31 October 2011

Eric Alterman: Who needs third parties? We have Obama!

Writing for The Nation, Eric Alterman deems Thomas Friedman's longing for a third party delusional. He literally suggests that Friedman's campaign is a case of "temporary insanity" before making the possibly more insulting suggestion that right-wing propaganda has warped Friedman's mind. Friedman, of course, has been urging the creation of a "radical center" party to combat both right-wing intransigence and Democratic dysfunction -- but the suggestion that the Democratic party is in any way dysfunctional  or a detriment to national discourse leaves Alterman questioning Friedman's mental state. The way Alterman sees it, the Obama administration has been advocating exactly the sort of "Grand Bargain" Friedman considers necessary for national survival, while Republicans alone are to blame for the failure to consummate such a bargain.

Alterman latches onto a Friedman column that denounces both Obama and Speaker Boehner for "walking away" from negotiations and not taking their respective cases to the people so they can pressure their representatives into bargaining. For Alterman that's a meaningless demand; Friedman may as well try to "make" Republicans compromise. He seems to miss Friedman's point, or his desire, which is to have someone decisively discredit the GOP/Tea Party position, as Obama is failing to do. He also seems to prove Friedman's point about Democrats when he dismisses the idea of placing Medicare and Social Security cuts on the table. Doing so, Alterman protests, would "give away his party's political advantages" and force "a much tougher election fight" on Democrats. How can Alterman say that Obama is already offering the "Grand Bargain" in one paragraph and say that he shouldn't in the next?

The obvious answer is that Alterman doesn't believe in the Grand Bargain or any bargain, but in total victory for the Democratic party. What Alterman objects to is Friedman's existence that the two-party system, rather than the Republican party alone, is responsible for the present political impasse. He accuses Friedman of sharing the President's own fantasy of "bipartisan harmony," while dismissing Friedman's tripartisan (for starters) option as a "magical solution." For Alterman, Friedman's third-party advocacy somehow defeats the his purpose of "calling on voters to elect more candidates who agree with the agenda the columnist espouses." It's obvious enough to Alterman, of course, that the easiest way to that goal is to go all in for the Democratic party. The only thing needful in his mind is to attack and defeat Republicans. Then all will be right with the United States. Tell that to the occupiers who enjoyed the blessings of sensitive, egalitarian Democratic rule in Atlanta and Oakland last week.

Friedman's own view, right or wrong, is that Obama has reacted to Republican intransigence by moving, however slowly, in an irresponsibly leftist direction away from the kind of Grand Bargain that Friedman readily affirms that the President had advocated. Friedman doesn't see politics as the Republican party vs. the Forces of Good. Instead, he suspects that Bipolarchy guarantees that Republican intransigence will be answered by Democratic intransigence. Writing on October 4, Friedman made fairly clear what he hopes a "radical center" challenge to Bipolarchy can accomplish. His wildest hope is that a strong independent campaign would actually pull both major parties toward the center.

[I]nstead of a race between the Democratic left and the Republican right — in which the whole country would lose because the winner would not have had a mandate for the real change we need — we would have ... a race between the Democratic center, independents and the Republican center. Then the whole country would win. Because whoever captured the presidency would have a mandate to actually implement some version of the Grand Bargain needed to get growth going again — and growth is the only sustainable cure for unemployment, the deficit and inequality. 

As long as we assume that Friedman really means "moderation" and not split-the-difference "centrism," this seems like a better option than placing all our chips on the Democrats as Alterman wants. But third-partyism on the "left" would still be a better option than the stand-pat Bipolarchy stance Alterman insists upon. He actually expresses disappointment with Democrats pretty often, but his ultimate attitude is reactionary complacency. His is the world of perpetual enmity between Democrats and Republicans, without even the thought of ultimate victory -- for then what would hold the Democrats together? His world is the one we live in now, and his attitude as a Democratic propagandist against Thomas Friedman is hardly different from the attitude of Democratic hacks across the country toward the Occupy movement, or to anyone who dares suggest that another world is possible.

28 October 2011

The Evictions, Part II

In possibly the most brazen "legal" suppression of an occupation yet, authorities in Nashville have evicted occupiers under the authority of a curfew law that was only enacted yesterday. To the credit of the judiciary, a judge ordered the arrested occupiers freed on the ground that they had not been given adequate time to comply with the new rule. The occupiers themselves find that small consolation, but they've declared their intention to fight the law itself in court. They argue that it violates the guarantees of freedom to assemble in both the state and federal constitutions. Constitutional points aside, Nashville's action exposes how easily the "rule of law" proclaimed by evictors across the country can become a sham. What does the rule of law mean, exactly, when those in power can make laws as they please to suit their interests and handicap dissent? Again, if some alleged "authoritarian" abroad made a law that appeared to facilitate the repression of political opponents, few American observers would buy that ruler's equally inevitable "rule of law" argument for a second. If dissent is to be given the benefit of the doubt against state assertions of the rule of law around the world, consistency requires a similar indulgence of dissenters in America. A Tennessean reader comments that the right to protest doesn't trump everyone else's right to enjoy a public park undisturbed. A commitment to pluralism would seem to entail that dissent does have priority over the sort of peace the reader demands as a right. Freedom from "disturbance" is really the demand of the complete privatization of existence. It's the basis for the quarantining of dissent in "free speech zones," on the premise that the right not to hear dissent is equal to the right of dissent. But isn't there something undemocratic about that assertion -- the insistence that you don't have to listen to your fellow citizens on matters of public concern, or even look at them, even if you're elected officials or appointees of elected officials? There is something inherently democratic about the demand to be seen and heard, even if you don't represent a majority of the people, or even much more than yourself. There's also something inherently human about it that makes the demand inevitable, and one to be ignored at society's ultimate peril.

Meanwhile, the crackdown continues in San Diego, and it's unlikely to stop there....

26 October 2011

The Evictions

The crackdown on "99%" occupiers is under way in Oakland, in Atlanta, and in Albuquerque. It may be imminent in Baltimore. "Where do they think they are?" a co-worker asked as the noon news showed the mayhem in Oakland from last night -- "Greece?" I wasn't sure whether she meant the protesters, the police, or both. Everywhere, it seems, public safety and public health concerns are cited to drive people from (presumably) public places. Everywhere, too, you could claim that the charade of party politics has been exposed. In Atlanta, as in Oakland, the city government is Democratic, and the mayor is unapologetic about his decision to drive occupiers from a park. Democrats are "the left" as far as Republicans are concerned, and as long as Republicans exist the Democrats can claim to be all the left the country needs. How left do they look now?

In the Washington Post earlier this month, columnist Anne Applebaum deplored the occupiers' "refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions."

In New York, marchers chanted, “This is what democracy looks like,” but actually, this isn’t what democracy looks like. This is what freedom of speech looks like. Democracy looks a lot more boring. Democracy requires institutions, elections, political parties, rules, laws, a judiciary and many unglamorous, time-consuming activities, none of which are nearly as much fun as camping out in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral or chanting slogans on the Rue Saint-Martin in Paris. 

Of course, Applebaum means "representative government" when she writes about "democracy," but that's a common error. She compounds the error, however, by warning that the occupations around the world portend a crisis for democracy.

The emergence of an international protest movement without a coherent program is therefore not an accident: It reflects a deeper crisis, one without an obvious solution. Democracy is based on the rule of law. Democracy works only within distinct borders and among people who feel themselves to be part of the same nation. A “global community” cannot be a national democracy. And a national democracy cannot command the allegiance of a billion-dollar global hedge fund, with its headquarters in a tax haven and its employees scattered around the world.
Unlike the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, to whom the London and New York protesters openly (and ridiculously) compare themselves, we have democratic institutions in the Western world. They are designed to reflect, at least crudely, the desire for political change within a given nation. But they cannot cope with the desire for global political change, nor can they control things that happen outside their borders. Although I still believe in globalization’s economic and spiritual benefits — along with open borders, freedom of movement and free trade — globalization has clearly begun to undermine the legitimacy of Western democracies.
“Global” activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline. Protesters in London shout,“We need to have a process!” Well, they already have a process: It’s called the British political system.

So even though the West's "democratic" institutions don't work anymore, there's no need to demand new institutions or processes. No wonder so many self-proclaimed democrats in the West, small d and large D alike, find the occupiers superfluous at best and a nuisance more often.

d. eris, a frequent correspondent here and a formidable blogger in his own right, has a clearer notion of democracy in his latest post at Poli-Tea, though some of it is admittedly borrowed from another source.

The people do not need "permission" from the government to exercise their constitutional rights and liberties.  It is the responsibility of the government to accommodate the people in their exercise of Constitutional rights and liberties.  It remains self-evident, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

The Albany Occupation: a drive-by critique

On the sixth day of "Occupy Albany" a CDTA bus started down the hill past the State Capitol, the epic colonnade of the State Education Building, and Lafayette Park, and as it banked right at the foot of the Capitol, across the street from where Lafayette became Academy Park, a front-seat passenger saw the tents in the park and the people waving signs on the sidewalk and asked, "What's going on over there?"

"Oh, that's the ninety-nine per cent," the driver explained.

"What's that?" the passenger inquired.

"They don't even know what they're there for....They're protesting against rich people being rich....I can understand protesting against the banks, but somebody working hard all his life and getting rich? What're you griping about? That's the American way...."

ACORN's diabolical Occupy Wall Street conspiracy exposed!

Leave it to those vigilant journalists at Fox News to attempt to discredit the Wall Street occupation by associating it with the dreaded ACORN organization. Jana Winter's expose it at pains to tie the actual organization reportedly aiding the occupation, New York Communities for Change, as closely to its former ACORN associates, and by illogical extension to all ACORN's alleged sins, as possible. 

"NYCC’s connection to ACORN isn’t a tenuous one," Winter writes, "It works from the former ACORN offices in Brooklyn, uses old ACORN office stationery, employs much of the old ACORN staff and, according to several sources, engages in some of the old organization’s controversial techniques to raise money, interest and awareness for the protests."

Those details would matter only if you assumed that every ACORN activist or ACORN office shared equally in the guilt of any member caught in or accused of indiscretions. But for the Fox base audience, ACORN as a whole was an evil conspiracy to steal elections through fraudulent voting. And since many activists still want to maximize the poor vote, that conspiracy is still alive in Fox's eyes. Winter talks to anonymous NYCC staffers who claim that they were sent out to solicit donations on fraudulent pretenses, telling people that they were fundraising for other benevolent purposes while the money raised was actually being spent on packing the occupation with paid protesters. Going against the initial narrative of a movement instigated by Adbusters magazine, Winter suggests that ACORN was behind it from the start, dating back at least to last May. That'd make the occupations as much an instance of "astroturf" in Fox-watchers' eyes as the allegedly Koch-fueled Tea Parties are for MSNBC-watchers.

Anonymous whistleblowers are meat for journalists across the ideological spectrum, so we shouldn't dismiss the Fox story simply because of its reliance on the anonymous. But we should think critically about the story Fox is trying to tell. According to that narrative, ACORN furthers its insidious socialistic agenda by recruiting the dregs of society (one source says she was hired out of a homeless shelter) who then pretend to be political just to make a buck. ACORN supposedly tried to make a mass political movement out of people who were only in it for the money. Now some of them blow the whistle on NYCC and Occupy Wall Street, denouncing the lot as a big ACORN conspiracy. "Yes, we're still ACORN," one says, "there is still a national ACORN." After taking money from "ACORN," they now spill the beans to ACORN's sworn enemy. If they were telling radicals what they wanted to hear before, they're now saying what reactionaries want to hear. Were they suddenly converted to sincerity in spasms of conscience -- or should we be asking how much Fox paid them?

25 October 2011

Albany Occupied, in Pictures

It rained last night in Albany and I wondered how the occupiers would hold out. With a borrowed camera I arrived at Academy Park -- the city side of the space, opposite the unoccupied state-run Lafayette Park -- and took in a busy scene. If anything, the weather had energized the occupiers, as had the arrival of a couple of TV news crews who probably had the same thoughts I did. The park flanks Washington Avenue, which connects the main business strip of Central Avenue with the downhill downtown area, so traffic was still brisk and cars still honked their horns to support the occupiers waving signs just off the curb. A few people beat their drums and one played a guitar. I saw the "mic check" gimmick in action. A guy yelled, "Mic check!" and people gathered around him to repeat and thus amplify whatever he said regarding the informational sheets he was handing out. Two troopers showed up for an amicable encounter; I don't know what they told the occupiers, but one of the park people asked if they could bring back some coffee on their next visit. One discordant note was sounded by a passing heckler who yelled with emphatic redundancy that the occupiers were "Anti-semitic Nazis." How he'd made that deduction was a brief topic of confused chat. But the mood overall was upbeat. I suppose they felt that if Gov. Cuomo couldn't stop them, the rain didn't stand a chance.

It was somewhat less lively approximately eleven hours later when I stopped to take some morning pictures before going to work. It may have been a late night for a lot of them, and then again a good percentage of occupiers may be part-timers who show up in the evening after work or classes. A sort of soup kitchen was up and running giving out breakfast. I saw a group of kids playing in a tent and wondered why they weren't in school. Exploring the park more thoroughly in daylight, I found a "People's Library," which was a tent stocked with various books, magazines and pamphlets, as well as, for the moment, sleeping bags and blankets. Only a couple of people were working the curb, but the drive-bys were still honking hello. Across the street, someone had taped "1%" signs to the benches just outside the Capitol.

There was a schedule of events posted amid the signage and folk sculpture, and a big cardboard space for people to write "Why We Are Here." The reasons vary, but discontent rather than advocacy remains the prevailing tone. It's easier to agree that things are bad than to propose actual solutions, and so long as occupations welcome general discontent they may well keep growing. The occupiers see these events as occasions for people to hear each other out and recognize how many people agree about how bad things are. Where they go from here remains a mystery, but we can hope for the beginning of a new deliberation about society and politics, about what we want from and owe to each other, and what makes people a community. No one should dismiss them as hippies or losers or "Marxist socialists" and refuse to listen to them, nor should they refuse to listen to anyone who comes to them (albeit sober) with something relevant and critical to say. This may not be exactly what democracy looks like, but it could be democracy in the making.

Idiot of the Week Nominee: Birtherism is Fun

It may be unfair to call Rick Perry an idiot for a moment of honesty, but when he admitted, despite not considering the question of the President's birthplace a serious issue, that it was "fun" to "poke" at him about it he most likely achieved a feat only an idiot could manage. In one utterance, he's probably managed to alienate both a multitude of mainstream people and the hard-core birthers for whom, we sadly presume, the birthplace question is a matter of grave national urgency. At the same time, he's probably exposed the gratuitous spitefulness that keeps the question alive. Gov. Perry has really just said that it doesn't matter whether the birthplace and birth-certificate questions are closed or not, as long as sport can be had by continuing the question the President's nativity, citizenship and entitlement to his job. We may assume that the madmen of the Republican right attack Barack Obama because they sincerely and insanely consider him a threat to republican institutions, and we should be able to dismiss many of these people as the madmen they are. But Perry has confessed that some Republicans, and probably others even further to the right, attack the President and raise ludicrous charges against him simply because they enjoy doing so, because they get the same thrill, presumably, that an internet troll gets as he reads the responses to his comments. It may indeed be unfair to call that attitude idiotic. Given the consequences for the national temper of birther trollism, those who continue to indulge in it , as opposed to the merely weaselly Perry, might well be called evil.

Occupy Oakland falls

The standoffs shaping up across the country between occupiers and state and municipal authorities raise fundamental questions about the meaning of public space. The left may not be used to visualizing things this way, but the occupations seem to have forced a choice: do "public" parks belong to the people, or to the government. It's one thing to argue against a rightist that the people are the government, but the occupations don't always pit "the people" or "the 99%" against the "right" as conventionally envisioned, i.e. Republicans, tea partiers, rednecks, etc. In some cases, as in Albany NY, they face Democratic state and city governments that are not friendly. Gov. Cuomo, the exemplary Austerity Democrat of the hour, has said that, while he respects freedom of speech, he also respects the rule of law. I'm sure the Democratic authorities in Oakland can say the same thing after breaking up that city's occupation this morning. Within two weeks, reportedly, conditions had "deteriorated" to a point that required a cleanup of debris and occupiers. The rule of law in this case apparently required the dissenters to be driven from the plaza. It all sounds very solemn and serious, but why should we give this rule-of-law rhetoric any more benefit of the doubt here than we give it when it comes from the mouth of some foreign strongman. Any authoritarian ruler will say much the same thing, but when this sort of thing happens elsewhere Americans are quite ready to recognize the rule of law as a pretext for the suppression of dissent. It may be a bad habit of thought, but we tend to assume that the laws themselves in many countries are actually written for the purpose of inhibiting political opposition. If it is a bad habit to think so, that's mostly because we apply standards selectively, presuming the worst motives from lawmakers perceived to be anti-American. Selective standards will still prevail among those who see nothing wrong with what happened in Oakland and may happen elsewhere. Others may end up questioning whether a rule of law is ever merely an end unto itself, or if it's always just a method of entrenching factional or class power as long as power is reserved for a particular class or faction. If the occupations prove that the people aren't necessarily the government, they may leave open the question of whether the government or the people are the law.

24 October 2011

Albany under Occupation

Up the State Street hill from Broadway you climb until you're at the foot of the State Capitol in Albany, an ornate structure decades in the making that burned 100 years ago but was quickly restored. The restoration is perpetual; a massive crane hovers over the old building, emitting a tiny red light at night. As you approach the Capitol, veer right, ironically enough, and cross the street at City Hall to reach the Lafayette Park/Academy Park complex. It's really one big park but the jurisdiction is split between the city of Albany and the state of New York. You might think that the Occupy Albany organizers have taken to heart the criticism that protesters should confront the centers of political power, not those of financial power. The politicians take the confrontation seriously. Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat, has reportedly been pressuring Mayor Jennings, another Democrat, to put the occupation, which began last Friday, to an early end on the usual pretext of trespassing. But the Albany police are reportedly uneager to clear the park, fearing that they might cause more trouble than they'd stop. So far, the only known violence happened on Saturday night, when a drunk tried to grab a protester's sign. As the protester told the Troy Record, the drunk complained that he had no right to use the image of a bald eagle on a protest sign.

I saw that sign when I first visited the occupation last Friday night. The rage of Mr. Right was still ringing in my ears from a few hours earlier. He was livid at the idea of another occupation because, as far as he was concerned, the occupiers everywhere were nothing but "ignorant...Marxist socialists" who "want everything handed to them." Someone on the radio, I presume, had given him the impression that the number-one demand of all occupiers was the cancellation of all debts -- I'd actually read that tidbit in a Jonah Goldberg column. The demands of the occupiers are still notoriously vague, but most politicized observers remain satisfied that the occupiers themselves are "leftists" and the occupation a leftist -- and perhaps by illogical extension inherently lawless -- conspiracy.

I walked up the hill to the park(s) after work, arriving around 8:15 p.m. There were the beginnings of a tent city; about half a dozen little structures, and numerous other people preparing to sack out in the open air overnight. This was downtime; the booth operated by the Social Justice Center was empty and most of the first occupiers were chatting amongst themselves. A group of kids arrived with pizza boxes, but opened them to reveal their own signs, barely legible, written with ballpoint pen on cardboard. I asked one of the kids to show me what he'd written. It read, "The rich should give the poor more money." It was hard to tell whether this was mockery -- the kids seemed too young for such cynicism -- or whether this was the childish sort of reductio ad absurdam that stands for the whole movement in hostile eyes.

The eagle sign belongs to a man named Bradley Russell. I didn't strike up a conversation with him, but I recall asking him to step aside so I could read the message he was then standing in front of. The eagle forms part of a mock seal labelled "Citizens United." The poster itself reads, "Free Speech! Now How Much Would You Pay?"

I spent my visit transcribing the signs. While I walked through the park, someone played a harmonica. Cars honked sympathetically every so often, and one driver yelled out, "Fight the power!" Two pedestrians passed and started their own little chant: "Hey hey! Ho ho!...Hey hey! Ho ho!..." TV news trucks lined Washington Avenue, while a cluster of sheriff's deputies or state troopers stood aloof, as if waiting for instructions (or for the occupiers to make a wrong move) on open ground between the occupation and the CDTA bus shelter.

What are the Albany occupiers saying? Here's what the signs say: "For my generation it's called The American Dream because you have to be Dreaming to believe it!"..."I Love NY. I hate greed."..."The only houses Being sold right now are in Congress."..."America is a representative Republic NOT a Banana Republic."..."Corrupt Government Disrupts Our American Dream."..."Tax the Rich."..."Corporate Rule -- or People?"..."We got hosed America, We got hosed!"...

There were more tents this morning. It's late October and autumn is making itself felt in Albany. The temperatures aren't conducive to sleeping in the open, and the tents are a stronger sign of commitment. It looks more like a tent city, however small, than it did Friday. Some dope had put a "V for Vendetta" mask on the statue of Louis A. Swyer, an Albany parks patron, that sat like a guard in front of the occupiers. The occupiers' fondness for V. confuses me and threatens to belie their avowals of nonviolence. You can say he symbolizes resistance at all levels but the comics and movie tell a different story. But for all I know that mask is just one idiot's work. In any event, the news about Cuomo and Jennings's machinations may well have emboldened the occupiers to defy the Austerity Democrats in power with fresh determination to remain. I intend to take another closer look tonight, but for now here is the occupation's own website clearinghouse of pictures and news links to bring you all up to speed.

For now I'll give Ann LaRose of Albany, a cancer patient and mother of four, with the last word as given to The Record: "I want them to learn...what greed means, how people do work really hard for their money and they don't depend on a system and yet we're still getting screwed...We're really having a hard time and we're just asking for our right to be heard."

21 October 2011

The Republican Bipolarchy: Romney vs the Rest

Pat Buchanan's interview with the right-wing NewsMax website might well be dismissed as the fringe talking to the fringe, but it may also illustrate the fragility of the Republican voting coalition, as opposed to its bloc of legislators. Buchanan warned, without advocating the option, that many "Republican conservatives," "social conservatives" and "Tea party folks" might either stay home or form a third party if Mitt Romney becomes the party's presidential candidate. Without once mentioning the word "Mormon," Buchanan explains that many in the groups he mentioned don't consider Romney "one of us," though he suggests that their suspicion is actually based on his controversial record as governor of Massachusetts. Worse yet for the Republicans, Buchanan worries that the candidates who seem to be "one of us," -- he lists Bachmann, Cain, Perry and Santorum -- don't seem to be electable right now, even in the primaries. In other words, he has no confidence in any "Stop Romney" movement before the national convention, and less confidence in Romney's ability to keep "us" on the GOP reservation a year from now.

Buchanan's comments have provoked a telling debate at the FreeRepublic website, where readers appear split between embracing the third-party option and demanding the reduction of the Republican field to Romney and Anti-Romney. There's an obvious and growing impatience with the confusing variety of candidates. It seems to obfuscate the real issue, which is whether "true conservatives" or whatever Romney is shall rule the party. Like the nation itself under Bipolarchy, the GOP is thus reduced to two either/or options that automatically become extremes. Yet while the reactionaries assert bipolarchy within the party, many seem immune to the usual Bipolarchy appeal to the lesser evil. There may be wonderful irony here for hostile observers if it turns out that the people who have demonized President Obama beyond all reason would rather see him re-elected than compromise their purity by voting for Romney. But that would be a good thing, not just from Obama's point of view, but for the future of American politics. Lesser-evilism should not determine our political choices. Every American -- even a reactionary lumpenbourgeois Tea Partier -- should be encouraged to vote affirmatively for whomever he considers the best candidate and whatever he considers the best policies instead of negatively to prevent an alleged worst-case scenario by settling for the next-worst choice. Progressives should be equally fearless; anxiety about a Republican takeover should not compel them to vote for a President they consider inadequate in nearly every way.  Those who cheer the prospect of a GOP split solely because it might guarantee Obama's re-election should ask themselves why they should be more easily satisfied and more ready to settle for a dubious option than right-wingers may be.

20 October 2011

The entertainment value of fairness

Ideologues of free enterprise are liberals in an old sense of the word. They prioritize procedure over results, at least when it comes to competition. They believe that competition is the health of the capitalist system, but that belief would seem to force them to uphold competition without victory. Just as the existence of a second, competitive political party is sufficient proof of political freedom, they take competition as the proof of free enterprise, even though competition often results in a single unassailable victor, and sometimes in collusion among competitors to suppress further competition. Ideally, a newcomer should be able to enter the fray at any moment and mount a real challenge to the established leaders. In practice, a refusal to acknowledge structural impediments to competition resulting from self-interested manipulation of the rules leads complacent capitalist citizens to assume that any unsuccessful challenge to the leaders in any field -- and especially in politics -- is proof of the challenger's objective inadequacy. But for some ideologues, the great exception to this complacency is the realm of professional sports.

George Will has long been the most exceptional ideologue when it comes to sports. He returned to the topic in a recent column on the NBA lockout, which pits millionaire players against millionaire owners. Not only are the players superior athletes, but in Will's opinion they're better labor activists than most working stiffs, because "they are ferocious competitors who loathe losing at anything." The owners, meanwhile, have the advantages of time and deep pockets. Will takes no side in their conflict, and seems to find it an amusing spectacle. What really interests him is the occasion of the conflict: a redistribution or outright sharing of the wealth each team generates. A policy intolerable in other contexts is imperative in professional team sports, Will writes. Here's why:

Sports leagues must accommodate two competing imperatives. The leagues must encourage the entrepreneurial pursuit of excellence, meaning superiority, by each individual franchise. But the leagues are selling entertainment, which requires competitive balance. A perennial problem is that teams’ cities vary as sports markets, so teams’ resources do, too. The NFL, which gets so much of its revenue from national television contracts, distributes this to its teams in equal portions, so a team in a small city in northern Wisconsin can compete with New York teams. But recently, the small-market San Antonio Spurs won four NBA championships in nine years. In Major League Baseball, whose economic model of largely local revenue developed before the invention of broadcasting (or the internal combustion engine), huge disparities of local broadcast revenue tilt the playing field against small-market teams. These disparities have been mitigated by revenue sharing. In baseball and basketball, negotiations usually involve three, not two, sides — the players, the richest teams’ owners and the other owners. All their futures are bright. 

Entertainment requires not just competitive balance, but revenue sharing among the franchises of the major sports leagues. Under normal free-market rules, the small-market teams would have to fail or fold, but in sports they are, if not too big to fail, they're too something -- a something that entitles them to survive through sacrifices by the richer, stronger teams. That entitlement is based upon the entertainment value of competitiveness and the corollary entertainment value of fairness. The entire league, implicitly, is not worth watching if one team has no true chance to beat another. To make sure people watch, every team has to be given a chance to win, whether through inversely ranked drafts that allow the weakest teams to pick the best college players or through revenue sharing deals that allow every team to bid competitively for veteran free agents. If you are a professional sports team, you have to be treated fairly and given breaks you don't necessarily deserve in order to be presentable and hold up your end of the collective endeavor. Sports leagues may be the ideal form of free-market capitalism because they are compacts of competitors committed to perpetual competition -- to competition without losers, without extinction. But if you follow the logic of the reasoning here, you might get a better idea of why so many ordinary slobs try to be famous. It'd seem that once people have a stake in seeing you, everyone has to treat you right. If that's so, maybe Andy Warhol was the great utopian thinker of our time, since were we all famous, we'd all be set for life. For now, most of us seem pretty expendable, but maybe the remedy is to become part of something other people feel a need for, like a sports league -- however silly that sounds. For the working class, how hard can that be?

Huntsman sympathizes with Wall Street occupiers

Psyche! It's not John Huntsman Jr. the presidential candidate but his father, the billionaire businessman and philanthropist John Huntsman Sr., who expressed sympathy with the Wall Street occupiers in an interview with the New York Times. He tells reporter Kirk Johnson (who was probably interested mainly in Huntsman's snarky comments on fellow Mormon and onetime political ally Mitt Romney) that he agrees with the occupiers' presumed premises that "the political system is broken" and that "ethics have foundered." The elder Huntsman also proposes himself as a greater philanthropist than the vaunted Warren Buffett. When Buffett invited him to give away half his fortune, Huntsman says, he suggested 80% instead. It's not clear how much of his fortune goes into his subsidization of cancer research, but plans to "keep opening [research] centers until we're the Mayo Clinic of cancer." Where Huntsman seems to differ with Buffett is in a belief that a billionaire's resources are more productively expended through philanthropy than through taxation. According to Johnson, Huntsman Sr. believes that "the rich, if they could be induced to greater generosity — and not simply be more stiffly taxed — could go a long way toward fixing things." His own work presumably serves as an example. Huntsman must suppose that he can do more to eradicate cancer by concentrating his wealth against it than if the government dispersed that wealth in many directions, and given the government's current priorities, he may well be right. But what if the government declared a "war" on cancer and committed the kind of resources to it that are usually committed to a war against another country? Might Huntsman then pledge more than his share of taxes to the effort? Or if he was concerned about effective management, would he offer his personal services to the government? Rather than jump to conclusions, let's observe that the theoretical raises some core questions about philanthropy and politics. Huntsman notes that too many people in his income class do little or nothing philanthropic. He'd like to see them "induced to greater generosity," but this inducement is apparently to remain a matter of moral suasion. Presuming that his own sense of obligation is sincere -- it's rooted in cancer's toll on his parents and his own close calls -- it still seems to fall somewhere short of a sense of duty. It's admirable for him to expect such an effort and expenditure of himself, and for him to expect it of his peers, but would he also allow that the public has a right to demand it of him and his more recalcitrant peers? Is Huntsman's philanthropy virtuous only because it is voluntary? Or does the need involved make the work imperative or mandatory regardless of his own motivations? Perhaps in utopian conditions billionaires could be depended upon to volunteer their resources for great public purposes, whether out of altruism or pure ego gratification -- but would you want to depend on voluntarism alone? Would there even be billionaires in utopia? That depends on the utopian you talk to, but in our own very topian (if not dystopian) conditions we can respect Huntsman's dedication, and even concede that some research might not get done without it, while we question whether he should have had to step in as a private philanthropist to further such an obvious public good, and whether some sick person's dependence on his good will is a good thing in the long run.

19 October 2011

Matt Miller vs Ezra Klein on third parties and the Presidency

Check out this colloquy between Washington Post columnists Matt Miller and Ezra Klein in which Klein questions Miller's advocacy of a third-party presidential campaign. Klein raises realistic objections about the limited potential of an independent president without any legislative base, but while Miller acknowledges the necessity of such support, he sees no reason not to aim for the top. His belief seems to be that a high-profile campaign is necessary to galvanize public opinion and call attention to the issues he considers crucial. Klein loses points with this reader when he raises the spectre of "spoiling" the 2012 vote by throwing it to Perry or whomever the Republicans nominate, but his critique of the limitations of an isolated president and his insistence on making Congressional reform the top priority remain sound. Miller remains too sanguine about the impact of the Americans Elect scheme and his boosterism skews the entire debate, since I never got the impression that Klein would discourage third-party congressional campaigns. Nevertheless, Miller's focus on the presidency reflects an impatience for radical (or "radical center") reform that is echoed and amplified in the reader comments. This impatience needs to be channeled into a campaign for a congressional takeover, which if it can't happen in 2012 must begin to happen then. Otherwise the rhetoric about smashing the political system is likely to become all too literal. A high-profile independent presidential campaign might well inspire a parallel campaign for Congress, but the latter shouldn't wait on the former. Klein can criticize Miller's obsession with the presidency, but if he also objected to a third-party congressional campaign he would probably stand exposed as a Democratic apologist once and for all. This debate needs to continue.

Idiots of the week: debaters and debate watchers

The joint appearances of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have become a kind of inter-network reality mini-series, and are being judged as such. A new low has been reached when bloggers and tweeters and others strain to analyze what Gov. Perry could have meant when he addressed Herman Cain as "brother." A further low is reached when Perry's people feel compelled to offer explanations. They say that "brother" is equivalent to "pardner," -- but they also say that their man also addressed Mitt Romney the same way, which was not the case according to this story. Of course, hostile observers are vigilant for any hint of racial condescension on the part of the Texan, but the most obvious explanation exculpates Perry. He was, in fact, cutting a promo on Cain. That is, in the argot of professional wrestling, he was challenging or taunting the pizza godfather with the promise of a superior economic plan. "Brother" is the giveaway. Anyone who has ever heard "Hulk" Hogan speak knows that he uses the word "brother" the way some people use "like" or "you know." Perry, it seems, was trying to prove that he is "hip" or "down with the homies" by imitating the phrases and cadences of a celebrity thirty years past his prime. He might have made this more clear had he gone on to say, "Whatcha gonna do, Herm Cain, when Perrymania and all the Perrymaniacs run wild on you? Instead of nine-nine-nine, brother, it's gonna be one-two-three!" He would have been front-runner again in an instant.

18 October 2011

Socialism: the opposite of a mass movement?

Well ahead of the Republican party, the Socialist Party USA has chosen its challenger to President Obama for the 2012 election. In defense of the Republicans, however, nominating their candidate involves consulting many more people. As Darcy Richardson reported last weekend, it took just 32 votes to put Stewart A. Alexander at the head of the SP-USA national ticket. A bid to exploit the remaining celebrity of antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan by making her Alexander's running mate was thwarted when party leaders insisted that their ticket consist entirely of dues-paying party members. Alexander hopes that his head start will allow him to build momentum by capturing the nominations of other left parties, especially the Peace & Freedom Party -- the one to which Sheehan belongs. Presumably, he hopes to improve on his party's performance in 2008, when it only appeared on eight state ballots.

Alexander claims that the SP-USA is "the true representative of the left," but his nomination was immediately criticized from his own left. His party has been called "ragtag rightists" whose determination to field national tickets is deemed "conservative" by a rival organization, America's Socialist Party. The ASP contends that running a national campaign is a waste of resources that could be better dedicated to organizing on the local level. They are determined not to run a national campaign until they already have the numbers to secure ballot access in all 50 states. At the same time, ASP (or its blog) condemns SP-USA for letting a secretive clique choose its candidate instead of cultivating the Occupations and including occupiers in an "open-air convention." For its own part, ASP claims to be establishing relationships with occupiers, but their involvement with the mass movement begs a question: What if the occupiers want a presidential candidate now? Is the ASP going to tell them no? On one hand, their emphasis on building the support necessary to get past the usual election-law obstacles is admirably practical. But I'd think that any socialist or would be mass movement of the left would find the legal obstacles themselves problematic if not unjust and place some emphasis on overturning them as soon as possible. If anything, ASP's attitude in accepting the conditions set by election law could be described as "conservative" from the perspective of anyone hoping for more immediate political change. If there is a groundswell of disaffected public opinion to be gathered by a left or socialist campaign next year, which party is in a better position to make the most of it? I make no judgment between the parties on the basis of their platforms, which I haven't read. But I will say that both risk missing the movement they've hoped for all along by indulging in their all-too-typical sectarian squabbling. If the occupations have any true political potential, it's imperative for sympathizers to help the occupiers find their own voices and build their own electoral force rather than sell them someone's old party line.

17 October 2011

It's a joke: Herman Cain's candidacy

Hardcore Republicans often seem to want a President, or at least a candidate, who more closely resembles a radio host than a statesman. That seems to explain Mr. Right's assumption that Mitt Romney, contrary to all other perceptions, would be the weakest Republican candidate. He can only mean that he doesn't expect Romney to spew the red meat that his kind of reactionary takes for sound doctrine. That attitude may explain the growing appeal among reactionaries of pizza godfather Herman Cain, who proved this weekend that he's mastered the right-wing "humorist" defense. You know what I mean: whenever a radio talker or screed writer gets called out for some especially mean-spirited, belligerent or bloodthirsty statement, he or she claims to be a humorist telling jokes. That allows them to perpetuate the stereotype of the liberal as a humorless crybaby who doesn't "get" anything. Of course, it's one thing for an author or radio host to use this defense, sense on some obvious level they actually are entertainers. It should be another for a presidential candidate to claim that a policy position he has advocated on the campaign trail, to the applause of audiences, is actually just a joke. Yet Cain employed the humorist defense on Meet the Press this weekend to apparently repudiate his advocacy of an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. He even had the gall to say that Americans should "get a sense of humor." And here I thought the fact of his candidacy was proof that Americans may actually have too much humor for their own good.

But in Cain's own spirit, allow me to contribute to the national humor. One night last week the nightly news was covering Cain and noting criticisms of his vaunted 9-9-9 economic plan. In our office, Mr. Right was hearing what he expected to hear about Cain from a network news program. "Go ahead," he scoffed, "Call him an Uncle Tom because he happens to be a black conservative."

I didn't want to get into anything with him at that point because it was late and I wanted to get out on time. But I thought about that comment, and after a while it occurred to me that I had no reason ever to call Herman Cain an Uncle Tom. A Simon Legree, maybe, but an Uncle Tom, no....

16 October 2011

The right side of the religious right

It's only right that Cal Thomas, a former Moral Majority leader who's still considered a spokesman for the religious right, should have the last word on the dispute within the movement over some members' hostility to Mormonism. Thomas remains an unrepentant right-winger but long ago repudiated the Moral Majority upon being convinced that people's souls could not be saved through political action. He wrote a strong column last week on the firestorm that broke when one of Gov. Perry's spiritual advisers condemned Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman for being Mormons. Thomas knows Rev. Robert Jeffress, or his work, well enough to write a blurb for the pastor's newest book. But that doesn't stop him from calling Jeffress out for going too far, even for the religious right, in insisting that born-agains should vote exclusively for Perry.

As Thomas notes, even if you resolved, as you should not, only to vote for born-agains, you'd still have Rep. Bachmann and Herman Cain as alternatives to Perry. Thomas has a broader point to make, which is, quite simply and admirably, that born-agains and Christians in general should not impose religious tests on politicians. Former Sen. Santorum and former Speaker Gingrich should not be out of bounds for evangelicals because they happen to be Catholics, for instance. And in case you're wondering where Thomas draws the line, here's his answer: "The 2012 election, in fact every election, ought not to be about if, how, or what a candidate worships, but on his (or her) ability to do the job. If I am in need of surgery, it may be of some interest to me what religion, if any, the surgeon happens to believe in, but I am far more interested in how many of his former patients are still among the living [emphasis added]."

Thomas states unequivocally that pastors and ministers have no business telling anyone that God favors one candidate or another. Apart from the questionable theology involved in such endorsements, Thomas has a more practical point: "What makes conservative pastors think their church members are so ignorant that they need to hear from them before deciding for whom to vote?"

This may be the one topic on which Thomas is comfortable quoting Ted Kennedy, who addressed the subject during a visit to Jerry Falwell's school back in 1983. On that occasion, the Massachusetts liberal said: “We must never judge the fitness of individuals to govern on the basis of where they worship, whether they follow Christ or Moses, whether they are called ‘born again’ or ‘ungodly.’ Where it is right to apply moral values to public life, let all of us avoid the temptation to be self-righteous and absolutely certain of ourselves.” If anything, Thomas's statement is more inclusive than Kennedy's.

Cal Thomas comes in for a lot of criticism on this blog, if only because his column runs in one of my local newspapers. In fact, a lot of his political opinions are atrocious, but that doesn't stop me from crediting him when he earns it. In fact, this column should serve to clarify our perceptions of the rest of his thought. He's said that he doesn't see politics as a way to Christianize the country. It should be clear, then, whether he sees this as clearly or not, that when he comments on politics, when he insists that the rest of us emulate rather than criticize the wealthy, when he spews ill-disguised hatred for Muslims and Arabs, when he condemns multitudes of fellow citizens for being "addicted" to government -- Thomas is not writing as a Christian.

14 October 2011

Counterrevolution in Troy

If you want to run for political office as an independent, or want to nominate an independent candidate, you have two options. You can have a write-in candidacy, depending on voters to remember your name without seeing it on the official ballot, or you can try for an official ballot line. Getting the ballot line means getting a certain minimum number of signatures based on location and the office in question. Once you turn in your signatures, they're subject to challenge by lawyers for the other parties, who remain constantly albeit selectively vigilant against fraud, depending on whom the independent is expected to take votes from. Regardless of your popularity or the popularity of your platform, you can be knocked off the ballot on the complaint of a rival, the most interested party possible, for improprieties in the collection of names.

Such is the rule of law as vindicated by Carmella Mantello, the Republican candidate for Mayor of Troy, N.Y., following an Appellate Division court ruling stripping one of her competitors, self-appointed Revolutionary party candidate Jack Cox, of his spot on the ballot. GOP attorneys found five people to testify that their signatures had been counterfeited on Cox's list. Reading of this, it occurred to me how easily a hostile person could sabotage an independent petition campaign. Cox reportedly went door-to-door collecting signatures; how careful was he to check who lived at each house he visited? What would stop a Republican or any other mischief maker from deliberately putting someone else's name on Cox's petition in the expectation that it would be challenged and Cox's candidacy curtailed? That scenario may seem unlikely at first glance, but it seems more plausible than Cox or a cohort forging five signatures when he eventually turned in nearly 400 more than he needed to earn a ballot line? It may be that Mantello only needed to prove that five signatures were fraudulent, and that more are suspect, but no one, to my knowledge, is making the latter assertion.

Mantello, who hopes to succeed a Republican incumbent, says that she "encourage[s] anyone who wants to run for office to run for office....But you have to do it legitimately." Her Democratic rival, predictably enough, denounces her for "hir[ing] a high-powered attorney to deprive an average guy of the same privilege that is afforded to her," but who doubts that Democrats would go to court just as readily if they felt that an independent would cost them as many votes as Cox apparently threatened to cost Republicans? But let's go back to Mantello's moral: "you have to do it legitimately." What, exactly, is legitimate about an electoral process that handicaps new parties or individuals outside established parties, that imposes tests on some but not on others who have earned "immunity" based on past success? What's legitimate about a ballot that serves as a gate and is equipped with gatekeepers empowered to determine who deserves to appear on a list of candidates? Official ballots were once considered a necessary remedy for corrupt election practices, but the physical limitation of any official ballot is a corruption in its own right. It automatically requires the imposition of tests (imposed by parties interested in the case) to determine who the "real" candidates are, since there can't be room for everyone, just as there's never time enough for all possible candidates to participate in a debate. Any free election should start with an assumption of the equality of all candidates. If all candidates can't fit on a physical ballot, then we should reconsider the concept of a physical ballot and consider the alternatives new information technologies make possible.

On Election Day, no voter should have to take an extra step to register support for his or her candidate that other voters don't need to take. Jack Cox intends to continue contesting the mayoral election, accepting the handicap of a write-in candidacy. Actually, there'd be nothing wrong with a write-in campaign, as long as every candidate was a write-in candidate, or the modern equivalent of one. Until then, as long as elections are unequal under the rule of law, are they really free?

13 October 2011

What does a left-wing Tea Party look like?

As I write, the influence of the Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading toward middle America. This weekend, my old home town of Troy, NY will see an occupation-inspired "People's Mic" event for the airing of grievances in the city's Freedom Square -- a lot opened by the demolition of a church. One day later, Albany will see the "third general assembly" in as many weekends of its own occupation movement. This outbreak of emulation encourages the perception that the occupations -- whether participants actually "occupy" anything or not -- are the long-awaited left-wing counterpart to the Tea Party outbreak of 2009. A few dissenting voices -- my frequent correspondent d. eris of Poli-Tea is one -- warn against labelling the new movement in a way that only reinforces the prevailing polarization of public opinion, but the general assumption is that, politically and culturally, the occupations are phenomena of the "left."

In a guest blog for the Christian Science Monitor, erstwhile Clintonite Robert Reich questions what it would mean for a movement to be "the Left's Tea Party," and whether the occupations will be that movement. "So far," he claims, "the Wall Street Occupiers have helped the Democratic Party" by emboldening them to press for millionaires' taxes and employ more populist rhetoric. In the long run, however, the occupiers will have a harder time becoming an equivalent counterforce to the Tea Parties if you measure that equivalence by their ability to really influence Democrats to the extent that TPs appear to influence Republicans. While the TPs' cultural populism strongly complements the Republican policy agenda, Reich claims that Democrats long ago abandoned the "economic populism" that would resonate with and respond to the occupations. By "economic populism" Reich seems to mean a rhetorical hostility to a moneyed elite -- the "economic royalists" of FDR's speeches and the "1%" of occupation sloganeering. Democratic reticence isn't just a matter of their apparent dependence on Wall Street donations. Reich traces it to the 1960s, when prosperity and a Keynesian consensus convinced JFK-era Democrats that populist rhetoric was obsolete, while the New Left only further alienated the party from its onetime populist base. In our time, President Obama is "as far from left-wing populism as any Democratic president in modern history." His perceived solicitude toward Wall Street has only infuriated populists from left and right alike. He cannot, Reich assumes, be pulled toward leftist economic populism the way Tea Partiers have supposedly pulled Republicans toward reactionary cultural populism.

Without disputing the details of Reich's account, I will question his premise. While it may well prove impossible for the occupiers to become the Democratic Tea Party, that doesn't mean that the occupiers can't play the Tea Party role for a broader, transpartisan left -- or, if you prefer, an economic-populist movement -- that the 2009 TPs have played for the GOP-centric right wing. It only means that the occupiers have more work cut out for them if they mean to build a political movement without a major party throwing itself at their feet. They may have to start from scratch -- and they may have started already. Whether the Democratic party benefits from the occupations isn't the same as whether the left, the "99%" or the nation as a whole benefit. Indeed, should the Democracy prove the primary beneficiaries, the benefit to the other groups would be questionable at best. If the Democrats prove as incapable of trimming their sails to catch the occupation breeze as Reich fears, that may be more of a good thing in the long run than Reich may realize.

12 October 2011

Partisan immunity as foreign policy

The United States and its European allies are strongly protesting the sentencing of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison following her conviction for abuse of power. I've seen little attempt on the part of these foreign protesters to prove that Tymoshenko was innocent, though the New York Times notes in passing the opinion of an international human rights group that suggests that her actual misdeeds were probably not worthy of prosecution. The legal aspects of the case seem essentially irrelevant to western opinion. Western opinion leaders apparently take it for granted that Tymoshenko, currently the leader of an opposition party, was prosecuted by a hostile government for purely partisan reasons. She was part of the "Orange Revolution" of 2004, which overturned an allegedly rigged election and was cheered by the west because the alleged rigger, Viktor Yanukovych, favored closer relations between Ukraine and Russia, while Tymoshenko and her senior ally (and later rival) Viktor Yurchenko, favored closer ties to the west. Yanukovitch has since won a more legitimate vote (despite allegations by Tymoshenko of more vote-rigging) and is the current president. It is still assumed in the west that Yanukovitch has authoritarian tendencies that explain his sympathies with Russia -- or vice versa -- though the Russians themselves are protesting the verdict against Tymoshenko, since the controversial deal she negotiated was favorable to them. In any event, western perceptions of Yanukovitch, more than any objective appraisal of the case against Tymoshenko, color opinions of the Ukrainian legal drama.

Americans in particular, it seems, reflexively extend the principle of partisan immunity that prevails here to other countries. A suspicion prevails, at least among the political classes, that objectivity is impossible when politicians are accused of lawbreaking in a party-state, i.e. one in which government and elections are organized along party lines. If the state prosecutes an opposition politician, the partisan-immunity principle assumes partisan motives. It assumes that the partisan state apparatus is practicing the "criminalization of politics," the persecution of opponents by way of prosecution for offenses that would not otherwise rise to the level of crimes. A defendant like Tymoshenko is presumed to be prosecuted only because she opposes the ruling party. At bottom, partisan immunity is based on bad faith, the assumption that certain people or groups are incapable of objectivity or genuine respect for the rule of law, and act only on self-interest. In a two-party political system with a roughly equal balance of power, partisan immunity amounts to virtual blanket immunity for politicians who remain within the good graces of their parties. It places a higher priority on the survival of parties than on the rule of law, on the presumption that the law can always be abused by parties.

I don't know enough about the Tymoshenko case to have an opinion on her guilt or innocence or the propriety of her sentence. But something seems wrong when so many governments continue to presume her innocence in spite of the verdict of her own country's judicial system. It would be naive to assume that governments cannot or will not manipulate courts to eliminate dissidents. But it's the opposite extreme from naivete -- cynicism or something worse -- to assume that governments do it all the time, or that certain governments always do it. A middle ground must be found that affirms the accountability of politicians to their nations and people, if not to a party. If it becomes impossible to envision accountability without assuming partisan bias, it becomes imperative for people around the world to question the partisan basis of politics everywhere. Otherwise, so long as we equate partisanship with political freedom, we free politicians from the accountability on which freedom for the rest of us depends.

11 October 2011

Goldilocks and the Electoral College

George Will opposes the National Popular Vote plan, a compact among states that would award all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide. So do a lot of other people, for a variety of reasons. Will's reason has to do with a belief that "the Framers wanted rule by certain kinds of majorities -- ones suited to moderate, consensual governance of a heterogeneous, continental nation with myriad regional and other diversities." If he means the legislative branch of government, his comment is reasonably correct. However, his concern that the NPV might result in an "ideologically narrow" majority is doubly ahistorical, since ideology wasn't a concern for the Framers and majorities today are often ideologically narrow already. For the moment, and for the sake of my own argument, let's concede his point that "The Framers ... did not subordinate all values to simple majority rule."

At first glance, it'd seem that the argument against the NPV would also be an argument in favor of the bill under consideration in the Pennsylvania legislature that would end the state's practice of awarding all its electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote for President. As it turns out, Will also opposes this plan. His opposition is not partisan: he notes with disapproval that the bill has been pushed by Republicans who hope to diminish Democrats' electoral-vote total next year. In one way, on the other hand, it is partisan -- not in the sense that he seeks advantages for one party over another, but in the way that it exposes Will's bias in favor of Bipolarchy over alternatives.

While Will notes with implicit approval that "the existing system handicaps third parties," he worries that "Pennsylvania's plan would encourage third parties to cherry-pick particular districts, periodically producing 'winners' with only national pluralities of electoral votes, leaving the House [of Representatives] to pick Presidents." For one so reverent toward the intentions of the Framers, it seems odd that he should deplore this possibility. It is only what the Framers intended, and for all we know they may have expected presidential elections to go to the House more often than they have. It was also the Framers' intention to give each state discretion in how its electoral votes are distributed; as Will notes, two states already follow the practice Pennsylvania may adopt. How, then, does doing so violate the Framers' intentions?

The answer has something to do with Will's notion (if not the Framers') of the right sort of majority rule. The "certain kinds of majorities" he favors "do not materialize spontaneously.

They are built by a two-party system's candidates who are compelled to cater to entire states and to create coalitions of states. Today's electoral system provides incentives for parties to alter the attributes that make them uncompetitive in important states. It shapes the nation's regime and hence the national character. The electoral college today functions differently than the Founders envisioned -- they did not anticipate political parties -- but it does buttress the values encouraged by the federalism the Founders favored, which Pennsylvanians, and others, should respect.

Will's peroration begs a big question: if the Framers intended politicians to seek the not too small, not too big, but just right approval of statewide majorities, why on earth did they divide the states into electoral districts? Why is it not one state, one electoral vote instead? The answer probably has less to do with the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution than with the ambitions of the framers of the two-party system. It's more than implicit in Will's commentary that winner-take-all rules for states serve the interests of Bipolarchy best of all. The existence of Bipolarchy, and the desirability of its persistence, justifies the different function of the Electoral College that Will favors. Why Bipolarchy itself is desirable -- its main virtue, from Will's account, is that it compels candidates to compromise their principles -- is apparently a question for another time.

Kanye West occupies Wall Street

Apparently the pop star was on his best behavior today, but when I saw the headline on the MSN homepage, I couldn't help imagining --

"Listen, everybody! This is a great protest, props to all of you, but I got to tell you, my statement that George W. Bush didn't care about black people was the greatest political protest of all time!"

Like I said, I couldn't help myself -- but the moral of this story is that no matter how flattering it may seem, the occupiers should not seek, and perhaps shouldn't even accept approval from celebrities, whether they're pop stars or politicians. It's bad enough that many observers regard the occupiers as rabble, but the last thing they need is the embrace of any perceived elitist. Kanye West may or may not be part of the dreaded 1% of money makers the occupiers appear to oppose, but he probably belongs to the 1% of other people's angry imaginations. If this moment in history is going to mean anything, then the occupiers can't let anyone else "represent" them -- and that goes for Al Sharpton as well, whose radio program, which West visited today, is occupying the occupation. You could hardly do more to label the occupation Business (or Politics) As Usual, which it cannot be if it's going to reach more than the usual inadequate constituencies. This movement's success can't be measured by how many celebrities cheer them on -- on some level it has to be a movement against celebrity as well as its political analogues. It has to be the people speaking for themselves, not through their representatives or their idols.

10 October 2011

Which branch should third parties reach for?

The Washington Post columnist Matt Miller is becoming one of the most prominent advocates in print for challengers to the two-party system. In his latest column, which appeared in a local paper today, Miller considers whether third parties can have more impact next year by seeking the presidency or a foothold in Congress. He weighs the opinion of an informed but anonymous "public policy leader" who tells him that it'd be easier for third parties to make a difference in Congress by denying either major party a majority. As many as 100 congressional districts can be considered "competitive" enough that third-party candidates could have a fighting chance next year, while as few as 25 independents could have changed the course of this year's debt-ceiling debate by forcing both parties to compromise.

The prospects for third-party presidential candidates are less promising. Miller (or his correspondent) claims that the last third-party candidate to win the presidency was Abraham Lincoln -- and that's questionable history. It can be argued either that the Republicans were already the "second party" after the 1856 national elections, or that the GOP never really was a "third party" given the collapse of the Whigs, the former bipolarchy partner of the Democratic party, and the failure of the Know-Nothings to consolidate their position after 1854. It could even be argued that no "third party" candidate has ever won a presidential election. The closest we can come to such a feat is John Quincy Adams's victory in the House of Representatives following the competitive yet nonpartisan 1824 election. Once a bipolarchy is in place (Federalist-Republican from 1792-1816, Democrat-Whig from 1836-52, Democrat-Republican from 1860 to date), no candidate from outside the bipolarchy has won the presidency.

The record doesn't daunt Miller, who seems to be a big booster of the Americans Elect project. While he won't predict a third-party win next year, he thinks that an independent presidential campaign could still have a positive organizing effect.

Though the challenges are daunting, the megaphone (and organizing platform) of a presidential race is unparalleled. The right campaign could be the vehicle for championing and organizing around the broader structural changes the country needs in order to get serious about our problems, even as it exposes the hoaxes both parties are peddling.

Miller touts the release later this week of Americans Elect Briefing Book for Candidates, which will detail the procedure for nominating candidates to occupy the ballot lines the organization has already secured in several states. He's optimistic about the selection of a candidate independently of "the usual pandering to a handful of party activists in Iowa or New Hampshire," but it remains unclear whether Americans Elect can or would guarantee the nomination of a candidate genuinely independent of the Bipolarchy. How a candidate is selected matters, but so does who the candidate is. If the innovations of Americans Elect only result in their ballot lines going to Democrats and Republicans, will our choice have been actually enhanced? The same caveat applies at the congressional level, though the chances of the process producing a genuine independent may improve as the process becomes more localized. It's a clever idea to secure a ballot line before you actually have candidates, but the innately value-free foundation of the venture is a risky substitute to a direct declaration of opposition to the Bipolarchy and its codependent ideologies. The idea of a kind of general unfiltered assembly of citizens choosing a candidate has obvious appeal, but people should gather to choose candidates with some sense of shared purpose -- at the minimum, an understanding that Democrats and Republicans are unacceptable. Without that, the mantle of legitimacy Americans Elect would like to lay on some candidate's shoulders -- whether for Congress or the White House -- could well end up looking like the emperor's new clothes.

09 October 2011

The Elizabeth Warren-George Will Debate

Watching a recent speech by Elizabeth Warren, who's challenged Scott Brown for a Massachusetts seat in the U.S. Senate, columnist George Will caught a phrase that made Warren "liberalism incarnate" in his eyes. His polemic against Warren is an admirable attempt to bring the debate between liberalism and Republicanism down to its most fundamental terms.

First, Will quotes Warren:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . . You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

The part he leaves out doesn't really change her meaning of his reading of her meaning. Here it is: "You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."

Will goes on to claim that Warren is critiquing a rhetorical straw man. "She refutes propositions no one asserts," he writes. He then goes on to refute what he takes to be her propositions.

Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context. This does not, however, entail a collectivist political agenda. Such an agenda’s premise is that individualism is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize — i.e., conscript — whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession.

Speaking of straw men -- or women -- Warren at no point in the previous quote proposes that society "conscript" a socially-determined portion of any individual's achievements. If anything, Warren appears to be asserting a moral imperative that follows from the presumption of a social contract. Will moves on from here to a broader attack on liberalism that goes beyond the scope of Warren's remarks -- for him, liberalism assumes individuals' inability to think for themselves amid an onslaught of advertising and PR and assigns an enlightened political class to act as guardians for the rest of us. Will easily refutes this notion by noting all the times that PR manipulation has failed, from car advertising to massive campaign spending, but that's a refutation of liberalism or progressivism only if you accept Will's own straw-man definition of the idea.

We can leave the rest of Will's column behind, because his specific engagement with Warren gets to the real heart of the matter. The question raised between them is: what follows from interdependence?  Warren suggests that interdependence obliges individuals in a matter not entirely countenanced by individualist dogma. Will insists that there is some indeterminate yet irreducibly individual initiative in possibly every collective endeavor that entitles the decisive individual to the share of the achievement that he or she, not society, deems appropriate. In simplest terms, achievements depend on ideas and ideas only come from individuals. Therefore justice entitles individuals to the first fruits of their ideas. Those whose efforts are essential to the realization of the idea still must realize that the idea alone enabled them to achieve. An appreciation of their dependence on the idea should result in a glad concession to the idea-maker of discretion in the distribution of the fruits of the idea. For Will, individualism is actually an ideology of hierarchy and leadership; it requires recognition that some individuals will inevitably lead the rest for the collective good (in Will's Hayekian terms, "spontaneous order") and prosper more as a result. I don't know if Elizabeth Warren would actually challenge as many of these premises as others would, but she at least raises the basic question: what follows from interdependence? Will answers by implying that there is never really interdependence, but always dependence of the many upon the initiative of the one or the few. That implication doesn't disprove the assertion that interdependence comes with mutual obligations that override individualist ideology. But Will does claim that interdependence does not impose compromising obligations on individualists. The argument is dishonest on a level he may not appreciate, and the ultimate question remains open for the rest of us.

07 October 2011

'Mob' rule on Wall Street?

To Republican observers, the "occupation" of Wall Street and sympathetic "occupations" across the country are real live "class warfare," if not worse. They worry the hell out of House Majority Leader Cantor, who describes them as "mobs," who are "pitting Americans against Americans" with the alleged connivance of Democrats. In response to this, Democratic spokesman are borrowing Republican tactics by playing the hypocrisy card. How can you support Tea Parties yet denounce the occupations, the President's spokesman asks. Actually, this is a bit of a dodge, since any Republican or TP has the instant answer: Tea Parties, they argue, have always been law-abiding gatherings, and participants do not get arrested. The Republican attitude toward the occupations -- not counting the gigantic contempt for all involved expressed by Herman "If you don't have a job, blame yourselves" Cain, whose business is named after a fictional mobster, --is that if people are getting arrested, they must be doing something wrong. Republicans have never been fans of civil disobedience, even if we entertain their objection that the occupations haven't been consistently civil. Even in their anti-slavery formative days, they distinguished themselves from the abolitionist "left" by insisting on compliance with the Fugitive Slave Laws until they could be repealed. From then through the civil rights movement to the present, Republicans have rarely if ever deemed disobedience a legitimate opposition strategy, though some sympathizers with Operation Rescue may be considered exceptions. They won't stop people from seeking change through elections, but that change must be pursued exclusively through electioneering, not through the demonstrations that seem so intimidating to the likes of Cantor.  In this case of course, even legitimate electioneering will be condemned as class warfare, and any appeal to direct democracy will be denounced as un-American. Even to think in terms of classes, one suspects, is un-American to many Republicans. But it might be instructive to learn Cantor's opinion regarding class in America. Are there classes? If he says there are, he could be asked where they come from, since it's the suspicion of many people, historians and laymen alike, that the original class warfare is that which creates classes in the first place. Meanwhile, Tea Parties carry on class warfare unmolested with Bolshevik intensity. As the Bolsheviks called it a classless society when proletarians allegedly dominated everyone else, while they dominated in the proletariat's name, so Tea Partiers call it a classless society when their own lumpenbourgeois kind -- again, it must be stressed, not the "super rich," -- dominate everyone else, or Republicans dominate for them. They also call it "law and order" when they get their way, and "mob rule" whenever people gather together to disagree. But I can't get very bothered, despite this paragraph, by the complaints of Cantor and other Republicans. If they really are worried, the occupiers are probably doing something right. 

06 October 2011

Palin's Principle

Yesterday, former governor Palin renounced, with perceived finality, any presidential ambitions for 2012. Realistically, she had waited too long to have any chance of winning the Republican nomination, given the rules designed to discourage a latecomer from sweeping the field. It was also a realistic decision given how her popularity had fallen while the announced candidates hold the spotlight. But there's a consistency to Palin's demurral that seems to transcend momentary calculations of her chances. As she did when she resigned her governorship, Palin stated that she felt she could do more good outside public office. While this certainly can be seen as the excuse of a quitter, let's note that it also conforms to Republican values in the 21st century. Don't they disparage public service and the public sector? Don't they believe that all real good, apart from national defense, is done in the private sector? Isn't it true that, while the small-r republicans of the Founding era considered public service such a high calling that they readily sacrificed their private interests, despite ritual protests, during the term they were called to service, the big-R Republicans of our time generally suspect the motives of anyone who aspires to join the "political class," -- except when they run for the Republican presidential nomination? If anything, Palin is behaving as we might expect a modern Republican to behave by putting her private agenda before public service, while the apparent assumption of the remaining candidates that they can only serve the public good as President should raise questions among primary voters. In the distant past, it was considered unseemly for any politician to hanker as obviously after office as Romney, Perry et al are. The pretense was maintained, at the least, that the ultimate candidate was actually summoned from private life by the spontaneous desires of the rank-and-file. The candidate sustained the pretense by stressing his reluctance before affirming his patriotic duty to answer the people's call. Today, we seem to assume that a candidate has answered the call by entering the primaries. By that standard, Palin has refused the call, even as her critics assume that she'd never been called. But in refusing the call, or refusing to be called, she affirmed her Republican identity, which should throw the essential Republicanism of the remaining candidates into question.

04 October 2011

Inconvenient conservatism

Bob Inglis is a former Congressman from South Carolina. A Republican, he was primaried and defeated by Tea Partiers last year because they found his record too "moderate." Part of his moderation, apparently, was his fact-based (or if you prefer, consensus-based) stand on climate change, which he reiterates in an op-ed article appearing in newspapers this week. He strikes a nostalgic note when he writes, "Normally, the country can count on conservatives to deal in facts." That may have been so once upon a time, when a conservative's business was to remind people of the lessons of the past so they wouldn't repeat specific mistakes. Now, however, Inglis finds to his dismay that so-called conservatives in his own party are "following sentiment, not science" on the climate-change question.

Noting an awful discrepancy between the 95% of scientists convinced of anthropogenic climate change and the 13% of ordinary citizens aware of that stat, Inglis comments that "you would expect conservatives to stand with 95 percent of the scientific community and to grow the 13 percent into a working majority. But courage fails us when it comes to energy and climate. Fearing our economic circumstances, we've decided to channel the fear rather than to confront it."

Inglis believes that Republicans are being "populist" rather than "conservative" on climate issues. While he never defines what's "populist" about denialism, he spells out three conservative principles that should determine Republican attitudes toward climate change. First, as we've seen, is adherence to facts. Second is a principle of accountability which Inglis would fulfill by making sure everyone pays "the full cost of petroleum ... at the pump" rather than in hidden ways, preferably through a tax that might make up for reduced income taxes. Taxing gas at the pump also satisfies Inglis's third conservative principle, which relies on market forces to change behavior. Here it must be noted that Inglis, "moderate" that he is, sees no discrepancy between a reliance on market forces and the imposition of taxes. In the particular case of gas, his implicit position is that the oil companies are manipulating the market so that we don't pay the "full cost," requiring government to step in to set the "full cost," which by further implication can be determined by policy makers when price setters fail. Inglis justifies his position by affirming the accountability principle and reminding his conservatives that there's "no such thing as a free lunch," which he accuses the oil companies of offering us.

Inglis's lonely stance reminds us that "conservatism" has no set meaning. Not all self-styled conservatives today would agree with all three of his defining principles, one suspects. For many, the slippery notion of "freedom" trumps everything, though that stance is arguably inconsistent with most of the history of conservatism. Furthermore, with all due respect to Inglis, many observers will not share his surprise at the fact-defying behavior of so many Republicans and Tea Partiers. For many hostile observers, one of the definitive historical instances of "conservatism" is Galileo's confrontation with the Vatican, an episode that defines "conservatism" for many as inherently anti-scientific if not anti-fact. Republican resistance to the climate-change consensus only confirms that image of conservatism, even while presumably principled conservatives like Inglis insist that denialism isn't conservative at all. Because "conservative" is always a relative word in political contexts, what conservatism stands for in any generation, and even who conservatives are, is just as likely to be defined in hostile terms, by the professed enemies of conservatism, as by conservatives themselves. Despite Inglis's efforts, his opponents on climate change are encouraging a definition of conservatism that threatens to discredit Inglis himself so long as he insists on the name.

03 October 2011

Are you ready for an Idiot?

When I saw a news crawl stating that ESPN would pull its recording of Hank Williams Jr. singing, "Are You Ready For Some Football" from the opening of Monday Night Football tonight, and learned the reason why, I was prepared to cut Williams some slack. As some of you may have heard already, the country singer appeared on the Fox News morning show today and told the hosts that when the President played a round of golf with Speaker Boehner earlier this year, it was like Adolf Hitler and Benjamin Netanyahu getting together for a round of eighteen. On second-hand knowledge alone, I took this to be no more than an awkward analogy, or Williams's attempt to describe the absurdity of two irreconcilable enemies socializing on the links. At the very least, I resolved to see and hear what Williams said in context before jumping to the conclusion that he had specifically equated the President of the United States with der Fuehrer. So I did. This YouTube video comes from the Entertainment Weekly website, and it's pretty sad.

Williams arguably wrote the anthem for modern-day reactionaries, "A Country Boy Can Survive," and he appears to be exactly the sort of person you can imagine identifying with that song, not just writing it. Maybe he was up earlier than normal, and maybe he never actually slept overnight. But he clearly takes even the Fox morning hosts aback, and the full breadth of his comments, from "That's the country this state is in!" to "Obama and Biden, the Three Stooges!" has already lapped the potential field of Idiot of the Week Candidates several times over. I imagine that when my friend Crhymethinc visualizes what he calls dirtclods, they look and sound like Hank Williams Jr. That is, I bet they look and sound that way now.

Has the left-wing Tea Party finally started?

As protests, demonstrations and occupations break out across the country in emulation of the ongoing and reportedly growing Wall Street protests, the image of the original demonstrations as an imitation of Tahrir Square in Cairo recedes, and Americans begin to imagine the birth of a movement that can be a counterpart and mass opposition to the two-year old Tea Party movement. The Wall Street Journal now acknowledges the movement's persistence, while E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post sees the occupations as a complement to if not a competitor with Van Jones's American Dream Movement among progressives. Dionne also makes the paradoxical suggestion that a better organized, more rhetorically forceful left could help President Obama's standing by making it more difficult for Republicans to label him a leftist. Based on comments seen in various places, I doubt this. On the Journal's comment page, someone calls the occupation astroturf laid by Obama and George Soros. The comment betrays a certain myopia on the right that compels many rightists to see "the left" as a monolithic menace. Elsewhere, Tea Partiers denounce comparisons between themselves and the new proto-movement. They note that Tea Parties have always been law-abiding, while taking the arrests of hundreds in New York as proof that the protesters are essentially lawless.  In the long run, however, TPs will not have the last word on these phenomena. The comparisons will ultimately hold weight only if the various movements can exert political influence. If challenging a Democratic incumbent president in the primaries, or running a progressive independent against him, seems like too daunting or divisive a challenge, the new movement could target Congress, either by recruiting "fighting" Democrats to primary incumbents or by fighting Democrats as a whole with independent candidates. In New York State, at least, the Green Party is ideally situated to become the vehicle of this would-be movement, though not automatically equipped to cater to a potentially populist agenda. Finally, though, we should pause to question why these October outbreaks should necessarily be defined exclusively as phenomena of a "left." As some writers have suggested, opposition to Wall Street echoes the short-lived transpartisan opposition to the bailouts of 2008, while some if not many Tea Partiers have maintained their objections to "too big to fail" crony capitalism. Many more, apparently, believe that the solution to crony capitalism is to starve the beast of "big government" that supposedly alone enables it, on the assumption that, without politicized cheating, corporations will have to behave by immutable market rules. Behind their somewhat sincere objections to crony capitalism persists blind faith in capitalism and "the market" itself, reinforced by the propaganda mantra that government is to blame for every economic shortcoming. While some may argue that the emerging counter-movement is driven by a similarly irrational blind distrust of the corporate sector, that would not absolve the other side of its obligation to come to its senses before Americans can find common ground from which to fight the abuses of private and public sectors alike. If more people actually listen to what this month's protesters are saying, and if some of those in power actually respond, then another if not the other Tea Party will have proven some sort of success.