd like to think that CEOs could change the political landscape by "sharing the wealth" in the way Thomas suggests. Tellingly, he suggests, albeit with an exclamatory joke, that a more positive public perception of the "super rich" could result in more votes for the Republican party. But a look at the comments on his column at a conservative website might demoralize Thomas. One writer chides the columnist for his ignorance of the CEO's essential contribution to wealth creation:
A CEO's decisions and business acumen can save a company tens of millions of dollars above and beyond the salary the CEO is paid. That's tens of millions of dollars that can then go in part to the company's (remaining) employees. Note that no mention is made concerning the employees getting laid off -- how much were they contributing to the company's bottom line, how automation may have contributed to their layoffs, etc. All the focus is on whether the CEO is worth the money (without any actual attempt to calculate whether that's so) as opposed to whether the employees would be worth the money.
Another correspondent who describes himself as "a working joe making less than 40k per year" chimes in: " If a CEO cuts a few hundred million dollars of dead weight, they should get a bonus. That CEO may have saved all the rest of the remaining jobs in the company, a well as the company itself from going away for good." Meanwhile, someone who didn't read the column carefully tells Thomas to "quit worrying about what someone else is getting paid," and questions whether the columnist deserves the "millions" he supposedly earns from national syndication. This writer concludes, "Either you believe in freedom or you don't." In the context of Thomas's column, this means, "Either you believe in boundless inequality, or you don't believe in freedom." Thomas himself writes: "Making money is a noble American objective, making a living is a nobler one. Corporations ought to have enough decency and compassion to make sure no worker is let go solely to increase the bottom line or pad the boss's pockets with more money than he (or she) can ever hope to spend in a lifetime." While this is a moral issue for the columnist, he doesn't regard it as a political issue. While he mildly chides the President for saying that CEOs don't need all the money they make -- that is, exactly what Thomas himself wrote -- he suggests that Obama would be better off "shaming those companies that lay off workers while paying their top management such exorbitant salaries and benefits." Going further, he urges stockholders of the most offensive companies to "demand that no competent worker should be laid off if a CEO earns above a certain amount of money." Thomas argues that stockholders in particular have "a moral responsibility" on such issues that transcends their usual bottom-line calculations. While Thomas frames the issue in "moral" terms throughout the column, the morality involved is apparently not so compelling that it should be made compulsory on CEOs. For him, this is a matter of "should" or "ought" rather than "must." It's also clear from his article that he considers today's conditions exceptional. He recognizes need on the part of workers right now, and he considers CEOs morally answerable to that need. But disproportionate pay is, arguably, not just an offense against need in a time of crisis, but an offense against right at any time. Thomas deserves credit for going further than most of his peers in asserting corporate responsibility, but I would have liked to see him question the morality of disproportionate pay a little more extensively. As a conservative, he presumably believes that moral principles are timeless and unchanging. Isn't it possible, then, that the sort of disproportionate pay he deplores now is always immoral? He does write that "Whether a person is 'worth' their pay is a subjective matter and open to debate." So let the debate continue.

Amoklauf in Brazil

The latest reports claim that 11 Brazilian students were killed in their school today by a former student and supposed AIDS patient who killed himself after taking a leg wound from police. From what I've just read about Brazil, I'm surprised that nothing like this seems to have happened there before. The nation has a gun culture comparable to that of the U.S., fueled in part by lingering, partially justified mistrust of the country's police. Wikipedia reports that Brazil is the hemisphere's second-biggest gun manufacturer, while many Brazilians get guns off the grid from soldiers, cops and smugglers from bordering countries. Voters there defeated a referendum in 2005 that would have banned the sale of guns and ammo to civilians. Stringent regulations still make it difficult to obtain a permit to carry a gun, but more than half of the guns in the country are allegedly unregistered, and many of those are presumably carried illegally. In voting down the referendum, Brazilians reportedly affirmed their belief in an American-style individual right to self-defense. They didn't necessarily affirm the individual prerogative to kill, but you can't stop the one from following from the other in some people's minds. Politics possibly imposes a false choice on us between individual self-defense and dependence upon police. The problem with the individual right as it's usually asserted is that it's purely individual; the individual claims the right to act entirely on his own to protect himself and his own. Is there room for a middle ground in which individuals affirm their right to defend themselves by acting collectively, perhaps by forming something equivalent to a "well regulated militia" and registering it with local law-enforcement authorities? The argument that the police can't be everywhere doesn't automatically mean that lone-wolf gunmen are the only remedy. Too many individuals have potentially irrational notions of their rights and the threats to them for individualism to be the ultimate basis for public safety. Many individuals who oppose limitations on gun ownership already see themselves as potential saviors of endangered strangers. Why not make a formal commitment to join others in assisting others a condition of owning certain types of firearms? These ideas come from the spur of the moment, so make of them what you will. I just think that making gun ownership less about "me" without necessarily limiting ownership any further might make an amoklauf, which is only a mad form of individual self-defense for many a perpetrator, less likely.

06 April 2011

Positive and Negative Liberalism: America's original party lines?

John L. Brooke's Columbia Rising describes the interrelated evolution of civil society and partisan politics in Columbia County, New York, from the Revolution through the presidency of native son Martin Van Buren. Densely detailed, it's full of fascinating anecdotal evidence and telling quotes from letters and early newspapers while spelling out the basics of political development. Who do we choose from in elections? How are candidates chosen, and how do we know about our choices? In part, Brooke argues that partisanship, including a partisan press, developed as a democratic alternative to aristocratic hegemony in a setting where a landed aristocracy remained after the Revolution. As party nominations supplanted a system of aristocratic patronage, a kind of ideological line was drawn, not distinguishing liberals from conservatives, but "positive liberalism" from "negative liberalism." In Brooke's account, the difference was over whose interests government had to take into account.
Positive and negative liberalism involved more than competing definitions of the role of government in society and economy. These opposed deliberative positions were embedded in different understandings of the problem of consent and coercion in civil life. Both were equally grounded in understandings inherited from a republican past. Negative liberalism flowed naturally from classical republican assumptions about a society and a polity shaped by sharply defined status boundaries, in which the explicit consent of the independent householder was the sole determinant of public action. Beyond this field of deliberative consent lay a wider field of assumed dependence and potential coercion: wives, children, servants and slaves were to tacitly accept that subordination as part of an immutable and essentially patriarchal order of things. The ethos of positive liberalism had its origins in efforts to understand and to reinforce this wider field of subordinate tacit consent. Early eighteenth-century thinkers located women's subordination in a weaker nervous system; sympathy for female sensibilities would reinforce their subordination. In the early American republic, and most importantly among the Congregational ministers of the New Divinity newly sealed throughout New England, a polity without a monarch required a virtuous people, and a virtue and a people broadly defined. Virtue might inhere in the independence of propertied men, but it was just as critical that the dependent be equally virtuous. In the virtue of dependence lay subordination and a tacit consent to the shape of society. (232-3)
This ideological divide doesn't perfectly match historical party lines because partisanship was in constant flux during the Early National Period. In simpler terms, the "positive liberals" (the Whig Party probably comes closest to the model) were willing to adopt policies of social investment in order to ensure a virtuously subordinate populace, while the "negative liberals" reserved the right to question the benefits so long as they alone paid the bills through property taxes and other exactions. To make the scenario seem more familiar, let's say that the negative liberals saw the welfare of the subordinates under their individual control as their business, not the state's. If the negative liberal wasn't burdened with subordinates or dependents, he remained jealous of his rights, seeing those like himself as the real, exclusive constituency of government. It's possible to see vestiges of this division in modern American politics. Negative liberalism can be construed as a kind of paradoxical elite populism in which a privileged class defines its members as the "real" citizens and insists on government's exclusive accountability to itself in shamelessly democratic terms. Meanwhile, positive liberalism, as defined by Brooke, is solicitous of the interests of subordinate groups in the interest of controlling them more effectively and peaceably. Depending on your own biases, you can see Republicans (or Tea Partiers) and Democrats playing these roles today. Brooke notes that positive liberalism was a tricky business 200 years ago, and on his terms it seems just as tricky today. It was grounded in "Sympathy itself, the recognition of a common humanity in a suffering and subordinate other," that could "undermine the ground of that subordination.
If one had the capacity for virtue, was it just to hold others in a subordination? Where would the boundaries hold, once one began to sympathize with the powerless and to develop a sensibility to the coercion of potentially autonomous individuals? And what was required of the individual, once such a sensibility had been achieved? (233)
According to Brooke, the early stages of sensibility led to positive liberal enactments funding schools and libraries, gradually abolishing slavery, and improving the legal standing of women, debtors and other subordinates. Whether that was all that was required is an enduring question. But if "positive" and "negative" are all the options "liberalism" offers, the ultimate answer may lay beyond the scope of liberalism, at least as we understand it now.

05 April 2011

The Billion-Dollar Campaign: America's voluntary election tax

The President nominated himself for re-election yesterday, to no one's surprise and possibly to no one's great enthusiasm. At the same time, Republicans are poor-mouthing their chances against him next year, and polls appear to justify their pessimism. Respecting the power of money as they do, Republicans may well be intimidated by the Obama campaign's goal of topping the $750,000,000 raised for the 2008 campaign and possibly breaking the $1,000,000,000 barrier. Overkill does seem to be the President's object. He's reportedly asking wealthy donors to give at least $5,000 in two doses, one for a Democratic primary season in which Obama is unlikely to face any real challenge. Since the campaign can apparently do with the money as it pleases, the idea may be to influence other Democratic primaries. Meanwhile, the campaign is at pains to deny that the money raised will go mostly toward advertising. Instead, most of it supposedly will go toward hiring grass-roots campaign workers. Some observers suspect that Obama may become more dependent upon big donors this time, since many of the small donors of 2008, and especially the presumed independents, will have grown disillusioned with him now that his historical novelty has worn off somewhat. Nevertheless, reporters seem to consider it likely that the President can meet his fundraising goal. It may be that more Americans accept the logic of modern-day democracy, in which spending money appears increasingly as an essential component of civic participation. The major parties would like us all to believe that we aren't doing our full civic duty if we don't donate to election campaigns. The eagerness with which many Americans respond to their appeals looks strange when compared with the grudging way citizens contribute to the actual government of the country at tax time. A campaign donation comes with no comparable return in the form of services. All the average donor (as opposed to the corporate donor) can hope for is the satisfaction of seeing his or her side win -- and the even greater satisfaction of seeing the other side lose. Yet the donor presumably feels greater pride of citizenship in donating than in paying taxes. He may even hope, if he's a Republican, that donating more one way will mean having to donate less the other way. But whatever a donor's motive, the donation is superfluous. You're no worse a citizen if all you do at election time is vote. There may be more you can do to assure yourself of a decent choice of candidates, but none of it should automatically involve spending money. If you feel compelled to pledge money to a political campaign -- if you feel that you won't make a difference otherwise -- that you need to donate to counterbalance someone else's donation -- it should be obvious by now that something has gone terribly wrong with democracy in America.

04 April 2011

Against organized labor: the Maine front

A little item in Time magazine alerted me to a symbolic struggle over the principle of organized labor taking place far from the midwestern ground zero of Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. Maine has a Republican governor, Paul Lepage, who barely beat an independent candidate in last year's election. He won with a plurality of approximately 38% of the vote. Lepage, predictably, is pro-business and believes that Maine has to eliminate much of its regulatory apparatus in order to attract new businesses. He's concerned that the state's Department of Labor gives an impression of hostility toward business, especially through a conference-room mural portraying what Lepage regards as a biased account of the state's labor history. Late last month, he ordered the mural, which was installed just a few years ago, removed from the conference room. He has also reportedly asked that some Labor Department offices have their names changed, lest the current labels honoring labor leaders and pro-labor politicians alarm or alienate businessmen.

This local account includes a picture of the mural, which doesn't exactly look like a Diego Rivera. I don't notice any tuxedoed fatcats stomping on the workers, nor do I detect Marx or Lenin lurking in the margins. I admit that there is no panel showing workers kneeling in gratitude at the feet of their employers, so perhaps there is bias, but I also assumed that the Department of Labor was meant to look after workers' interests, not flatter bosses. Governor Lepage has reportedly compared the mural to a North Korean propaganda painting, but that may be as much an aesthetic as an ideological critique. Lepage claims to believe in balance between labor and capital, which sounds good on paper. An earlier Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, believed in much the same thing. Roosevelt based his position on the understanding that neither labor nor capital was always right when their interests conflicted. I don't know if Lepage feels that way about capital.

If one thing has been consistent about the Republican party since the time of Lincoln it's been a certain aloofness toward the idea of an American working class. That might seem strange for a party founded in defense of "free labor," but Republicans have never been comfortable with the idea of a proletariat. They were on the defensive from the beginning, in the face of slaveholders' charge that northern workers were "wage slaves" who didn't even enjoy the paternal concern masters allegedly showed their chattel slaves. Lincoln and others answered the charge by asserting that, under a "free labor" system, no one need be a "wage slave" for life. Lincoln's ideal was that a worker learned a trade as an employee, saved until he achieved self-employment, and if successful became an employer himself. I think that many Republicans still think the system works this way; hence their assumption that someone who fails to achieve self-employment, or slips into unemployment, is guilty of some personal failure. For such people then to demand rights as a class can only seem contemptible to some observers; it must seem as if workers are settling for some inferior position, yet demand to be treated better than such lack of ambition deserves. This Republican sensibility hasn't been relevant to reality for some time now. Lincoln's ideal was arguably going obsolete in his own lifetime, and there are obviously many economic sectors now in which a beginning factory worker cannot expect to open his own factory someday. Without exceptional genius or luck, most Americans will remain working-class all their lives, as will their children. If there's any democracy in America, then business must be accountable on some level to the working majority and their elected representatives. The working class is a permanent, legitimate constituency of American politics whether Republicans like it or not, and it's been made clear this year, in ways profound and petty, that after more than 150 years of Grand Old Partisanship, that they still don't like it.

Is Michele Bachmann 'for real'?

Seeing Time magazine profile the Minnesota congressman Michele Bachmann -- or more accurately, profile her potential as a presidential candidate -- led me to ask, not for the first time, why anyone outside her state or district cares what Bachmann says or does. I last asked myself when I saw the MSN homepage make her opinion on the Libyan no-fly zone a headline story last week. As it turned out, Bachmann expressed reasonable skepticism on the subject, but still -- so? There seems to be an irrational obsession with her in media circles, but if irrational it is understandable. She attracts attention in part because she's been a mighty fundraiser. Time writer Michael Scherer notes that Bachmann raised more money in two years than any other Representative in history. She draws money, I suspect, because she's exactly the sort of polarizing figure that fascinates the media. Her accomplishments, from what I can tell, have been rhetorical rather than legislative, but I suspect that the media has built her up for exactly that reason. I wonder sometimes whether she's really a creation of the "liberal" media. Bachmann first came to many people's attention, it seems, when she gave President Bush a flamboyant smooch on the night of the 2007 State of the Union address. Since then, Democratic opinionators have blown up her every eccentric utterance, from factional gaffes about the American Revolution to incendiary ideological statements. The "liberal" media has been arguably promoting Bachmann because she seems to embody their demon-image of the Republican party, the conservative ideology and, most recently, the Tea Party movement, while the "corporate" media embraces any controversial figure, within two-party bounds, who can be made the subject of a regular ten-minutes hate for which ad time can be sold. For all I know, Republicans and Tea Partiers have rallied to Bachmann and thrown money at her exactly because they see how she annoys liberals in the media. I don't suppose it's because of any actual legislative accomplishments. The Minnesotan may be the perfect product of Bipolarchy, cultivated by both sides to wage the kind of campaign with which both (and the media) are most comfortable, an insubstantial war of rhetoric rather than a constructive debate. Scherer doesn't think Bachmann can win the GOP nomination, let alone the Presidency, but he declares her "for real" because she could influence the fortunes of other Republican aspirants thanks to her assumed strength in Iowa as a native of the caucus state. I won't dispute his claim, but her being "for real" in the GOP field doesn't necessarily mean that the GOP race itself is for real in any meaningful sense for the nation.

01 April 2011

April fools turn violent; March idiot to blame

It didn't come to my attention that last March 20 had been International Judge the Qur'an Day until I read about the event this evening. The day was observed primarily in the Florida church of the Rev. Terry Jones, who may be remembered as the pastor who threatened to burn a Qur'an last year in an act of defiance of Islamic violence. Jones backed down from his promise then, but on the 20th, following a mock trial in which the Islamic holy book was found guilty of promoting violence, the pastor consigned his copy to the flames. The punishment was chosen by Jones's Facebook friends, burning being preferred to shredding, drowning and firing squad.

While I hadn't heard of this solemn proceeding, the benighted natives of Afghanistan had. I don't know how long it took for the news to reach them, but the perhaps predictable result was seen earlier today, when a mob stormed a UN compound in Mazar-i-Sharif and killed a number of internationals. Rev. Jones will no doubt consider his point further proved by this demonstration, but the sequence of events revives the old question of the moral responsibility of provocateurs.

The provocateur, especially if he's an American, will fall back on his right to free expression. As an American, he is likely to feel that moral responsibility for a violent act falls entirely and exclusively on the perpetrator. As long as the perpetrator is presumed to have the intellectual or moral capacity to refuse to act -- to resist temptation, if you will, -- he is assumed to have no right to protest that he was provoked. If the perpetrator is a Muslim, his claim that provocation obliged him to make reprisal is dismissed as the product of his violent or otherwise immoral faith. Viewed from a moralist perspective, the blame will nearly always fall entirely on those provoked into violence, while the provocateur, at most, is chided for imprudence. But we needn't view this scenario solely with the idea of assigning blame. Doing that virtually takes for granted that violence will happen for which we can then have the pleasure of blaming someone.

What if we'd rather prevent violence? We could go ahead and hector the infidels and savages until they change the way they think. But is that all we should do? Too many people impose a false choice at this point, as if the moral burden must fall entirely on one side or the other. If you suggest that prudence dictates restraining the provocateur, you'll be accused of coddling those savages who should instead be pressured to learn self-restraint as soon as possible. Why, however, should they alone learn self-restraint? It seems to me that anyone who reads the news from Florida and Afghanistan objectively would agree with me that Rev. Jones and his Afghan counterparts are all idiots. Shouldn't all idiots be made to learn? I myself have felt like burning a Qur'an sometimes, and I suspect my impulse was much like Jones's. When I'm in that mood, my idea is that I want the Muslims to take it and like it, so to speak. Does that impulse justify putting anyone else on the planet in danger? I have my doubts, but that doesn't mean that I concede the principle that Muslims are entitled to kill people who "insult" their faith. There simply has to be a way to change their attitude other than insulting them until they give up. That other way has to be found, but the case can be made -- a mock trial could be held to prove the point, perhaps -- that Jones's approach is counterproductive to the point of liability. In short, Muslims' susceptibility to provocation is a problem, but so is the impulse to provoke -- not criticize, but provoke Muslims. Jones wasn't shouting "fire" in a crowded theater; he was setting the theater on fire, and now he blames the tinder for burning. "Idiot" is too kind a word for him, and "fools" is too kind for his Afghan brothers.