29 September 2011

Democracy vs. Democratization: is there a difference?

The October 2011 issue of Monthly Review celebrates the 80th birthday of Egyptian Marxist scholar Samir Amin by publishing two new articles from him. The second of these, "The Democratic Fraud and the Universalist Alternative," is a typical Marxist attack on liberal (or "electoral") democracy. Amin argues that Karl Marx himself was wrong to believe that electoral democracy, based on universal suffrage, would become a "peaceful path to socialism." Instead, "Elections by universal suffrage under these conditions are guaranteed to produce a sure victory for conservatism, albeit sometimes a 'reformist' conservatism." That's because the "concentration of the state's powers on behalf of the ruling class" effectively puts true social change out of reach, resulting in a "relative depoliticization/disacculturation of very large segments of society."Amir is convinced that electoral majorities in an "honestly elected, multi-party assembly" cannot accomplish real social change. The best they can manage is to ratify revolutions carried out by "what, in electoral terms, may appear to be 'minorities'" after the fact. This is a defense of the essential "vanguardist" principle of Bolshevism, even as Amin criticizes aspects of the Bolshevik legacy, and an attack on a "democratic fraud" or pseudo-democracy Amin attributes to the American Founders.

The stage scenery was invented by the Founding Fathers of the United States,with the very clearly expressed intention of keeping electoral democracy from becoming an instrument that could be used by the people to call in question the social order based on private property (and slavery!). With that in mind, their Constitution was based on (indirect) election of a president (a sort of "elective monarch") holding in his hands some essential powers. Presidential election campaigns under these conditions naturally gravitate to "bipartisanism," which tends progressively to become what it is now: the expression of a "single party." Of course, ever since the end of the nineteenth century this has represented the interest of monopoly capital, addressing itself to "clienteles" that view themselves as having different interests.

That's a mostly fair summary of Bipolarchy, though Amin may go to far to describe the Framing as a conspiracy to suppress an agitation against private property that hardly existed outside the Framers' imaginations at their most feverish. There's a certain ideological bias in Amin's protest against this system's exclusion of "a real alternative," since he doesn't really conceive of socialism as an alternative but as an imperative, but the system's exclusionary tendencies should be obvious enough to any objective observer. His Marxist bias muddles Amin's analysis. It's unclear whether the American "democratic fraud" systematically excludes radical change or simply expresses a cultural bias against it. In any event, "democracy" as practised in the U.S. and allied developed countries is simply too individualist for Amin. He prefers a state of perpetual "democratization" that can (and perhaps must) be initiated by vanguard minorities -- an "intelligentsia" as opposed to a mere (albeit demonized) "elite" like that of the U.S. Democratization as Amin means it may best be understood as democracy without constitutional constraints.

Democratization ... considered as full and complete -- that is, democratization involving all aspects of social life including, of course, economic management -- can only be an unending and unbounded process, the result of popular struggles and popular inventiveness. Democratization has no meaning, no reality, unless it mobilizes those inventive powers in the perspective of building a more advanced stage of human civilization. Thus, it can never be clothed in a rigid, formulaic, ready-to-wear outfit.

Democratization entails revolution, the seizing and use of political power. Amin thus has no use, but plenty of scorn, for those radicals who renounce "power" as an evil unto itself -- Antonio Negri is singled out for insult frequently. Democratization can also encompass a period of decentralization, though the thought may seem to go against the Marxist grain, if it means carving out a zone for revolutionary action. For instance, "There is no need to wait for permission from the actual laws to start setting up institutionalized systems (informal, maybe 'illegal'), by permanent and de facto compulsory employer/employee negotiation, for example, to impose equality between men and women, or to subject all important public or private investment decisions to thorough environmental review." In such settings, "truly meaningful elections can take place," but "only after victory, not before." Throughout, we may presume, the vanguard minority will inform us if democratization is actually happening, or if the masses are perpetrating another fraud upon themselves.

I don't propose to dispute Amin's notion that democratization may require coercion, that it may require that "the capitalist monopolies are to be expropriated, nationalized in order to be socialized." But I do worry about the heavy implication that democratization can't be a democratic process in the moral sense of the term, that the people in a capitalist economy or bourgeois culture can't be trusted to democratize themselves without guidance from a minority gifted with definitive and exclusive knowledge of what democracy looks like. Amin himself acknowledges that vanguardism is problematic, that "maintenance of centralized power in the hands of these 'vanguards' was far from uninvolved in the subsequent derailment of the 'socialist' systems that they claimed to have established." But if we can't even begin democratization without a vanguard initiative, how are we ever to know when we won't need the vanguard anymore? If democratization is "unending and unbounded," who's to say it'll ever be time for the vanguard to stand down? But before I end up looking too much like a liberal, let me close with the suggestion that we won't have to wait for a dictatorship of the proletariat to test these premises. History arguably never does without vanguards, and the democratic farce Amin deplores may well be just another case of a vanguard not knowing, even after centuries, when to step aside.

Independent in name only

We're used to seeing one of the major parties try to knock a new independent party off a ballot by challenging the validity of its petition signatures, but not to seeing one independent party challenge another's right to contest an election. That's what's happened in Rotterdam, New York, a factious town with at least three local party lines jostling for space with the established state parties. Among these are a Republican "splinter" group, the No New Tax party, and a group "allied" with the Democrats, the Lower Taxes Now party. To be accurate, that's what the latter was called until yesterday, when the two allegedly independent parties settled a suit filed by No New Tax accusing Lower Taxes Now, among other things, of attempting to deceive voters by pretending (presumably) to be an anti-tax party with a name similar to No New Tax. The Lower Taxes Now organizers understandably protested that no party has an exclusive right to the word "tax," but backed down in the face of a challenge to their petitions and changed their name to Reunite Rotterdam.

The Albany Times Union report of this travesty doesn't even attempt to hide that fact that this purported squabble of independents is actually a struggle between the Republican and Democratic parties -- though it also notes that the No New Tax spokesman is a registered Conservative. Thanks to New York's allowance for cross-endorsements, nothing in the Empire State stops the two major parties from setting up dummy parties to exploit growing popular dissatisfaction with the two-party system. Disgusted with the Republican party? Vote for the exact same guys on the No New Tax line! Sick of the Democratic party? Vote for the exact same guys on the Lower Taxe--er, I mean Reunite Rotterdam line! I had thought that the possibility of one candidate winning the Republican and Democratic primaries was the reductio ad absurdam of the cross-endorsement principle, but the Rotterdam episode suggests that the absurdity of the situation may know no limit, until lawmakers impose one, once voters insist on it. Until then, we need a new acronym for shorthand partisan zoology. We already have RINOs (Republicans in name only) and DINOs (Democrats in name only), but our Rotterdam expedition has only reconfirmed the existence of the IINO (pronounced "I know!") -- Independent In Name Only -- a parasite whose proliferation only degrades the political ecosystem.

28 September 2011

'Voting is worthless'

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kulish contemplates a worldwide wave of protest spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to encompass India and Israel, Spain and Wall Street. He asks whether the young people leading these protests in the democracies are actually repudiating democracy, while it's clear that the real problem, as perceived by the protesters, is a failure of representative democracy. A Spanish protester claims membership in the first generation to realize that "voting is worthless." A "crisis of legitimacy" is declared when "we don't think they [i.e. elected representatives] are doing anything for us." Around the world, it's assumed that politicians and parties are more responsive to money and special interests than to the masses and the common good. While that charge is hard to refute, what do demonstrations and "occupations" like that under way on Wall Street do about it? Not every public place is Tahrir Square, where crowds can actually drive a government out of power. Representative governments retain too much of their traditional legitimacy to collapse as easily as the morally hollow Mubarak regime. Worse for the youngsters, many others in every democracy in this age of austerity see no failure of democracy in an unresponsive government. They say that government should not do "anything for us," and that we should not expect or demand it to do so. They see the protesters in their tent cities, their three-dimensional chat rooms and similar bubbles as nothing more than sore, spoiled losers -- and that impression is only enhanced when the protesters complain that the game is rigged. In countries with established democratic traditions, as opposed to Egypt's past parody, protesters cannot expect to stand aside and watch the establishment collapse before their eyes. There remain two choices: vote or fight. Protests like those Kulish describes are not exactly useless -- they often have great consciousness-raising potential -- but are they substitutes for voting or fighting? It's too soon to tell, but I remain skeptical.

Public-Employee unions and political endorsements: sometimes the most secret ballot is no ballot

In the latest chapter of the war of words over the Sheriff's Employees Association of Rensselaer County's intervention in this year's race for sheriff, SEARCO executive vice-president Kevin Rogers responds in today's Troy Record to the charge published last week from a politically-opposed correctional officer that the union's endorsement didn't represent the opinion of all union members. Readers will recall that SEARCO endorsed challenger Gary Gordon in the Conservative party primary, where many union members would vote. Gordon won the primary by a slim margin and now holds three lines, including those of the Democratic and Working Families parties, while incumbent Jack Mahar will make his stand on the Republican and Independence lines. Guerin charged that Rogers (who wasn't mentioned by name) and other SEARCO leaders made the endorsement and purchased an ad announcing it without consulting the rank and file. In his reply, Rogers affirms that the endorsement does represent "a clear majority" of the union while explaining why it wasn't prudent to put the endorsement to a vote. The reasoning is very old and familiar to historians of organized labor and historians of voting. It's the rationale behind the secret ballot we all use today: openly declaring our preferences could get us in trouble with powerful people.

After conducting an informal survey of SEARCO’s membership through many informal discussions between the union and its membership, it became very obvious to me that a clear majority of the SEARCO members fully endorse Gary Gordon as the next sheriff of Rensselaer County. The union opted to refrain from maintaining a “formal list” of SEARCO members who support Gary Gordon, and, necessarily, oppose the existing sheriff for fear of retribution with respect to those individuals who seek real change at the Rensselaer County Jail — change in the form of a new sheriff.

Everything had to be done informally in order to avoid "retribution" from Sheriff Mahar, though one presumes that an organized office should have safeguards against "retribution" built in if the union has any real power. But perhaps there are no safeguards, or else the "retribution" might not take actionable form. In the absence of statements from the rank and file, Rogers's defense must be taken on faith, depending on one's knowledge of office politics. Ideally, nothing to do with political endorsements by labor unions and other corporate entities should have to be taken on faith, and in this case a certain burden of proof rests inescapably on Rogers's shoulders unless his co-workers step up to back him up. Until then, his closing boast that he'll "refrain from ... personal attacks which only serve to create a more hostile environment at a work location that is already stressful enough" looks just a little insincere, since he's just implicitly accused Sheriff Mahar of readiness to exact retribution for political opinions. If that's not a personal attack, what is? It may be true, though that's for Rogers to prove, but it's still an attack. The ultimate proof may come if Mahar wins, but that'll be up to more people than union members to decide. A union faction may tip the balance in a party primary, but civilians will judge between Mahar and Gordon on more than the incumbent's treatment of his employees. Kevin Rogers may be entitled to speak for his co-workers, and make endorsements in their name, but on Election Day voters will speak for themselves.

27 September 2011

Grumpy old men: the mating dance of Ron Paul and Ralph Nader

Following their joint appearance on the Fox Business Channel in January, Michael Tracey conducted separate interviews with Ralph Nader and Ron Paul for an American Conservative article (available to subscribers only)on the possibility of a "grand alliance" between the two contrarian elder statesmen. Tracey himself acknowledges that the concept is "counterintuitive" given the libertarian Paul's presumed opposition to the regulatory state that Nader did much to promote. But Nader proposes several areas of "foundational convergence" for his and Paul's followers, including "Military budget, foreign wars, empire, Patriot Act, corporate welfare -- for starters." To that list Paul adds drug law reform, which he describes as "one place where conservatives and liberals can get together [b]ecause it's sort of a nullification approach -- a states' rights approach." Though a conservative Christian himself, Paul is disturbed by the overt, exploitative religiosity of his fellow Texan, Gov. Perry, whom he calls "too cruel and vicious." As for religion, Paul says, "we weren't ever taught to carry religion on our sleeves," and reminds Tracey of the New Testament admonition to "go quietly into your closet to pray and not be demonstrating in any particular way." He doesn't think political candidates should be answerable for their religious beliefs unless "you start using religion precisely to gain political advantage." Overall, Paul is less committal about an alliance than Nader, though it's unclear whether Tracey asked him the same questions. Nor has Nader gone so far as to endorse Paul for the Republican nomination, as some so-called "Blue Republicans" have, or as an independent candidates. But he clearly admires the Texan for what he opposes: the Federal Reserve, corporate welfare, bailouts, etc. And that may be the signal that Nader has finally gone beyond the pale. My point isn't that he or Paul is automatically wrong to oppose any of these things, but that Nader, in particular, is all about what he's against at this point in his public career. Any "grand alliance" of Nader and Paul would be "anti" a lot of things. There's a lot of stuff going on to be "anti," of course, but self-styled progressives have to ask themselves, if they still support Nader, why they do so. Progressives, I presume, are for some things, and a progressive campaign, if we see one next year, should be about more than tearing things down.

Us and Them: Missing the point of third-party advocacy

Earlier this month, Adam Gopnik published a review in The New Yorker of several new books discussing the prospects of American national decline. One of the books discussed is Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's That Used To Be Us, in which Friedman repeats his call, familiar from New York Times columns, for a moderate or "radical center" third party to challenge the prevailing Bipolarchy. Gopnik dismisses the demand, contending that the authors, by blaming the two-party system, miss the real problem. His article is available online for subscribers only, but this excerpt from the abstract version makes Gopnik's main point.

Friedman and Mandelbaum’s book is marked by a kind of tactical disingenuousness. Not only do they propose, as a way to arrest the decline, a third party, with no clear policies, programs, popular constituency, or potential leaders; they also present every problem as one confronted by a uniform “we.” Friedman and Mandelbaum want their countrymen to face the future without first facing the facts about their countrymen: this is the country that a lot of “us” want.

In the actual article, Gopnik goes on to denounce a class of people who would rather endure an inefficient infrastructure than make any concessions, or contributions, to "big government." Worse, these people supposedly would let our infrastructure deteriorate further just to spite liberals. Just who are these people? Who actually is satisfied with the state of America in 2011? Not the Tea Partiers; they're the champion gripers of our time, and I doubt that they'd say that the USA today is the country they want. Probably all of them would like things to operate more efficiently; they just think that'll only happen when everything is privatized. There may well be a clique of corporate types who are satisfied with their profits while disregarding the rest of the country and its people, but that wouldn't be "a lot of us."

In any event, how exactly does the existence of a complacent faction refute the authors' argument for a third party? It's not as if Friedman and Mandelbaum (whose book I haven't yet read) are saying that the new party would instantly win over that "a lot of us" who supposedly like things as they are. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the authors would readily agree with Gopnik's proposition that "a lot of us" are satisfied, some perversely so, with the present state of affairs. But based on Friedman's columns, I assume that he believes that "a lot of us" are a minority that has been disproportionately empowered by a two-party system that allows a "base" to dictate our choices for political office. The dominance of the major parties by "base" primary voters leaves the potential moderate or radical-center majority without an authentic voice representing practical reason. If Gopnik's implicit fear is that the nation as a whole is completely and hopelessly split between "a lot of us" who like things as they are and everyone else, then Friedman's hope is that a third party would prove that the unreasonable base of either major party, who together like things as they are politically, is a vulnerable minority. And if Gopnik's real point is that the nation won't progress until "a lot of us" are defeated or made to see the error of their ways, it's not as if the Bipolarchy has been speeding that day along. I'm sure Gopnik doesn't mean it that way, but his abstract makes it sound as if he denies that there's an ultimate "we" who are the American people. He seems to see an irreconcilable conflict between "a lot of us" and the presumed good guys, who most likely look a lot like the Democratic party -- but who's to say that Democrats don't have the country they want right now, with Republicans always available as a scarecrow to frighten people into deference to their vaunted wisdom and expertise, and no alternative to Republican terror but Democrats? Is that the country Gopnik wants? Let's face the facts about this particular countryman of ours before we face the future on his terms.

26 September 2011

Christian Right Economics: Not exactly self-reliant

Baylor University released "Wave III" of its multi-year Religion Survey project last week, providing grist for the wire services and weekend religion pages with its finding linking right-wing economic policy beliefs to religious belief. As David Gibson's report puts it, "believers who say God is directly guiding our lives and endowing the United States with divine blessings are much more likely than other Americans to agree that "the government does too much" and that "able-bodied people who are out of work shouldn't receive unemployment checks." The 40% of Americans who believe most strongly that "God has a plan for their lives" are "much more likely to embrace the sort of conservative economic philosophy that would make tea party activists proud."

Baylor's own website elaborates:

Americans who believe strongly that God has something wonderful in store for them look very different from the rest of Americans. Although they tend to have lower levels of education and income, these respondents are the most likely to believe that the United States' economic system is fair, that the government is too intrusive, that healthy people should not receive unemployment benefits and that anything is possible through hard work. And, despite believing that success is based on hard work and ability, they are the strongest believers that some are meant to be rich and some to be poor.

Noting the "tension" between Christian criticisms of wealth and Republican social philosophy, Baylor accounts for the discrepancy by showing how much laissez-faire Christians regard work as a devotional act.

For a sizable minority, work and worship are tightly intertwined. A quarter of working Americans reports that they often or always view their work as a mission from God. More than a third (36 percent) routinely pursues excellence in work because of their faith. Individuals who attend religious services regularly and those who take a literal view of the Bible are among the most likely to attribute religious significance to their work.

In a probably-related finding, Baylor reports that entrepreneurs, who otherwise espouse religion in no greater numbers than the general population, tend to pray and meditate more often than non-entrepreneurs, an apparent fact that one professor tentatively attributes to the stress of starting or running a business. Before concluding that religion decisively steers believers toward laissez-faire and supply-side policies, we should note Baylor's finding that these attitudes toward work and wealth are often strongest in black congregations, where a prosperity gospel presumably doesn't translate into resentment of government. Overall, however, the Baylor survey may clarify some of the rhetoric about dependency one hears on the right. On the surface, it often sounds as if right-wingers are contrasting an undesirable dependence on the state with a healthy, productive self-reliance. If the Baylor pollsters and analysts are right about their results, we might realize why right-wing resentment of dependence seems to run so deep. It may be because the most devout or doctrinaire believers resent people for electing to rely upon the state (or the people, if you prefer) rather than upon God. That may also explain why pundits and polemicists on the Christian Right are so quick to accuse Democrats, liberals, progressives and leftists of "worshipping" the state. In their eyes, it may well be a sacrilegious form of "worship" to put one's faith in the state, no matter how democratic a thing to do it seems, rather than on God. At the same time, for all their prayer and their confessions of dependence upon the Almighty, they can still claim self-reliance compared to the idolaters of the state on "God helps those who help themselves" principles. The important thing, as it often is for monotheists around the world, would be not to appear dependent, or admit dependence, upon actual persons or human constructs. Just as God is arguably a way to assert universal principles without having them dismissed as merely your ideas, so God may also be a way for people to deny dependence, or perhaps responsibility or accountability, to anyone else. At least that's my opinion until the next survey appears.

Working Families spokesman defends cross-endorsement 'message'

Back on September 18, the Albany Times Union breathed a sigh of editorial relief following a Democratic primary for the position of Bethlehem supervisor that demonstrated, to the editors' satisfaction, the folly of New York State's rule allowing political parties to cross-endorse candidates. In Bethlehem, a Democrat named Kyle Kotary tried to monopolize the ballot by running on both the Democratic and Republican lines. He secured the GOP line but was defeated in his own party by insurgent candidate John Clarkson. In the paper's opinion, "it was democracy itself that prevailed. The loser was the unhealthy practice of cross-endorsements."

For the Working Families Party, those are fighting words. In today's Times Union Jim Welch, the Troy WFP leader, fights back with a defense of cross-endorsement -- or as he prefers to call it, "electoral fusion." Welch argues that eliminating electoral fusion "won't address [the] problem" raised by the Bethlehem primary, but would "diminish the people's voice at a time when that voice is already difficult to hear over the din of money."

How so? By denying the people the right to put one candidate on every party line? Apparently not. Electoral fusion, as Welch sees it, is voters' equivalent of the president's signing statement in which he expresses caveats about the bill he's just approved. It's a kind of electoral supplement that allows voters to "send a message" to the people they vote for. I'll let Welch explain.

Last November when I, in the company of more than 140,000 fellow New Yorkers, voted for Andrew Cuomo on the Working Families ballot line instead of the Democratic line, I was telling the now-governor that I have a somewhat different idea of his duties and obligations to his constituents from that of his wealthy and increasingly corporate sponsors.

If anything, the "message" sent through a cross-endorsement vote has less force than a presidential signing statement. All Governor Cuomo needs to know about WFP voters is that they voted for him. He also knows that his margin of victory over his closest rival last November was nearly ten times the number of WFP votes cast for him. On top of that, Cuomo knows (though Welch chooses to forget) that he only deigned to accept the WFP endorsement after the scandal-plagued party compromised many of their "somewhat different" principles out of desperation to retain their guaranteed spot on the state ballot. The main motive for cross-endorsement, from a practical standpoint, is to enable an "independent" party to get enough votes in a statewide election to retain that guaranteed spot in the next such election. That necessity automatically limits the leverage parties like WFP claim to exert and the amount of influence their specific message can have with a major-party candidate or incumbent. Working Families has not done the hard work undertaken by the Green party, for instance, to earn its own ballot line with its own candidate. It is dependent on Democrats for its survival, while Democrats rarely depend on WFP votes to win in New York. That message is loud and clear every time, and WFP euphemisms can't cover it up. The practice of cross-endorsement should end, not because its unconstitutional or undemocratic, but because it's stupid.

24 September 2011

Florida's straw poll and the return of the favorite son

The theme of the weekend in the news media is Gov. Perry's vulnerability. It was announced following the Texan's sputtering performance in last Thursday's joint appearance (i.e. "debate"), and it gains momentum in time for the Sunday talking-head shows following the Florida straw poll, a non-binding popularity context in which only a few thousand people, but also all the Republican presidential candidates, participated. Despite extensive effort from Perry, the poll went to the Floridian candidate, pizza magnate Herman Cain. This is interpreted as bad news for Perry, but less so for Mitt Romney, who more clearly wrote off the event to signify that he didn't stake as much on it as Perry did. While it seems very unlikely to me at this time that Cain could go on to win the Florida primary next year, one never knows. The fact that the straw-poll participants favored a favorite son, despite his being perceived nationally as a second or third-tier candidate, at least illustrates that these Floridians are resisting the media imperative to reduce the Republican race to a bipolarchy of Perry and Romney. To the extent that Tea Parties influence the primary campaign, their reputed decentralized nature should make them more willing to consider the long-abandoned favorite-son approach to state primaries. Without necessarily expecting the favorite son to win the final nomination, opting for him (or a favorite daughter in our enlightened age) allows the partisans of a state to keep their options open at the national convention. Unless their favorite child is an actual front-runner, their delegates can expect to be released to support another candidate, but not before concessions are extracted. The object of a favorite-son strategy is to deny any candidate with a national following an easy first-ballot win. Our majoritarian mentality deplores the idea of a brokered convention and the imagery of the smoke-filled room, but a favorite-son strategy, if widely adopted, could have the interesting effect of pitting a party's base against itself. That might be more likely to happen among the Republicans, where a commitment to state rights could counterbalance other ideological imperatives. The power of a party "base" to dictate the nomination of an extremist has only grown with the democratization of the nomination process. Reintroducing an element of deliberation by forcing candidates to deal with favorite sons at the convention might, against the apparent odds, have a moderating influence on candidate selection. This still seems unlikely at present, but Cain's upset win in the straw poll at least inspires a sense of possibility that things may be different next year. 

23 September 2011

Candidates and crowds: who speaks for the GOP?

It can be argued that the Tea Party movement has added an element of democracy to the internal politics of the Republican party, and the news media seem to have picked up on that fact during the debates among contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination. While the exchanges between Gov. Perry and Mitt Romney dominate the quickie coverage of these events, in each of the last three joint appearances people in the audience have tried to steal the show by making their opinions known on controversial questions. First there were cheers for the death penalty and Perry's practice of it. Then there were cheers for the idea that improvident sick people should be left to die. Last night, audience members booed when an openly gay soldier asked the debaters whether they'd allow him to serve in the military. While one Republican blogger was quick to clarify that no more than two people actually booed the soldier, another acknowledges that assertive audience members are creating a problem for the GOP as a whole, rightfully so or not.

The charge made by anti-Republicans is clear enough: the anonymous audience members are the actual intolerant and inhumane voice of the Republican party, the hateful subconscious that can no longer be suppressed by the statesmenlike people on the stage. The answer to the charge also seems obvious: in each case no more than a handful of people spoke up, and it is unfair to say that they represent all Republicans. But the point can be made that the candidates never rebuked the audience boors. Perry was glad to defend his state's pace-setting resort to execution; Rep. Paul did not state plainly that people should not be left to die; Rick Santorum answered the gay soldier by stating that the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" conferred special privileges on homosexuals. It isn't my point, however, to insist that the candidates should have corrected the audience members. I prefer to suggest that these party debates are ideal settings for the airing of controversial views from the audience as well as the stage. If any given audience member doesn't represent the Republican party as a whole, then neither does any of the candidates until one of them is nominated. Republicans have to make a choice from the candidates on the stage -- but they also have a choice to make from the people in the audience. Each of those individuals probably wants to think that he speaks for the Republican party, and there are hostile people in the national audience who'd be happy to affirm that. These cheerleaders and hecklers have made grass-roots, democratic interventions into the Republican primary campaign. They've put their opinions and their agendas on the table, whether the candidates wanted them there or not. Should the candidates have to answer for those yahoos? Should they have to clarify whether the yahoos represent Republicanism or not? That's for all of us to decide.

22 September 2011

Union endorsements, unanimity and democracy

An update on the Rensselaer County (N.Y.) sheriff's race: after absentee ballots were counted, challenger Gary Gordon was declared the winner of the Conservative party primary over incumbent Jack Mahar by only six votes. Gordon was already assured of a place on the November ballot on the Democratic and Working Families lines, while Mahar remains on the Republican and Independence Party lines. Gordon was hailed as the one registered Conservative in the race by an ad purchased by SEARCO, the union representing the county sheriff's department employees, and the local paper has characterized the race for sheriff as a conflict between the union and its employer, Sheriff Mahar. Comments on the Troy Record's coverage reveal considerable division within employee ranks, apparently along clique lines, along with a lot of inane trolling and extensive administrative censorship. A letter published in today's Record questions how representative the advertised union endorsement of Gordon actually was. Edward Guerin is a corrections officer and a SEARCO member who contends that neither the union endorsement of Gordon nor the purchase of the ad in his favor were undertaken with input from the rank and file.

To state or even imply that every member of our union supports this ad and what it claims is not only untrue, but calls into question serious legal violations. No union meeting was held to discuss endorsing a candidate for sheriff. No vote was taken. In fact, no survey was ever taken.The decision to place this ad in the Times Union and The Record was made by only a few individuals. Union dues were spent on this ad without the consent or approval of every member of the union. In no way does the ad speak for the many members who do not agree with this endorsement. In fact, a tremendous number of union members, fully endorse Sheriff Jack Mahar for sheriff.

In fact, no such claim of unanimity was made in the SEARCO ad, unless you infer unanimity from a union endorsement. The ad states that SEARCO "strongly" endorsed Gordon, not that it did so unanimously. Guerin's closing claim that the ad was "grossly irresponsible, misleading and illegal" fails so long as you don't infer unanimity from the text of the ad. However, Guerin raises a valid question about the manner in which unions choose to endorse and subsidize political candidates. He describes a plainly undemocratic process, but I don't know if it was an exceptional process for SEARCO. Guerin has a legitimate beef if the union has made endorsements democratically in the past. If that's not the case, then his objection seems simply personal or partisan.

It's still fair to ask whether union endorsements should be determined democratically in all cases, but Guerin's objection reminds us of longstanding objections to union electioneering in general. Republicans in particular argue that union members' rights are violated in some way if the union endorses or donates to candidates whom individual members oppose. The premise is that members should not be coerced through the collection of dues into subsidizing politicians they don't like. By this standard, which is implicitly Guerin's as well, unless union support for any candidate is unanimous, someone's rights of conscience are being trampled upon. Guerin might still object had a majority of union members voted to endorse Gordon over Mahar, but should the law attend to his objections?

Unions enjoy the same political rights of corporate personhood as business corporations, according to the latest Supreme Court rulings. For any corporate person, the question arises of how, or by whom, decisions to donate money, and in the labor union case to explicitly endorse candidates, are made. As long as the law recognizes the political rights of corporate persons, a consistent standard ought to prevail for all such persons -- for business corporations and labor unions alike. If a board of directors, or a CEO, can make such political decisions without consulting stockholders, their union counterparts should enjoy the same prerogative. If unions must consult the rank and file before taking political actions, then business corporations should consult their rank-and-file, the shareholders. In either case, the political interventions of a corporate person need not be subject to a unanimity test. The political minority of shareholders and union members alike are SOL, yet bound by the same principle of majority rule, within constitutional limits, as American citizens as a whole. If a citizen can't carry out a line-item veto limiting how his tax money is spent, no member of a corporate person should expect to do so when it comes to political spending. If these are uncomfortable conclusions, then we should find some constitutional means to strip corporate persons -- including unions -- of the right to make political donations or buy political ads. Should we go further and deny unions the right (that business corporations usually don't exercise) of verbally endorsing candidates? That depends on whether your ideal of democracy allows any group of people to endorse, i.e. nominate a candidate for office, or whether you think individuals should never combine their voices before Election Day. There may not be easy answers to these questions, and there definitely aren't partisan ones.

21 September 2011

The age of the 'party-state'

The Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s continues to fascinate many self-style communists, and that fascination disturbs many non-communists. From the liberal perspective, the Cultural Revolution was a totalitarian nightmare of Mao-suited hordes chanting slogans and waving the "Little Red Book" while subjecting dissidents or "capitalist roaders" to humiliation, torture, or death. Understandably enough, liberals see it as an instance of "astroturfing," not a grass-roots uprising; instigated by Mao to terrorize his "moderate" rivals and restore his dominance. Communists see it differently. They take Mao seriously as a thinker and theoretician instead of dismissing him as a power-mad despot, and they see an authentic revolutionary impulse at work among the "Red Guards." Many self-styled Maoists see the Cultural Revolution as the furthest point of development toward true communism, but Alessandro Russo sees it as the moment when the Communist movement hit a wall of its own erection. Russo is one of the participants at the 2009 London conference on The Idea of Communism, and his contribution portrays the Cultural Revolution as a failed struggle between the philosophy of communism and the fact of the "party-state." He reminds us that the struggle resonated around the world, not only because young people romanticized Mao, but also because the party-state was a global phenomenon that transcended the Communist-Capitalist divide.

[T]he fact that [the Cultural Revolution] proved in the end to be an insoluble question in the framework of that political culture was not the particular consequence of a 'totalitarian' regime: in the mid '60s, all over the world, the party-state was the only conceivable place where politics could be organized. In 1966 in China, to admit or deny the possibility that an unlimited plurality of political seats could fully exist outside the CCP caused an irreversible split, which influenced all the following developments decisively....The demarcation line was, of course, between the party-state as the sole legitimate seat of politics and the claim of the 'Red Guards' to exist as independent entities able to formulate political declarations.

Russo elaborates on the Cultural Revolution in the context of philosophical communism, but his comment here is tantalizing. It may be tempting to equate the "party-state" with the "one-party state," but Russo's description is relevant even to polities where opposition parties were not forbidden by law. If some countries forbade a "plurality of political seats," others have forbidden it, beyond a cosmetic minimum, through mental self-censorship. If some regimes discourage subjects from imagining pluralism, citizens under other regimes seem simply incapable of imagining it. In every case, perhaps, a party-state exists, not only when one party monopolizes government and forbids opposition parties, but when government and politics themselves are imagined only in terms of parties -- when parties become the fundamental organizing principle of political life. Global liberalism encourages this tendency by making the existence of parties the measure of political liberty -- and then being satisfied as long as there's one strong opposition party in any given country. In the United States, acquiescence in the necessity of parties, not only as proof of liberty but as essential building blocks of government, has hardened into acquiescence in the permanence of the Republican-Democratic Bipolarchy that has prevailed since 1860. However dissatisfied Americans profess themselves to be with the reigning parties, they remain incapable, on the most recent evidence, of imagining an "unlimited plurality of political seats," and they remain convinced, despite all evidence, that only the two major parties are capable of governing. Is this Gramscian hegemony at work through the soft power of partisan propaganda, or is it an inevitable consequence of 150 years of party-statism? If the latter, what kind of cultural revolution, on the national or global level, could possibly change things? If communists are asking these questions, why can't the rest of us?

Palestine and the democracy of nations

A cognitive dissonance divides the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Israel, on one side, from a likely majority of the world's nations on the subject of the Palestinian Authority's expected petition for recognition from the General Assembly of the United Nations. The Americans and Israelis denounce the petition as a "shortcut to peace," the President arguing that the UN resolution will be no substitute for substantive negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. As far as I know, no proponent of the resolution sees it as that. Practically speaking, the vote, if it happens, will enact no more than the moral sense of the General Assembly that Palestine is rightfully a sovereign entity. To my knowledge, it in no way compels Israel to make peace with the Authority. Yet American Arabophobes and Islamophobes -- bigots, in short -- treat the resolution as if it would delegitimize Israel, while the Obama administration's objections betray a belief even among purportedly non-bigoted Americans in power that not just peace, but Palestinian national existence is subject to Israeli approval. No one is allowed to recognize Palestinian nationhood, Obama implies, until Israel is satisfied with Palestinian intentions as signified in a treaty. The Catch-22 of it all is that most Israelis will not acquiesce until they can trust Palestinians not to attack them, yet take every demand for recognition that Palestinians remain untrustworthy. Nothing short of an absolute eradication of Palestinian irredentism on an Orwellian scale could satisfy the Israelis in power, and even then Islamophobic stereotypes will leave Israelis and Americans alike suspicious of subterfuge. You can see why objective observers might actually seek a "shortcut" to peace, since the alternative depends on an agonizingly protracted erosion of Israeli bigotry and suspicion.

Should I not also include Arab and Islamic Judeophobia among the obstacles to peace? I list them separately because a simpler answer exists to these obstacles. Diplomats can calm the qualms of bigots by making actual treaties of alliance with Israel promising the Jewish state direct military assistance in the event of an attack by Palestine. Deterrence is the alternative to trust in the short term. If it's necessary to reassure the Islamophobes and Arab-haters that Palestine will be destroyed if it ever invades Israel -- and if you trust the Arabs enough to assume that such an invasion won't happen -- then an alliance with Israel will actually be a proof of that trust. And if the Palestinians truly have no irredentist intentions, they should not object, either. On the surface, it will still seem unfair to many observers, especially those who would rather wash their hands of the entire region. But if peace rather than death is your goal, this option shouldn't be rejected out of hand. Meanwhile, the vote on recognizing Palestine should go on without American filibusters -- and if I was a country, my vote would be for Palestine.

Update: Speaking of democracy, the MSNetwork is conducting a poll on whether the UN should recognize Palestine. As of 4:00 p.m. today, with approximately 68,000 votes tabulated, the verdict stood at 57% opposed to recognition, 29% in favor and the remainder undecided.

20 September 2011

The Republican-Communist convergence against 'socialism'

In its September 26 issue, Time magazine asked Gov. Perry, "Do you feel pressure to temper some of your rhetoric, like calling the Obama administration socialist?" The Texan answered: "No, I still believe they are socialist. Their policies prove that almost daily. Look, when all the answers emanate from Washington, D.C., whether it's education policy or health care policy, that is, on its face, socialism."

This is the part where I should slam Perry for his typical American ignorance of what socialism stands for, his possibly deliberate confusion of a system where the working class rules with some sort of hyper-centralized statism. However, as my recent reading has reminded me, American right-wingers aren't the only people to pejoratively identify "socialism" with the bureaucratic state. At least one self-described communist does so as well. Here's Antonio Negri, the erstwhile Red Brigades theorist now best known as the co-author of Empire and other trendy works of leftist theory, opining at a 2009 London conference, as recorded in Verso's The Idea of Communism anthology.

Being communist means being against the State. The State is the force that organizes, always normally yet always exceptionally, the relations that constitute capital and discipline the conflicts between capitalists and the proletarian labour force. This being against the State is directed against all the modes of organization of private property and the private ownership of the means of production, as well as the private exploitation of labour power and the private control of capital's circulation. But it is also against the public, that is, the state and national configurations of all these operations of alienation of the power of labour.

Being communist entails the recognition that the public is a form of alienation and exploitation of labour -- of common labour, in our case. So what is the public? As the great Rousseau said, the public is the enemy of private property, what belongs [itself] to nobody.' But it is just sophism to attribute to the State what actually belongs to everyone. The State says: 'The common does not belong to you, despite the fact that you made it, produced it in common, and invented it and organized it as common.' The State's manumission of the common, i.e. what we all produced and thus belongs to us, will go under the name of management, delegation and representation ... the implacable beauty of public pragmatism.

Therefore communism is the enemy of socialism because socialism is the classical form of this second model of alienation of proletarian power, which also requires a distorted organization of the production of its subjectivity. The perversions of 'real socialism' have neutralized a century of class struggle and dispelled all the illusions of the philosophy of history. It is interesting to see how 'real socialism,' despite initiating massive processes of collectivization, never questioned the disciplines of command, be they juridical, political, or pertaining to the human sciences. The institutional structure of socialism and its political polarities were produced by an ideology that arbitrarily opposed private to public -- whilst these, following Rousseau, overlap one another -- and sanctified a ruling class whose functions of command reproduced those of the capitalist
elite whilst they claimed to be self-elected 'vanguards'!

At the last minute (how's that for dramatic editing on my part?) Negri unconsciously incorporates a version of the Republican critique of "socialism" into his own communist critique. All the rhetoric about "freedom" aside -- think of it as the functional equivalent of Negri's theoretical jargon -- the Republican complaint against "socialism" as allegedly practiced by the Democratic party is that it enables a bureaucratic clique to usurp the power that rightfully belongs to the producing classes, i.e. the entrepreneurs or Negri's "capitalist elite." Negri seems to say the same thing: socialists (though his account seems to include Bolsheviks as well) are nothing but usurpers, seeking the power the capitalists have instead of truly revolutionizing the "disciplines of command" by undoing the power structure altogether. In his formulation, the "public" (as opposed to the "common") is seen as belonging to the state, not the people, to be managed by a "vanguard" political class, not the people.

Whether you're a Communist on the Negri model or a Republican on the Perry model, the problem with "socialists" is their exploitation of politics to thwart the will of society's rightful rulers on the premise of representing or regulating them. The two groups differ deeply, of course, over who society's rightful rulers are, though both will pay lip service to "democracy," except when it puts "socialists" in power. Of the two, based on the evidence of The Idea of Communism, the leftists are more honest about their displeasure with "liberal" democracy -- it's too compromised by individualism in most places to their taste -- while Republicans, apart from the fringes, tend to suppress their own inherent objections in order to maintain their electability. But for the latter, attacking "socialism" is arguably a kind of code for attacking democracy, since the argument against Democratic "socialism" is basically an argument against Democratic voters willing "socialist" policies.

It would seem that "democracy" and "socialism" are synonymously anathema to ideologues everywhere. In that case, the usual punch line would be that "socialists" are doing something right, but in the face of evidence to the contrary I'll suggest more modestly that there might be something right about the ideal of "socialism," however broadly defined, to make Republicans and Communists hate it so.

19 September 2011

Stupid is as stupid says?

With Gov. Perry practically asking for Democratic insults by joking about his poor academic record on the campaign trail, Kathleen Parker attempts to warn critics against pouncing too quickly.

There are, of course, lots of ways to be smart and lots of ways to be dumb. We often talk about book smarts and street smarts, as though the two are mutually exclusive. We know from experience that brilliant book people can be nincompoops when it comes to common sense, while people lacking formal education can be brilliant problem-solvers. We know these things, yet we seem to have fallen in love with the notion that only book smarts matter when it comes to the nation’s problems. At least Democrats have. Republicans, despite having a few brainiacs in their midst, have taken the opposite approach, emphasizing instead the value of being just regular folk.

Parker is, of course, perpetuating stereotypes in both cases. The party of the poor, which is what Democrats still claim to be, can hardly argue that only academics can lead us. It's not so much an actual Democratic assertion of academic superiority as it is their disparagement of the forced folksiness and apparent contempt for higher learning indulged in by Perry and his predecessor in Texas that gets Democrats, liberals and progressives accused of elitism. With the elitism charge comes the ivory tower fallacy, the assumption that liberals privilege theoretical speculation over practical know-how because they lack experience of practical life. As for Republicans:

Republicans have earned some of the ridicule aimed their way. Many are willing to dumb themselves down to win the support of the party’s base, preferring to make fun of evolution and global warming rather than take the harder route of explaining, for example, that a “theory” when applied to evolution has a specific scientific meaning. It isn’t just some random idea cooked up in a frat house.

Nevertheless, Parker believes that Republican anti-intellectuals have an advantage with the electorate, simply because " most people in this country didn’t go to Ivy League colleges — or any college for that matter. Most haven’t led privileged lives of any sort, but nonetheless have unspoiled hearts and are willing to help any who would help themselves." But where do these people get the impression that liberals, even "Ivy Leaguers," won't let them do this? Where do they get the idea that Ivy Leaguers want everyone to depend on them? From the Ivy Leaguers themselves? I suspect not. Parker advises that "until someone emerges to remind Americans of who they are in a way that neither insults their intelligence nor condescends to their less-fortunate circumstances, smart money goes to the “stupid” politicians." This takes for granted what remains unproven. Where is the condescension? Where can it be found in writing, or on tape, or on video? Whatever liberals say, it probably sounds like condescension to those who don't feel dependent on government, or on the Ivy League, but where did they get the idea that anyone was saying they were dependent, or should be? To me it sounds like one group feels insulted on behalf of other groups who don't necessarily share the feeling. Their attitude requires a more critical examination, no matter how condescending it may seem, than Parker is willing to provide.

Three Degrees of Republicanism

Cal Thomas's commentary on the now-infamous exchange between Wolf Blitzer and Rep. Paul at last week's Republican debate illustrates the subtle yet significant distinctions that exist within the Party of Lincoln at this moment in history. Blitzer asked a question -- which Thomas said "revealed something about the questioner" -- that many people, I suppose, have wanted to ask of Republicans: if someone without insurance has a medical crisis that renders him comatose and endangers his life, "are you saying society should just let him die?" As Thomas shows, 21st century Republicanism offers at least three answers, including his own.

1. The rabble. As Thomas reports, "Some in the audience shouted 'yes.'" Thomas himself clearly disapproves of this response, though he doesn't condemn it directly. Instead, he makes the snarky observation: "They must have come from the previous debate where Gov. Rick Perry's pride in executing convicted murderers was widely applauded." It'd seem that Thomas has a problem with that, too, though it's unclear whether it's a disagreement on principle or a disagreement over tone. The tone does bother him, and it should. Those anonymous shouts were the voice of the lumpenbourgeoisie, if not of the Tea Party movement in general, and they confirm everyone else's worst fears about the movement -- that they don't give a damn whether other people live or die. It remains unclear how many Republicans or Tea partiers believe that, but we had better remember that some, if not many, do feel that way.

2. Ron Paul. The Texas solon was following up on his first answer to Blitzer, when he'd said that the theoretical uninsured man "should do ... whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself." He was contesting "this whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody" when Blitzer interjected his provocative follow-up question. Paul appeared to press on with what he meant to say without responding to the raised moral stakes. "We've given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves." Responding to the first question, about who should pay for the uninsured man's treatment, Paul answered, "Our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it." Thomas called Paul's first answer "powerful," but felt the need to elaborate on the implications of Paul's second answer, the shouts of the rabble perhaps making that need more urgent.

3. Cal Thomas. The columnist clarified that "federal law prohibits anyone from being turned away from a hospital emergency room, whether in a coma or not," before moving on to the moral issue raised by the Blitzer-Paul-rabble exchange. He puts a communitarian spin on Paul's individual responsibility scenario, putting greater emphasis on the role and responsibility of "our neighbors, our friends, etc." If individuals seem to have grown more dependent upon government, Thomas suggests, that's in part because people in general -- families, neighbors, etc., have dropped out of the habit of looking out for each other. "Now, in our two-income households when we buy so much stuff we must rent public storage units for the overflow, we hardly have time for our own families, much less the concerns of others. How many of us know our neighbors?"

Thomas goes on to talk up a British plan proposed by the ruling Conservative party in which government ministers would "adopt" jobless families and help them acquire skills and find jobs. The idea seems contemptibly superficial, but it inspires Thomas to make a more important point that separates him from the Republican rabble and the individualists like Rep. Paul. In one sentence, the point is: "If we want smaller government, we will have to pick up the slack." In an admittedly generous reading, this means that his alternative to dependence (or "addiction," as he sometimes calls it) on government is not simply "sink or swim," but at the very least a transitional period of dependence upon the community, upon extended family, neighbors, social institutions (including churches), etc. Thomas's disdain for the rabble who cheered the idea of letting the poor simply die suggests strongly that, for him at least, ending the welfare state is not meant to winnow out or eliminate the weak. The big question, of course, is whether he or the rabble speak for the majority of 2011 model Republicans.

From a non-Republican perspective, we can find fault with all three degrees of Republicanism. While Thomas at least indicates that he respects life as an end unto itself, his stance begs the question: why not recognize democratic government as the neighborhood writ large, or as the means by which all citizens help one another? Before we credit him too much for his apparently charitable impulses, we should ask whether Thomas makes too much of them? Like many Americans, he seems to think that an act is virtuous only if it's voluntary, but loses that character if it becomes compulsory through the collection of taxes and so on. That is, the virtue doesn't really lie in the benefit to the recipient but in the merit acquired by the philanthropist. The charitable are like the pacifists: admirable in many respects but on an unacknowledged level more interested in their own karma and salvation than in the common good. On some level they reserve the right as individuals to define the good rather than allow that the good may define them. This may sound harsh, but it's better than saying that someone is so self-centered that he doesn't give a damn whether anyone else lives or dies, which seems to be all too true, as Thomas himself recognizes, about some in the GOP today. He might say that delegating moral responsibility to the state is a form of personal abdication that allows everyone to take persistent mass dependence for granted, and that'd be something to debate about. But if his ultimate commitment is to life rather than "responsibility," that debate might have interesting results.

Meanwhile, there's probably no debating the rabble in the cheap seats. Heard and not seen, they reduce themselves to radio emissions and trolling anonymity, opinions in the place of humanity. One can only hope that they're a loud minority, but one should not minimize the danger they represent to the country. If a politician gets into power who represents their point of view, even Cal Thomas might end up joining the opposition.

15 September 2011

Hate Bipolarchy? Blame Republicans

Mike Lofgren describes himself as a former "GOP Operative," a "professional staff member on Capitol Hill" who recently retired. From retirement, he repudiates the Republican party and challenges the growing critique of Bipolarchy by insisting strongly that "both parties are not rotten in quite the same way," and that the GOP is far worse. Lofgren does not deny Democrats' multiple faults, but he contends that those who blame the two-party system for our current political troubles are making indiscriminate judgments -- just as the Republicans intended.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner. A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s - a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn.

Corporate media centrism only compounds this simplistic tendency to hold the two parties equally to blame for gridlock and stagnation, Lofgren argues. "The pundit's ironic deprecation falls like the rain on the just and unjust alike, on those who precipitated the needless crisis and those who despaired of it," he writes. Further:

This constant drizzle of "there the two parties go again!" stories out of the news bureaus, combined with the hazy confusion of low-information voters, means that the long-term Republican strategy of undermining confidence in our democratic institutions has reaped electoral dividends. The United States has nearly the lowest voter participation among Western democracies; this, again, is a consequence of the decline of trust in government institutions - if government is a racket and both parties are the same, why vote? And if the uninvolved middle declines to vote, it increases the electoral clout of a minority that is constantly being whipped into a lather by three hours daily of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News.

Behind this Republican scheming is a threefold agenda that Lofgren describes with as much absence of nuance or objectivity as if he'd been a Democratic staffer for thirty years. His inside intelligence reveals -- surprise, surprise, surprise -- that the GOP caters exclusively to its richest donors, worships military might, and aspires to a kind of theocracy. He distinguishes his attack from conventional diatribes with his denial that the plutocratic and theocratic elements in the party are ultimately irreconcilable, taking as proof to the contrary that the Koch brothers give money to Rep. Bachmann. If his intent is to denounce the Republicans as a kind of cult, his achievement is to appear less like an apostate than a convert dealing now in Democratic demonology.

Lofgren would deny that charge, with constant condemnation of Democratic ineptitude to back him up. In his view, Democrats are incompetent, tone-deaf and downright cowardly in the face of Republican attacks. But what does he propose as an alternative? Precisely nothing. Nor do any of his apt attacks on Democratic inadequacy get to the structural incentive for Democratic do-nothingism, which is exactly that fear of the Republican party that Lofgren stokes so vigorously. To insist that Republicans are an apocalyptic menace to American institutions, as Lofgren pretty much does, pressures Democrats to do nothing more than not be Republicans. That immunizes them against pressure from their own base, so long as no one can see any alternative to Democratic complacency but Republican nightmares. Lofgren can lash the Democrats all he likes, but from what I can tell he has no answer to the current crisis other than somehow shoring up Democratic resolve and encouraging Democratic assertiveness. The cynics who condemn both parties may see matters more clearly and objectively when they expose how the parties thrive on mutual fear. That's not to say that some Republicans aren't a special threat in their own right, but it is a warning that the Democratic party won't save us until it's good and ready, and even then on its terms rather than ours. A hysterical attack on Republicanism like Lofgren's (seconded here by Andrew Sullivan) benefits the Democrats, despite his brickbats, more than anyone else. Anyone looking for a solution to the Republican attack on "government" within the confines of Bipolarchy will either look in vain or else find themselves looking for a solution to some Democratic problem before too long. At this point, to condemn both parties isn't cynical, unless only apathy results. To criticize Bipolarchy is radical, and the critical radicalism that results may be part of the antidote to the reactionary radicalism now prevalent in the GOP. But defeating one party simply isn't enough.

14 September 2011

American Diogenes: Juan Williams's quest for 'honest debate'

When National Public Radio fired Juan Williams for admitting to anxiety in the presence of traditionally dressed Muslims, he accepted consolation from his friends at Fox News, where he often appeared to defend the liberal viewpoint. Years before, President Bush told Williams that he'd admired a book Williams had written about black America, but was afraid to publicize the fact because he assumed that his recommendation would discredit the book among liberals and many blacks. Karl Rove says that Williams is "a liberal with whom conservatives can have an honest debate," but Williams himself finds honest debate increasingly hard to find in America. In his new book Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, Williams takes his own case as proof; Americans can't air their honest concerns about Islam and Muslims, he laments, without being accused of bigotry. That's just one instance of political correctness suppressing "honest debate," and it might serve to clarify what Williams means by those magic worlds. An honest debate, one infers, is one in which diverse opinions are aired without accusations of hatred attached. Williams can get along with Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, presumably, because he can disagree strongly with them -- Williams confessed his own fears in order to criticize O'Reilly for blanket comments about Muslims -- without accusing them of hating him. He hopes that Americans of diverse views can talk to each other without treating each other as enemies -- presumably without the right being accused of wanting to starve the left or the left being accused of wanting to enslave the right. But he worries that Americans of diverse views are talking to each other less and less often. The loudest voices preach to segregated choirs, refusing to listen to other points of view and ignoring entirely those who consider compromise necessary -- those whom Williams deems truest to the American political tradition.

Williams's book is the usual collection of chapters on hot-button topics, -- interestingly, global warming is conspicuously absent from the discussion -- but the unifying thread is his attempt to explain how the U.S. has reached this dismal moment in the history of discourse. He identifies a number of factors, both historical and mercenary, encouraging polarization and discouraging honest debate. Political correctness comes to the fore in the 1970s and, while still identified with the left, is increasingly adopted by the right, especially by the religious right. Political correctness seems like a natural recourse when no one group of people can feel certain that they speak for America, or that America represents them.

[A]s the country has grown more diverse, as women have gained a larger voice in picking winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas, and as Hispanics, Asians, and blacks also have a say in politics and culture, we find ourselves looking across a broken, factionalized landscape. In this new reality, many Americans feel they have lost power, and an increasing number are worried they are in the minority....The big changes in twentieth-century America -- aside from the atomic bomb and technology -- have been about social movements for equal rights for women and minorities. They have left much of the nation, including women and minorities, with an identity crisis, a new hunger for some scrap of common identity, and heightened competition for influence over the country's future as we Americans safeguard identities, both for individuals and groups. We are all adopting the vocabulary of the aggrieved, and it comes at the expense of some notion that we all share a common cause. The rising tide has been replaced by zero-sum.(54-5)

Meanwhile, self-interested actors, from media bosses to website enforcers and professional fundraisers, exacerbate our balkanization. Talk radio (especially Rush Limbaugh), Fox News and MSNBC all come in for abuse, though Williams is probably tougher on Limbaugh out of respect to Fox. Overall, however, "More and more people look for one-stop shopping -- news coverage they can trust to digest the news for them and help them reach a conclusion...What they get is predictable political spin, along with big doses of fear, fright and fury"(272). Despite the growing popularity of partisan media, Williams claims that "many Americans have lost trust in the news media" because the media "only offer a one-note performance: their niche brand." While Williams denounces the habit of playing to "the base," he actually underplays the importance of partisanship by emphasizing the media's role. He notes any number of issues that had not been important, or very vehemently debated, before the 1960s or 1970s, but apart from his demographic speculations and his attacks on self-interested media, he doesn't inquire deeply into what happened politically that may have accelerated the trends he abhors. But it seems obvious that the imperative to play to a "base" must follow from a profound empowerment of "base" voters, and that seems to have come with the greater emphasis on party primaries, at the expense of the bad old "smoke filled rooms," ever since the 1960s. My point is not to criticize the greater democracy at work in primary elections, but, predictably enough, to condemn a Bipolarchy that recognizes only two real choices for all American voters, but allows isolated and insular "base" voters to make those choices for everyone else. I can't help feeling that Williams could have paid more attention to the imperatives of partisanship alongside the imperatives of corporate media.

Williams tries to shame us into "honest debate," calling us cowards for avoiding it. But his own narrative raises a problem for honest debate. He wants us to reach across the metaphorical aisle and talk honestly with people who hold different views, on the understanding that none of us actually hate each other. But much of his book is dedicated to describing large constituencies who, on his own account, actually do hate each other. How do you know you won't find yourself talking to one of those thin-skinned, quick-tempered base-ists? I suppose Williams would say that's where courage comes in. He may even wish to minimize the number of Americans actually possessed by hate. He insists repeatedly, for instance, that Bill O'Reilly isn't an intolerant ogre, and he has more experience with the man than I do. Is the same true about O'Reilly's audience -- or Rush Limbaugh's -- or Keith Olbermann's? I guess it's up to us to find out.

13 September 2011

Dems may lose NY9 special election; who else will?

Republicans are poised to gloat over the expected results of a special election today to fill the seat surrendered by the disgraced Democrat Anthony Weiner, who represented New York's 9th Congressional District. Long considered a safe "blue" district, it has seen a surge of support for the Republican candidate Bob Turner, who has taken the lead in the latest opinion polls. Analysts attribute this to everything from disgust with Weiner to disgust with President Obama. Meanwhile, depending on how close the actual vote proves, Socialist Worker candidate Chris Hoeppner may emerge as a "spoiler" for the Democrats. Defying the long odds set when Gov. Cuomo called a quick election to replace Weiner, Hoeppner quickly gathered the signatures needed to appear on the ballot, and has appeared in at least some of the candidate debates -- though not all, as this somewhat sympathetic profile proves. While many pre-election reports note that Hoeppner is getting "just" 3-4% in opinion polls, that's probably much more than any candidate with "socialist" in his party name has gotten in a poll in a while. Here's a relevant excerpt from WNYC's "Empire" blog:

He says he doesn’t have anything personally against either candidate, but sees them as indistinguishable on the majority of issues.
“There’s not any fundamental difference,” he said — and that goes for everyone, including President Obama. He said the campaign, for him, is about raising the broader issues facing workers, and encouraging people to get more directly involved in a social struggle he sees as inevitable.
“They want us to bare [
sic] the brunt of the crisis they crated, the capitalist [sic],” he said as we turn off Cross Bay towards the debate at St. Barnabas Church. “Workers didn’t create it, yet they’re cutting our hospitals, our schools, our pay.”
Hoeppner says he’s opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and against the bailouts of the financial system. He says he’s for a smaller government, devoid of a bloated bureaucracy. He considers health care a fundamental right, opposes Obama’s immigration policies in favor of full legalization “for the unity of the working class,” and wants to protect the social safety net against any cuts, from anyone.
“When I got out in campaign in Forest Hills, in Sheepshead Bay, people don’t want to talk to me if I say I’m a politician. I have to explain to them, I’m not a politician like you know,” Hoeppner said. “I work as a machine operator inspector in an electronics plant. I’m not a banker; I’m a worker, OK? And I’m a socialist, and then I say, I’m for jobs, fighting for jobs.”
We park and talk for a bit. I’m told I and other reporters are behind because we get caught up on the perception that people don’t like the word “socialist.”
“That’s not a barrier,” Hoeppner said. “The crisis is so deep that people are looking for an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.”

Not so many people are looking right now, given the poll numbers, but the early signs of a coming trend will likely be hard to see. It will be a significant achievement if Hoeppner's vote total matches his poll numbers, but if that happens, and if the Republican wins by a margin smaller than the Socialist Worker vote, prepare for a firestorm of Democratic rage directed at the independent candidate, who would then be accused of throwing the election to the forces of reaction. Like Republicans, Democrats want Americans to think that when their party loses, everyone loses. Apart from who actually wins today's election, the vote in the 9th District may measure how many Americans have decided that they lose whether a Democrat or a Republican wins. It may be that many Americans believe that already, if that's why people don't vote -- but a decent turnout for a Socialist Worker or any third party would be an encouraging sign that some Americans are willing to do something positive about it.

Bonus: here's the post from d. eris's Poli-Tea blog that tipped me off to what Hoeppner was up to.

Update, Sept. 14: Apparently those polls took unrepresentative samples, or else the support professed for Hoeppner was purely moral. The latest numbers show him getting less than 1% of the vote, while Turner cruised to victory. As predicted, the result is being read as a repudiation of Democratic economic policies, but some sources suggest that, if any third party influenced the election, it was the Zionists. I don't know whether this is a presumption based on the district's demographics, or if exit polling will confirm the assumption that foreign policy was a major issue. I can actually imagine Democrats spinning it that way just to deny that economic policy did them in this time. In any event, I assume that Mammon, not Yahweh, is the favored god of that district this year.

Idiot of the Week nominee: Amy Kremer

The Republican presidential candidates held a struggle session in Florida last night before a gathering of the Tea Party Express. The object, from the evidence presented after the fact, was for the contenders to denounce each other for their various deviations from the correct ideological line, with Gov. Perry, as the most popular man of the moment, coming in for the most criticism. His deviations ranged from allowing undocumented immigrants to attend state colleges to requiring teenage girls to be inoculated against HPV -- a requirement Rep. Bachmann traced to a donation from the vaccine manufacturer. Perry scoffed at the notion that he could be bought for as little as $5,000 when he has had more than $30,000,000 in donations to deal with. Presiding over the struggle session was Amy Kremer, a co-chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, who opened the games by declaring: "We are here because we, the people, are going to choose the next Republican nominee for President, not the Republican party!" [Stormy applause]

The Republican nominee for President will be chosen by delegates elected by state primaries and caucuses next year, who will assemble at the Republican National Convention. Who chooses the delegates? In most cases, registered Republicans and no one else. In fact, it was my impression that most Tea Partiers desired that the Republican nominee be chosen that way. After the 2008 presidential election, I heard many an unhappy reactionary blame the McCain-Palin ticket's poor showing on open primaries in crucial states that allowed liberal saboteurs and misguided others to dilute Republican ideological purity by favoring the allegedly moderate (or neoconservative) Arizonan. In other words, those unhappy reactionaries claimed that the "we, the people," and not the Republican party, had nominated Sen. McCain for President -- and were wrong to do so. But now, Kremer promises us, "we, the people" will make a better choice. Is this because she or the Express now demands open primaries everywhere? If so, I'm not aware of it. Unless someone tells me otherwise, I assume their preference to be that Republicans, and not the unreliable remainder of "we, the people," choose the GOP candidate. Her declaration of last night sounds good as mere sound, but leaves something to be desired on paper...unless I've missed the point. Could that point be that not all Republicans are "we, the people?" I'm sure many Republicans will want to know the answer.

12 September 2011


A day after the great commemorations of the festival of resilience, a sour note was sounded on the front page of the Albany Times Union by reporter Paul Grondahl, who caught an eyeful of inanity at the sacred site downstate.

The vendors were lined up three to a corner, hawking small American flags two for $10 and "Freedom Tees" and 9/11 baseball caps and cheap baubles with ghostly outlines of the fallen towers. Church groups of every stripe passed out glossy postcards, trying to drum up business. Police in riot gear held back a noisy protest with about 300 conspiracy theorists who chanted, "9/11 was an inside job!" They held large banners with slogans such as "The Bush Regime Engineered 9/11. ...

Across the street, the hate-filled rants about 9/11 conspiracies rose in pitch. A grief-stricken woman emerged from viewing the displays of 9/11 artifacts inside St. Paul's and shook her fist at the protesters across the street. "I want to punch you in the face," she yelled.
Three young men shooting a rap video sauntered down the street. One held a boom box that pumped out a beat. They glared into a high-def camera, hands grabbing at crotches, blurting out profanity-laced rhymes about
Osama bin Laden and Barack Obama. A woman with a frizzy mane of blonde hair walked through the crowd naked from the waist up, with a mustache scrawled on her lip with a black Sharpie pen. She carried a Leica camera and was apparently engaged in some sort of performance art or gender protest. She stopped to talk with a group of photographers she knew and laughed about how the cops were afraid to
stop her.Then there were the gawkers, thick masses of tourists more intent on photographing each other with cellphones than listening to the names of victims being read or the personal messages offered by family members.

In the past, when Americans wanted to be mindful of terrible events and their losses from them, their leaders called them to prayer and fasting. In our happily secular age many of us can do without the prayer, but some equivalent of fasting, or of mortification, might be in order, if our purpose is to mourn and not to praise ourselves for our sensitivity and resilience as if we were modern, materialist pharisees. It might be an aid to contemplation if the news networks were to go dark for the day rather than compete to best reflect our collective narcissism. Of course, that would defeat the purpose, for the scope of remembrance yesterday was certainly tailored to the content needs of the 24-hour news media. Did we really need to remember so much, so publicly and regularly, before the media needed us to? To ask is not to prefer forgetting, but to ask further what we really remember, and what is worth remembering. Are we any wiser after yesterday, or even after ten years? About certain things -- perhaps. About others -- most likely not.

Public employee unions and party politics in Rensselaer County -- and in the future?

Can we agree that it's unusual when a third-party primary campaign generates paid advertising? It certainly struck me that way when I saw a campaign ad in the Troy paper this morning for tomorrow's Conservative primary in Rensselaer County, where candidates for sheriff and district attorney will be chosen. The ad was paid for by the Sheriff's Employees Association of Rensselaer County, which represents "nearly 200 employees of the Rensselaer County Sheriff's Department." The union has endorsed Gary Gordon for the Conservative line, to oppose the incumbent sheriff, Jack Mahar. Mahar has already been endorsed by the Republican and Independence parties, while Gordon is already assured of the Democratic and Working Families lines in the November election. But before you assume that Gordon, on the strength of those endorsements, would make an odd Conservative candidate, the SEARCO ad identifies him as "the ONLY registered Conservative in this Primary Election."

Many New Yorkers long ago realized that the Conservative, Independence and Working Families parties rarely stand for anything other than their own spots on the state ballot, but looking behind the lines, there's obviously a real conflict here. Clear the parties off the board and you see a public employee union trying to depose its boss, the sheriff, for reasons that are partly suggested here. Public employee unions are, arguably, in a unique position to do this, and independent parties are simply an instrument they can use. At first glance, a "Conservative" party should be anathema to a public employee union, but this would not be the first time that union members colonized a "Conservative" party to gain leverage over their elected bosses. Presumably, it's a more effective tactic when the boss, i.e. the incumbent, is a Republican like Sheriff Mahar. Whether SEARCO members are themselves registered in numbers great enough to decide a Conservative primary remains to be seen. Beyond that, a defeat tomorrow won't end Mahar's tenure; November will decide his fate. Nevertheless, here's another instance of unions acting collectively in politics but skipping the step of forming a labor party. Like the Tea Partiers, union activists seem convinced that primaries are the most effective way to punish unsatisfactory representatives. You'll know they're right when the major parties begin pressing for laws requiring primary voters to have been party members for a minimum period of time, in order to limit the short-term effects of hostile colonization. If parties are not simply passive vehicles for whoever can take them over, but have permanent institutional interests of their own, union or activist colonization cannot last long as an insurgent tactic. If colonizing a party becomes more trouble than it's worth, creating new parties and appealing to all the people, rather than swamping a small pond, may finally be the only options left.

11 September 2011

On Physics and Political Correctness

In my comments on Naomi Klein's invocation of "physics" to explain this summer's riots in Great Britain, I may have left the impression that the moralist tendency to deny the physics of a situation -- that is, the inevitability of a reaction to an oppressive provocation -- is a particular feature of the right-wing mentality. All it took to correct that impression for myself was to pick up a copy of Juan Williams's Muzzled, his account of his firing from National Public Radio for admitting, while appearing on The O'Reilly Factor, that he worried whenever he shared passage with people in Muslim garb. Williams's own experience is a jumping-off point for attempts to explain the absence of "honest" political debate in the U.S. and the general thinning of the national skin when it comes to critical discussion. I'll address his theses at another time, but in the context of his own scandal it seems clear that the political correctness that demanded his removal from NPR is based on a denial of "physics." In this case, the physics involved is the inevitable anxiety many Americans will feel in the company of sartorially observant Muslims, given the terrorist war being waged against the U.S. by groups dedicated to the defense of traditionalist Islam. From left or right, "physics" is denied when someone says, "No matter what, you must not..." A right-winger will say: no matter how poor you are, no matter who you blame for not having work, you have no right to riot or steal. A "politically correct" liberal will say: no matter what Muslims have done in the name of Islam, you must not fear Muslims, and you certainly must not admit fearing Muslims in public. In each case, moralism insists that free will and free choice make no bad conduct or bad thought an inevitable matter of Kleinian physics. But can political science determine the truth of that assertion? Can people be so well trained morally -- brainwashed, to use right-wing terminology, or hegemonized, to borrow from the left -- that they will always be able to check impulses exacerbated by adversity? Regardless of the answer, it probably is inevitable that any ruling class or clique will try to train the masses to resist the impulse to resist. Nor are such efforts always unreasonable or morally suspect. On the politically correct side, for instance, even if you concede that most Americans won't be able to help feeling anxiety at the sight of a traditional Muslim, you can still deny vehemently that people can't be expected not to attack Muslims who appear suspicious. As a rule, none of us should want any of us to behave impulsively when reason is an option. But is reason always an option? I'd like to think so, yet not as a check on the impulse to resist but as a channel that directs resistance and makes it more effective. Resistance is inevitable, I presume, but whether the form it takes is just as inevitable, whether resistance to austerity must take the form of selfish looting, for instance, requires a more sophisticated political science to determine.

08 September 2011

In defense of career politicians

Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post columnist, has gotten sick and tired of aspiring politicians railing against "career politicians." She finds it absurd for former governor Romney and former governor Palin to criticize rivals like Governor Perry while disparaging experience in government. In a column this week she tries to refute some of the arguments against career politicians without looking like an elitist. Some of her arguments have the ring of common sense, but the arguments against career politicians aren't really grounded in common sense.

Imagine this line of argument applied to another job. “Unlike my competition, I haven’t spent my life in the oil industry,” an aspirant to the chief executive post at Exxon Mobil announces. “I’m no career retailer,” crows a would-be Wal-Mart head.

This line of argument won't convince anyone who doesn't believe that politics is the same sort of vocation as business. The distrust of career politicians is grounded in a persistent belief that politics is an exception to and, on some level, an imposition on normal life that should ideally be done without. On that assumption, experience and expertise as a politician or bureaucrat is not equivalent to expertise as a manager or salesman. Even among people with a more positive view of politics, political careerism is suspect because it implies self-interest on the part of the career politician. From a small-r republican standpoint, careerism compromises public service if the career politician is presumed to pursue politics in order to enrich himself, even if only by collecting a salary. From a capital-R Republican standpoint, the career politician is suspected of encouraging and perpetuating dependence on government so that he or she will have a steady income. In nearly every other profession the careerist is expected to want to make money, but we seem to want to make statesmanship an exception. Self-interest is a danger in any responsible position, but only from politicians is selflessness demanded.

Marcus is careful not to claim that career politicians have unique or exclusive qualifications for government. She calls for a broader "mixture of experiences and backgrounds" in government, and insists that "politics isn't rocket science." On the other hand, with Publius (James Madison in this case) as her authority, she asserts that politics requires "a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” In her opinion, Madison's requirement of "knowledge" refutes the "romantic" longing for "Cincinnati," citizens who enter politics when needed, but return to private life when their immediate work is done. "A government composed entirely of Cincinnati would be dangerously ineffective," she writes. I'm not sure if Madison would agree. The question is: what kind of knowledge is needed to govern, and how easily can it be acquired? Any American of the Founding generation would presume that such knowledge was as much within the reach of the American Cincinnatus, George Washington, as within the reach of Madison or any other "career politician" of his time. On the other hand, they would not concede that such knowledge was within the reach of everyone. Their ideal was for people to nominate recognized leaders of proven talent, for whom a capacity for statesmanship was implicit. The question updated is: does statesmanship as the Founders envisioned it require specialized training and a career commitment to politics and electioneering, or is it within the capabilities of anyone with, say, a master's degree in a practical field of knowledge?

A related question is whether Americans today recognize statesmanship as a specific virtue, a branch of knowledge, or anything at all? The distrust of politics that fuels distrust of career politicians seems to imply distrust of the very idea of statesmanship to the extent that the term stands for government or, worse, rulership. Democracy, however, and even democratic republicanism would seem to require a certain degree of statesmanship from every American citizen. Perhaps we should all be career politicians if that's understood to mean a lifelong vigilant commitment to the public good. Many of us seem to think that we can have some sort of democracy without politics, or at least the "spontaneous order" of commerce, but the opposite is more likely true. Those who fear career politicians should ask themselves what they have done or can do to make them unnecessary. Otherwise their resentment is a mere avoidance of shame.