30 March 2012

Who is 'the villain?' Who is 'the solution?'

Mitt Romney states the difference in worldviews the divides the country in fair terms in a preview excerpt from a speech to be delivered today. Apparently attempting to be as generous toward the President as possible, the Man From Bain claims that Obama's "desire to help others could not be more admirable," but chides the former community organizer for seeing "free enterprise as the villain and not the solution." He infers Obama's attitude from a comment about seeing "communities ravaged by plant closings." It would be hard not to see "free enterprise" as the villain when businesses close plants in your community, but Romney most likely sees plant closings as symptoms of a larger problem rather than causes, while the larger problem, for him, has less to do with free enterprise than with conditions that handicap it. Among the possible handicaps are a political attitude that "attacks success," or policies that go too far attempting to "guarantee that every one of us will achieve the success we seek." For Romney, it seems, liberty comes with an acceptance of risk and a readiness to accept the consequences of failure. But before anyone pounces on perceived hypocrisy here, let's address the fundamental question Romney raises.

It's taken for granted now that a large number of Americans distrust government, the public sector and the "political class." It's taken for granted by many observers of this phenomenon that that distrust is irrational or, at best, ideological. It should be taken for granted just as often that a large number of Americans distrust corporations, the "business class" and the private sector. These Americans assume that employers and executives will throw workers under the bus every time, that their bosses are always out to screw them, that they know now real constraint in their pursuit of profit by the easiest means. They don't see themselves as the aggressors in "class warfare," but assume that such warfare is the natural state of affairs in society, that the relations between employers and employed are typically if not always adversarial. People who hold this attitude will also affirm that it's a less irrational attitude than the mirror-side's distrust of politics and government because they can point to countless personal experiences that appear to confirm their viewpoint. The other side might appeal to personal experience too, but those experiences usually won't be the sort with which workers can empathize. But both attitudes are irrational -- knee-jerk distrust of either private or public sector -- to the extent that they presume how a person will behave based on his class or occupation. Neither attitude becomes more rational when it insists that one sector or the other has the exclusive "solution" to all problems. It could be argued that the division of society into these two inherently hostile sectors, or more specifically the presumption of such a division, is irrational. Only with such an assumed division is the presumption that "free enterprise" is villain or solution possible. What we need is for people to trust each other regardless of the roles they play in our vast division of labor -- to not assume that someone playing a particular role is out to rip you off or enslave you. Unfortunately, what we have now all too often is the opposite attitude: an assumption that both private and public sectors will screw us over -- whoever we are in such a case. Trust remains essential, and Romney doesn't help things by insisting that we trust the private sector while continuing to peddle distrust of the public sector. His desire to help others may be admirable, too, but if he sees politics and government as the villain and not part of the solution, he's no better than he claims Obama to be.

29 March 2012

Romney's Election

Mitt Romney told a funny story the other day. His father, George Romney, ran for governor of Michigan in 1962. George was thought somewhat handicapped by his record as big boss of American Motors, in which capacity during the 1950s he shifted a lot of jobs out of Michigan and into Wisconsin. The story Mitt tells is of his father marching (or riding) in a parade with a marching band in front of him. Mitt remembers seeing George's operatives panicking as the band played "On, Wisconsin!" and trying to make them stop playing. The band didn't know how to play the Michigan fight song and the Wisconsin fight song was the only one they knew. The Romney people were obviously afraid that the Wisconsin song would remind voters that George had taken jobs away from Michigan. Mitt can laugh at the story because George won the election -- and it's objectively amusing from a cynical standpoint toward American elections. Democrats are laughing amongst themselves at, not with Romney while publicly condemning his inferred insensitivity to job loss -- but did you expect anything else? The real story may be whether any of his remaining rivals for the presidential nomination have targeted this joke for the sort of "populist" or "class warfare" criticism we were hearing a couple of months ago.

In any event, the story made me wonder how much those lost jobs may actually have factored in George Romney's gubernatorial campaign, so I did a Google News Archive search to see what I could find. I found a few hints that George's campaign in some ways anticipated his son's, in terms of the issues raised and people's perceptions of the candidate. Despite having taken jobs out of the state, George ran with a promise to create jobs in Michigan. He blamed the lack of job creation there under 16 years of Democratic governors on high taxes. Incumbent John Swainson was denounced for getting nothing done, but Swainson's Democratic defenders blamed that on the refusal of Republican legislators to cooperate with the governor. To an extent, George Romney ran a confrontational campaign against unions, but also hoped, apparently with good reason, to attract some union voters away from the Democrats. Contemporary reports note some popular dissatisfaction with unions' influence in politics, and under conditions of apparent stagnation many working-class voters were willing to believe that the stagnation was at least partly unions' fault.

Already by 1962, the likes of George Romney were seen as "liberal" Republicans, and Romney was at least moderate by comparison with the fast-rising Barry Goldwater and his supporters. "Liberal" and "moderate" are relative terms defined in context, and George Romney probably seemed no more moderate to many union people in Michigan than Mitt Romney does today. Founded as the party of "free labor," but with a founding ideology that implicitly disparaged the permanent wage worker, the Republican Party has been more hostile to organized labor historically than the Democratic Party has been as a rule, the difference growing more stark over the last century or so. Mitt Romney may seem more reactionary, more ideological than his father, but in some respects you could just as easily say, "like father, like son."

27 March 2012

The Hutaree acquitted

In a decision certain to surprise many observers, a judge has acquitted seven members of the Hutaree militia of charges of seditious conspiracy against the United States. The Hutaree are the religious-fanatic group who gained notoriety a couple of years ago because their leader reportedly hoped to spark a civil war by killing policemen. The judge in their trial has determined, however, that the record provides no evidence of a "concrete agreement to forcibly resist the authority of the United States government." In her view, the Hutaree had no deeper agenda than to kill cops; the rest should be thought of as wishful thinking, perhaps. Two defendants still face weapons charges.

On some level, the Hutaree affair may have been as much a matter of ambitious entrapment as the several "Muslim extremist" conspiracies exposed by embedded FBI agents. If so, one can only hope that American courts show similar indulgence toward all the madmen who expect Allah to strike down the United States after whatever kickstart their own little exploits might provide. It is allowed, apparently -- even encouraged in some quarters -- to be seditious in your heart so long as your sedition takes no "concrete" form. Some people are likely to cheer today's decision as some vindication of civil liberty and freedom of dissent. I wonder how many of those people want to throw the book at anyone occupying a public park at night. Whatever the law may say, I question whether Americans can reach a consensus on what constitutes sedition any more easily than they can agree on what counts as "anti-American." Things here grow less self-evident every day.

Santorum's Campaign Slogan

If USA Today is right, Rick Santorum should make, "That's bullshit!" his official catchphrase, if not his campaign slogan. This report suggests that the Pennsylvanian struck a chord, or maybe a key on a cash register, when he turned on a New York Times reporter who had confronted him with an alleged misquotation of something he had said about Mitt Romney. From what I understand, Santorum had some right to feel he'd been misrepresented. He had said that Romney was the "worst Republican in the country to run against President Obama" because of Romney's record on healthcare insurance issues. The reporter later asked Santorum if he truly believed that Romney was "the worst Republican in the country," -- period. Give Santorum credit for recognizing the difference, if not for a dignified response to the question. But while the Romney camp predictably spins this as a discrediting moment for the intemperate former Senator, Santorum has said something many Republicans have long wanted to hear. His base, like the supporters of Newt Gingrich, want a confrontational Presidency. They want someone who'll speak their minds in frank, uncompromised language. They want someone who will denounce liberalism in all of its manifestations, including "the media," with the same degree of vituperation they'd use if they knew what that word meant. They want "straight talk." They might call it "calling a spade a spade" if they didn't think that might get them in trouble. They want the Presidency to be a literal bully pulpit from which liberals will be insulted and shamed until, like the sinner terrified of hell at the camp meeting, they crawl crying to the anxious bench and beg to be saved. In short, as I've written before, they want a President with the rhetoric of a radio talker. They feel pretty certain that Mitt Romney won't be that President, no matter how satisfactory he may otherwise prove, and that only intensifies their rage.

Much of that rage, predictably amplified by Ex-Gov. Palin, is directed at "the media," which the ragers now see, in a predictably paranoiac paradox, as backing both Romney and Obama, as if those two were the Elite Party ticket in the general election. But I wonder whether these raging Republicans have thought through their anger at "the media" and the implications of dealing with it. They presume intractable media bias in favor of liberal Democrats and establishment Republicans. But what can they do about it? What can they do about it while remaining true to their alleged principles? Would they censor the "twisting" of conservatives' words? Would they require equal time for authentic verified and vetted conservatives on all news programs or in all newspapers? Would they take the media out of the hands of biased private citizens and put it under state control to prevent misrepresentation of the ruling party? These are not the solutions we'd expect from the partisans of limited government, yet how else can they make the "liberal media" respect them? Without assuming that all reporters are objective, I can still say that the profession's basic commitment to objectivity inevitably puts it at odds with ideologues and partisans of superstition. Any reference to Republican policies that doesn't reflect Republicans' own view of them will be deemed hostile. Nothing short of an ideological takeover and conversion of the news media into a propaganda vehicle for Tea Party Republicanism (as opposed to the "elitist" Romney sort) would satisfy them. They may say that all they want is more fairness -- but that's bullshit.

26 March 2012

Advertising and the political marketplace

Not long after Paul Begala published his idiotic paean to negative advertising, the April 2012 issue of Monthly Review arrived in my mailbox with a cover feature on the "bull market" for political advertising. John Bellamy Foster and John Nichols take the comparison between political and consumer advertising more seriously than Begala does. Of course, they have 25 pages to play with against Begala's one-page opinion column, so more interesting observations are inevitable. The authors consider political advertising in the context of advertising history, noting that consumer advertising (or what they call "modern persuasion advertising") "blossomed as a function of markets that were less competitive by economists' standards, and are generally referred to as oligopolies." They argue that the firms who share in oligopoly lack incentives to challenge each other to cut-throat price wars, but still compete to maximize market share.They do that by differentiating themselves from each other as much as possible by creating distinctive brands. As the authors write, "the more products are alike and the more the prices are similar, the more the firms must advertise to convince people they are different." That doesn't mean that there isn't the proverbial dime's worth of difference between the two major parties, but Foster and Nichols emphasize that advertising based on the acknowledged differences increases in volume and vehemence so long as "the basics of how the corporate economy is structured or U.S. foreign policy are pretty much off the table, much like price and product information in beer advertising, [since] the two parties largely concur on the most important matters of governance."

On the subject of negative advertising, Foster and Nichols agree with Begala that consumer advertisers have little reason to go negative on each other, since "there are no bonus points for simply decreasing a competitor's sales." Negative product advertising could also backfire against the advertiser, they warn, since an attack by Coors, for instance, on Budweiser may turn people off on beer altogether. The authors see that effect as the consequence of negative political advertising. Attacks on individual politicians and parties turn people off on politics in general. "Depoliticization is an eminently rational, if ultimately self-defeating, response to the asininity of a political universe where negative political advertising is the lingua franca." Under such circumstances the major difference between political and consumer advertising is that political parties need not care if the market shrinks. It doesn't matter how few people vote, since whoever gets the most votes, no matter how small the turnout, wins the election.

Foster and Nichols would reform conditions by going after the TV industry, mainly by reasserting broadcasters' obligation to provide free airtime for political candidates. They would make free airtime a condition of stations getting their licenses renewed. Such a recourse raises the familiar question of standards entitling any candidate to inevitably limited airtime, but the idea is still admirable. Perhaps more realistically, the authors look to the day, which shouldn't be far off, when the internet becomes the main medium for political advertising and TV loses its expensive significance as the shortest way to the largest audience. They don't take for granted that the web will break the power of money, but they do see that TV is part of a "money and media electoral complex" drowning politics in "a sea of money, idiocy and corruption." Some idiots can swim, of course, and think the water's fine -- but what about the rest of us?

25 March 2012

What is 'personal responsibility?'

Ruth Marcus wrote a column on "Obamacare" the other day in which the Washington Post writer wondered why Republicans opposed a provision of the plan -- the notorious individual mandate -- that she regards as "an exemplar of personal responsibility."  Republicans are all for "personal responsibility," right? So why do they oppose a measure that requires everyone to help pay his or her own way when the alternative, as Marcus writes, means the insured having to pay higher premiums to cover the costs when others wait until they're sick to buy insurance? She blames the apparent inconsistency in Republican attitudes on an irrational resistance to a "perceived encroachment of big government," and to rank-and-file fears of being made to buy something they already have. But if she thinks she's scoring a rhetorical point against Republicans by making the individual mandate a "personal responsibility" issue, then she doesn't really understand what Republicans mean by that mantra. For Republicans, a "personal responsibility" by definition is something that can't be enforced by an "individual mandate." When Republicans talk about personal responsibility they mean responsibility for one's own economic survival. They mean that it's up to you, the individual, to make sure you can afford health care, food, the roof over your head, etc. To say that you should be burdened with an individual mandate to buy health insurance would be the same, i.e. just as absurd, as imposing an individual mandate to buy food. If you can't figure out to do it, it's your problem if you're caught short. That's where Republican "personal responsibility" differs from Marcus's idea. The corollary of personal responsibility for Republicans is "it's your problem" if you don't act responsibly, while Marcus, presumably speaking for liberals, is trying to say "it's our problem," at least when your reluctance to buy insurance until it's too late drives up costs for everyone. You might actually convince a Republican of that point, but he'll balk at making people buy insurance as the solution. They'd rather find a way to make it only the problem of the imprudent individual, because their view is that if the individual won't do what he needs to, -- rarely questioning the necessity of any situation and rarely wanting to hear that someone can't do it -- the individual should suffer. Since the liberal doesn't want any individual to suffer, she'll require the individual to take the steps necessary to prevent the suffering. Since the Republican reserves the right to be indifferent to suffering -- he can choose to be charitable if the mood strikes him -- he sees no need to make prudent measures mandatory through law. That only reinforces an undesirable dependence upon government when individuals should figure out necessity for themselves, or else.

"Personal responsibility" is another catchphrase that really only begs questions. Personal responsibility for what? To whom? As long as we live in a political society, it can never be as purely personal as Republicans or libertarians might like -- or at least it can't be as long as society commits itself to the survival of all its members. The rhetoric of personal responsibility sometimes leaves us questioning our fellow citizens' commitment to that ideal.

21 March 2012

The rights and rules of confronting our leaders

Reichle v. Howards was argued before the Supreme Court today. The justices have a choice between establishing a degree of legal immunity for Secret Service agents and clarifying citizens' right to confront and criticize their political representatives. Steven Howards sued Secret Service agents who arrested him in 2006 after he confronted and castigated then-Vice President Cheney, berating him over the Iraq war, during a personal appearance by Cheney. He claims that the agents, by arresting him, violated his free speech rights. His case is complicated by the fact that Howards crossed a common-sense line by putting his hand on Cheney's shoulder. While it appears unreasonable for Reichle, the Secret Service man, to claim that this gesture constituted an "assault" on the Vice President, people should know better than to make a move that could be construed by agents trained for hair-trigger vigilance as something more than a violation of an official's personal space. I wouldn't blame an agent for moving Howards away for doing that, but Howards claims that his arrest was really driven by the agents' disapproval of his remarks about Iraq. The Obama administration, represented by the deputy Solicitor General, seeks immunity from retaliatory lawsuits for the Secret Service because the government doesn't want its bodyguards deterred from snap-judgment, hair-triggered, life-saving decisions due to fear of being sued. The problem with that argument in this particular case is that no hair-trigger judgment was made. The agents let Howards walk away after confronting Cheney, and only arrested him sometime later that day. Reportedly, or so Howards' lawyer argues, some agents still question whether Howards did anything to deserve arrest. It seems likely that the arresting agent jumped to a conclusion regarding the potential threat Howards posed to Cheney. The real question may have less to do with the snap action an agent takes on the assumption that his charge is in immediate danger than it does with the steps he takes after inferring a threat from confrontational conduct. It may be wise to grant agents immunity in the first instance, in which case Howards would only have himself to blame for being dumb enough to lay a hand on the Vice President. In the latter case, which describes Howards' actual circumstance, immunity may not be justified. Remember the name of this case; the decision ought to be interesting, to say the least.

20 March 2012

Idiot of the Week nominee: Paul Begala

Let's let the nominee speak for himself. From the current Newsweek:

Truth is, negative advertising is not some evil or nefarious practice. In fact, when I contributed to the Obama campaign in 2008, I wrote on the check: “For Negative Ads Only.” I love negative ads. When I see a positive ad, even one from a candidate I support, my reaction often ranges from bored to annoyed. But show me a negative ad—even one against a candidate I support—and my blood starts to race. What can I say? I’d much rather eat picante sauce than chocolate.

Begala can't leave well enough alone. Instead, he rationalizes his idiocy.

The biggest reason negative ads are so ubiquitous in politics, but much less common in commercial advertising, is this: elections present a mutually exclusive choice. It is legal to buy a can of Coke and a can of Pepsi on the same day, but you can’t vote for Obama and Romney in the same election. That mutual exclusivity pushes campaigns to frame the choice more sharply. Imagine if we had Cola Day once every four years—and you were stuck with your choice for those four years. Coke would say Pepsi makes you fat; Pepsi would counterattack that Coke makes you impotent. And they’d go downhill from there.
So the next time a public moralist starts lamenting the role of negative advertising in our political system, just explain that it’s an outgrowth of the stakes involved. As the old saying has it, politics ain’t beanbag—and a political campaign isn’t selling soft drinks. The outcome matters—and influencing it is worth every negative word or image a candidate and his team can muster.

Call me a public moralist if you must -- though it makes me feel uncomfortably like Rick Santorum -- but Begala seems to be saying the opposite of what he means. He claims that "a political campaign isn't selling soft drinks," but he means that it is -- that politicians only do what cola makers would if consumers were faced with a "mutually exclusive choice." I would expect hucksters to badmouth their competitors as a matter of competitive instinct under such circumstances, but shouldn't we expect better from the people who propose to lead us -- who have started campaigns not merely because everyone else sucks, presumably, but because they have better ideas or solutions to problems? "The outcome matters" is no excuse, or else it'd also be an excuse for cancelling elections or doing away with them altogether. If the outcome matters that much, after all, and if it matters in the way Begala implies -- that the "wrong" choice would be a national catastrophe -- should it really be left to the people's choice?  My point isn't that the outcome doesn't matter -- though that's actually the liberal ideal -- but that if the outcome does matter, shouldn't we vote based on the best information about the person we're voting for, rather than on the assumption that some other guy is rotten? If the outcome matters so much, merely avoiding the worst result won't cut it, yet Begala's merry negativity, itself a product of a Bipolarchy that exacerbates the mutual exclusivity of choices, offers no other option. That's what makes him an idiot.

19 March 2012

The rights of 'legitimate candidates'

As I assume that Republicans in the 21st century are champions of state rights, I find it slightly unorthodox, if also perfectly understandable, that Rick Santorum wants state rules governing ballot access changed so that he, as a self-styled "legitimate candidate for president," can appear on the party primary ballot in every state in the union. "They [presumably referring to states like Virginia and Illinois] shouldn't have these byzantine ballot requirements," the Pennsylvanian told Fox News today. Due to his late emergence as a credible candidate, and Illinois's district-based rules, Santorum will appear on the primary ballot in only 10 of the state's 14 congressional districts tomorrow.

Can Santorum will the end without willing the means? Each state makes its own election law except when the Constitution forbids them from restricting voting rights along specific lines. Accepting state rules is the price both major parties pay for leaving the administration of primary elections in the hands of the states. Whether or not you accept the premise that government-supervision of party primaries favors incumbents, you may think it unfair, as Santorum apparently does, that a national candidate is chosen by delegates who aren't chosen by consistent rules across the country. There are three possible solutions. The first, most consistent with state-right principles, would be to lobby each state to adopt the same ballot-access rules voluntarily in a process similar to the National Popular Vote project, which lobbies states to join a pact awarding their electoral votes to the presidential candidate with the most votes nationwide. The second option is to enact federal ballot-access rules for presidential primaries through a constitutional amendment. This would eliminate the objection that each primary is a state election because it chooses delegates representing the state at a national convention; conventions could still be done that way, but the Constitution would recognize the fact already printed on the ballot that primary voters are choosing candidates first, delegates second. The third option would be to privatize political parties by withdrawing primaries from state control. That way, in theory, the Republican National Committee could then set national rules for state primaries, just like the by-laws of any private association. In that case, the only obstacle Santorum would face would be convincing the RNC that he is what he claims to be -- a legitimate presidential candidate. All joking aside, we should presume any party capable of rules or standards for ballot access, unless we prefer that parties, like the nation in the ideal scenario, does away with the tyranny of the ballot altogether. Ballot access is only an issue because there isn't room for anyone on a physical ballot. The most egalitarian elections will be those without ballots -- when people know who they want and don't have to worry about finding the name on a list. That utopian option raises a final question: how level a playing field does someone like Santorum, who's certainly doing everything he can to push Newt Gingrich out of the race if not off any ballot, really want?

'Santorum courts conservative Christians.' You don't say!

It must be a slow news day on the political front. With the Illinois primary a day away, the Associated Press hits us with the headline, "Santorum courts conservative Christians" in a story running across the country. I'm sure the wire service didn't mean it that way, nor did reporter Kasie Hunt, but that headline makes it seem like the AP has just discovered some new and unexpected strategy of the candidate, as if before this week he had courted the secular humanists or the social-gospel liberals. The real story in the story isn't so much Santorum's courting but the continuing mistrust among conservative Christians of Mitt Romney's Mormonism. Based on the people interviewed at the Central, LA church where Santorum appeared at the invitation of Family Research Council pontiff Tony Perkins, Romney may as well be a Muslim, since Mormons' concept of Jesus seems to be a major sticking point among the evangelicals. A more secular Republican might wonder whether that would make Romney less likely to cut taxes for the rich, but Santorum's audience had different priorities. They like the Pennsylvanian because "No one else talks about social issues," by which they mean moral issues. Likewise, when Santorum himself speaks about upholding a "culture of life," as he did in Central, he really means a culture with a particular morality. A culture of morality, especially as Santorum and his supporters understand morality, isn't exactly synonymous with a culture of life. You could call it a "culture of birth," I suppose, but the likes of Santorum have never felt that the state's presumed interest in ensuring that a fetus is born should extend to keeping the newborn alive, healthy and properly trained for a competitive global economy. Once born, you can die and it's no one's business but your own unless someone physically murders you. The morality of a true culture of life would make perpetuating life the highest priority; keeping everyone alive would matter more than how much any individual deserves. But morality in most cases, including Santorum's purported culture of life, really serves only to determine when it's right for someone to die -- when someone deserves death. If these moralists determine that you deserve death, for action or inaction, their motto becomes Donec mori spectemus -- "You can die, and we can watch." They can also help if they want -- if they think you deserve it -- but they reserve the right to let you die and will not be coerced into keeping you alive if they think you don't deserve it. So much for the culture of life as practiced by Republicans and their so-called "conservative Christian" allies. That doesn't make Democrats the culture of life by any means, but if you like the sound of that phrase you may as well come up with an idea for a culture that lives up to the name. 

16 March 2012

Accentuate the positive! Eliminate the negative!

There's a sadly charming naivete in Cal Thomas's latest lament for the Republican party. It may seem strange to see a hectoring moralist like Thomas complain about Republicans acting like hectoring moralists, but his argument does make sense. Given the public's small faith in politicians' ability to govern anything, Thomas asks quite reasonably why Republicans think voters would assume them capable of carrying out a moral reformation. He also advises some Republicans to regulate themselves before proposing to regulate the country's morals. But his main point is that Republicans have blundered into a trap by suddenly going nuts about sexual morality again. Thomas thinks the GOP can win this fall with a strong dose of old-time Reaganite optimism. He'd like Republicans to publicize "people who have embraced Republican principles and whose lives are better as a result." He means poor people who've enriched themselves, in case you were wondering, not the rich who've gotten richer. He offers theoretical examples but doesn't think to name a specific name. I'm not saying that he couldn't find anyone if he tried, but it would make his argument stronger if he could offer Republicans specific people to promote. In any event, this quibble of mine doesn't really answer Thomas's unanswered question. Why do Republicans seem to prefer to go on about sin and immorality instead of pitching an allegedly proven better way of life? The answer is more obvious than Thomas probably wants to admit. Republicans are a judgmental lot -- as are Democrats, albeit in a different key. More to the immediate point, Republicans and Tea Partiers in particular probably feel that the country is in a bad way because of bad decisions made by multitudes of people, for which those multitudes have not begun to suffer enough. My hunch is that many if not most Republicans are looking for a reckoning through which all their opponents will learn the error of their ways in as forceful a fashion as possible. They want to see people suffer -- they may believe that there's no morality in force unless people suffer. Putting it another way, they want to see people pay for what they (not the innocent Republicans) have supposedly done to the country. Emphasizing sin and sexual morality as Rick Santorum has done is just the point of the spear. For these Republicans the "dependency" that Thomas himself decries but believes can be overcome easily is a sin for which the dependent -- also seen as parasites upon the productive -- should suffer until they're presumed ready to learn the lessons Thomas would teach today.

Cal Thomas himself is well aware of how the judgmental impulse can lead you across the line of propriety. He crossed the line himself earlier this year in the heady environment of C-PAC, when he declared Rachel Maddow and the entire MSNBC crew the best arguments for the contraception he normally opposes. He had the basic decency to realize the vicious hypocrisy of his remark and went out of his way to apologize to Maddow privately and in print without the drama of Rush Limbaugh's more recent apologies. At his best, he knows that there's something wrong with the Republican mentality even as he insists that they're right on matters of policy and ideology. To an extent, he's already done the "physician heal thyself" bit. But applying the remedy to the Republican party as a whole may require more than Thomas can prescribe.

15 March 2012

Technocracy or Democracy?

"The big thing that's missing ... is this technocratic understanding of the facts and where things are working and where they're not working." So says Bill Gates while talking to Thomas L. Friedman about American politics today. As Friedman himself elaborates, the technocratic ideal is an informed state where political debates can be "driven by data, not ideology." Friedman and Gates are worried over whether the American model of "democratic capitalism," defined by Friedman as a balance of private and public interests, can survive in the face of competing global models. As usual, Friedman blames the two-party system -- to the rage of his readers, he always insists on assigning Democrats a share of the blame -- for failing to realize the "grand bargains" he deems necessary for national revitalization. He always includes Democrats in his critique because he believes, not that the government should spend less, but that it should be spent on more productive things than entitlements. In his utopia, presumably, the most productive use of tax money would be determined technocratically, and arguments against taxation in general would be rejected out of hand.

Ever since the term was first coined almost a century ago, technocracy has been an ideal and a bugbear for different Americans. For some it represents ideal rationality in government; for others it represents the end of democracy in some way or other. Would-be technocrats like Friedman and Gates most likely don't see an automatic contradiction between technocracy and democracy. Theirs seems to be a soft definition that doesn't require rule by experts but only decisions based on "data, not ideology." In other words, ideally democratic technocracy requires an informed public but not necessarily expert rulers. It does seem to require the exclusion of ideology, though technocracy is bound to be labeled an ideology itself through the usual postmodern jiu-jitsu. The real question is whether ideology can be separated from democracy. If it can be, it's still probably a more difficult task in any democracy with a revolutionary heritage like ours. If your country is founded on revolution, that means it's founded on an assumption that a previous form of government was wrong. Was parliamentary regulation of the colonial economy objectively harmful to the American colonists? Can it be said objectively to have oppressed the colonies? Historians still debate this, but the question is moot because the Founders determined ideologically that parliamentary regulation -- at least without colonial representation in Parliament -- was not merely mistaken but wrong. Ideological democracy claims for itself the right to make value judgments of at least equal priority to its practical judgments of any policy's utility. It doesn't accept easily the premise that any nation or any collective has an inherent objective interest independent of the will of its members. The tension between technocracy, or any appeal to objectivity, and democracy is most severe when people claim that the national or collective interest is whatever they say it is, and that democracy doesn't exist unless they (either the people as a whole or any faction) can define the collective interest to their satisfaction. From Friedman's perspective, both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this attitude, the former for refusing (allegedly) to consider any retrenchment on entitlements, the latter for refusing (definitely) to consider the necessity of tax increases for an energetic public sector. Friedman claims that neither position is objectively sustainable, but he needs a responsive objectivity among the general public for his arguments to gain traction -- assuming, of course, that his arguments are themselves objective. That's how easy it is to play the postmodern game. It's that simple to say Friedman or Gates just wants the world to run a certain way that suits them. It makes you wonder whether we'd recognize objectivity when we saw it -- but if we did, what would we do with it?

14 March 2012

Alabama incumbents 2, Campaign for Primary Accountability 0

Challengers endorsed by the national Campaign for Primary Accountability SuperPAC were whipped in two Alabama congressional primaries yesterday. Committee chairmen Spencer Bachus and Jo Bonner were renominated by comfortable margins despite ad buys against them by the CPA. Given how Alabama, like Mississippi, was nearly evenly split among supporters of Santorum, Gingrich and Romney, it would be interesting to track how supporters of each candidate voted in the congressional primaries in the two targeted districts and learn whether followers of any of the three leading presidential candidates share the CPA's knee-jerk anti-incumbentism. Given the easy victories for each Representative, we could assume that each had the support of at least two of the three strongest presidential factions, or that a Republican's preference for the presidential nomination had no role whatsoever in his choice between an incumbent and a challenger.

The CPA argues that incumbents have unfair advantages in primaries that SuperPACs can counteract with heavy advertising. But one advantage of incumbency is probably unassailable. If these two Representatives had sufficient seniority to chair House committees, they've probably been bringing home the bacon to their districts as well. Unless an incumbent gets embroiled in a personal scandal or makes an ass of himself in some extraordinary way, the typical voter is likely to see some loss of advantage to himself as a constituent if he sacrifices his representative's seniority on the altar of rotation in office. Entities like CPA probably deplore the fact that bringing home the bacon benefits incumbents, but perhaps they should run ads attacking the voters instead of the incumbents if they really want to change people's minds.

13 March 2012

Campaign for Primary Accountability invades Alabama

As a sideshow to today's voting in Alabama, where Newt Gingrich battles for his political survival in the presidential primary, the Campaign for Primary Accountability takes the field in search of two more incumbent scalps. After sharing credit for toppling Rep. Schmidt of Ohio, where redistricting made all incumbents more vulnerable than normal, the purportedly non-partisan CPA is going after two Alabama Republicans. Spencer Bachus is a ten-term incumbent who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. Jo Bonner is a five-term incumbent who chairs the House Ethics Committee. Both men decry the CPA as outside interlopers, with Bachus accusing the group of an alliance with President Obama, despite the fact that CPA is attacking from Bachus's right. The CPA claims no ideological agenda, but that's disingenuous given the group's suspicion of incumbency. Their ideology may be nothing more complicated than "power corrupts," but it remains a selective interpretation of reality. As this site shows, CPA has targeted six Democrats and eight Republicans this season. They failed in their first attempt against a Democrat in Ohio last week but more tests are coming. The main point today is that last week they rushed in to take credit when one incumbent lost. Now we know they're in play, and while we have no business rooting for or against incumbent Republicans in their primaries, we are interested in seeing how an avowedly anti-incumbent SuperPAC fares. Stay tuned.

Do Democrats perpetuate Birtherism?

David A. Graham of The Atlantic takes liberals to task for appearing to gloat over a recent poll according to which a majority of Mississippi Republicans and a near-majority of their Alabama counterparts continue to believe that the President of the United States is a Muslim. While Democratic bloggers and other propagandists hope to exploit the results and portray the Republican party as a whole of irrational suspicion or veiled racism, Graham suggests that Public Policy Polling, which he identifies as a "Democratic" organization, largely has itself to blame for the results they got in the two states. In short, his case against PPP and the people who decry its findings is: if you don't want people to believe something crazy, don't offer it as a possibility for them. Citing a political scientist's finding that "the fewer people exposed to a false claim, the less likely it is to spread," Graham implicitly questions whether Democrats really want Republicans to drop their controversial beliefs. The correct stance for a Democrat or anyone interested in the truth, he implies, would be to refrain from raising the question themselves -- to refuse to treat it as an open question.

If PPP is as partisan an entity as Graham claims, however, its motive was most likely not to suppress crazy theories about the President's origins or motives -- since when is that ever a pollster's motive? -- but to expose them. The pollsters in this case certainly didn't think the President's religion was an open question, but they probably did call Southerners in the expectation that many would confess themselves birthers or paranoid about the President in some way. Graham suggests that some respondents played into the pollsters hands by practicing what another political scientist calls "symbolic belief." That is, they're willing to lie about the President, not sincerely believing that he's a Muslim or a foreigner, simply to underscore their disapproval of him. Graham considers this equivalent to Democrats calling George W. Bush (or any Republican) a fascist. But that's a tricky comparison. It may be that few of Bush's critics actually thought of him as a disciple of Mussolini or Hitler, but the term "fascist" is so vague for most liberals and covers so much ground that most of them probably felt that the term described something real that they discerned in Bush, Cheney et al.  I don't think "Muslim" is as yet as comprehensive a pejorative for Republicans -- but I would take somewhat seriously one comment on Graham's article that claimed that the "M" word was becoming a convenient euphemism for the "N" word. A pollster might actually reveal something useful were he to ask people how likely it was for any black man in America to be a Muslim. I suspect the suspicion would be disproportionate to the facts. Some cynical Republicans have admitted to stirring the birther pot just to piss off Democrats, but I doubt many in the rank and file are that cynical.

Is it the Democratic party's responsibility to suppress birtherism, and is it therefore hypocritical of them to perpetuate it in the way Graham charges? Democrats have probably done all they can on the case by affirming the President's citizenship and condemning questions about his religion. Few would tolerate a law against birtherism; that'd smack too much of dictatorial laws against "slandering the state" or its leaders. The solution lies where the problem does, which is not just specifically with birthers but with Americans of all ideologies who feel entitled to entertain any paranoid conspiratorial notion that comes to mind about the future of the country. It's simply too easy for many of us to imagine that the other side is going to and may want to destroy the country for any number of reasons. Bipolarchy may have something to do with the widespread feeling that the only alternative is also the worst one, but the lunacy let loose by the four-way race for the GOP presidential nomination suggests deeper issues in play, particularly a collective failure of trust in the face of differences of opinion. The more that every man seems a stranger, the more suspicious each feels about all. There may be no political solution to that problem that isn't also and primarily a cultural solution -- we may be looking for answers in the wrong places, but where do we look instead?

12 March 2012

Will my vote be suppressed?

"Important Voter Information" arrived in my P.O. box this morning. This turned out to be an alarmist begging letter from People For the American Way, warning that "The Radical Right will suppress five million votes in the 2012 Elections. Will yours be one of them?" Inside, PFAW president Michael Keegan explains that "religious extremists" and "greedy corporate interests," along with the aforementioned radical right, want to deny people the right to vote on the pretense of preventing fraudulent voting. Keegan cites laws in effect or in the works in Wisconsin, Georgia and New Hampshire, while today's news brings word that the Justice Department is challenging an anti-fraud law in Texas. In all such cases, a requirement that voters show photo ID at polling places are "inexcusable and unjust" because they "target youth, minorities, low-income people and communities that are more likely to vote Democratic." They are also unnecessary, in Keegan's opinion, because "so-called 'voter fraud' occurred at a rate of less than 0.0000004% from 2002 to 2006."

Fraudulent voting has been a commonplace of American political history. Read any account of an election from a century or so ago and you'll notice that reporters usually took it for granted that both major parties were cheating in various ways, from bribing undecideds to getting people to vote multiple times in multiple districts. PFAW would not dare say that fraud has never been a factor in elections. But opportunities for old-school fraud would seem to have diminished drastically in recent times. On the other hand, this Republican writer complains that Democrats have used statistics and definitions selectively to minimize the volume of fraud. The writer hurts his own cause, however, by arguing that "mere statistics are a terrible way to determine whether vote fraud is occurring." He has a point, which is that if you presume that fraud benefits corrupt political machines in different communities, prosecutors in those communities will have little motive to prosecute fraud, thus minimizing fraud statistics. But that sentence sounds too much like typical Republican faith-based reasoning to be taken seriously by neutral observers.

I do not presume Democratic innocence, nor do I presume Republican innocence. All I can do is note the peculiar consistency with which one party seeks to minimize the number of people voting while the other seeks to maximize turnout. There's got to be a reason for that, but it no more justifies a defense of Democratic practices on "partisan immunity" grounds than it does the Republican presumption of guilt whenever a Democrat wins. When fraud happens today, I suspect it's more likely to take the form alleged in Troy, NY, where I work. There, party operatives are accused of securing absentee ballots from people under false pretenses and using them to cast votes the supposed victims never meant to cast. The defendants in this particular case are Democrats, but Republicans are the ones more likely in my experience to demand that every absentee ballot be counted in close elections, so absentee-ballot fraud is a game that two can certainly play. In any event, apart from the questionable prevalence of fraud, Democrats tend to oppose ID requirements on the assumption that they create hardships for people who somehow have gotten along without photo ID until election season. Not every hardship claim is credible, but not all can be dismissed, either. Should a photo ID requirement become universal, free photo IDs should become universal as well, since it could still be argued that requiring anyone to pay for one simply in order to vote is equivalent to levying a poll tax.

But what's People For the American Way going to do about this?  They want me to contribute $15 or more, with a Congressional Directory as an incentive, so they can "expose the right's underhanded strategies" and "make sure all Americans know what the Right is doing." In other words, they sent this letter to me hoping that I'd help pay for it and feel like I'd done a public service.  Meanwhile, for what it's worth, I've let you in on what the Right is doing, with a little objectivity thrown in -- and it cost you nothing! No thanks are necessary; it's just my bit of public service for the day.

What's the matter with Kansas now?

In our time Thomas Frank has made Kansas a byword for a kind of false consciousness, from a Marxist or Democratic standpoint. Frank's book What's the Matter With Kansas? made that state's voters exemplars of a habit he found unreasonable. Working class voters there voted Republican, which Frank understood to be automatically against the self-interest of a self-conscious working class, because they were more concerned with the vague tyranny of a cultural elite that subverted traditional values. Within the Republican party, we now see, Kansans most strongly support the most extreme-seeming candidate for the presidential nomination, Rick Santorum. Depending on your perspective, this looks like another failure of pragmatism, since Santorum has little chance of winning a national election. Kansans, however, use their votes to affirm their values, much as people most likely do elsewhere. It can be argued that there's no such thing as "false consciousness" in a democracy, since each person claims a right to define for himself what his priorities are or determine what the real issues are. That would be sound liberal doctrine on the idealistic assumption that no choice really makes a difference and therefore all choices are equal. A political philosopher or political scientist may not be able to make that blithe assumption, however, so the whims of voters remain subject to scrutiny.

Kansas continues a trend that seems to expose the relativity of self-applied ideological labels. If Santorum succeeds there, that seems to prove that Kansas and surrounding states are more "conservative" than those that support Mitt Romney. But does conservatism or mere geography determine states' preferences? Some number-crunchers working over exit polls have noticed that Republicans who identify themselves as "very conservative" rather than "somewhat conservative" tend to vote against Romney -- except in the Northeast, where Romney is strongest. There, even those who identify themselves as "very conservative" favor Romney over his rivals. Conversely, Romney is usually strongest among Republicans who identify themselves as "moderate" -- except in the South, where Romney seems weakest outside Florida. There, Romney only runs even with his rivals, even among self-proclaimed "moderates." It isn't difficult to imagine that it means one thing to be "very conservative" in Maine and another in Missouri, or one thing to be "moderate" in the Deep South and another elsewhere. But what if it really is regional chauvinism, with southerners sort of favoring Gingrich (tomorrow is the acid test of that premise) and midwesterners adopting the Pennsylvanian Santorum as their own? What if Kansans simply felt that Santorum was one of them in a way that Gingrich, Romney and Paul were not? Theirs would be no more reasonable a choice, but it might become more understandable.

Throughout the Republican Nation, Santorum has become the definitive religious-right candidate. As he rallies the troops for another round of culture war, I find an American Conservative article by D. G. Hart interesting if not illuminating. Hart contrasts what he calls "republican Christianity" with an "Augustinian" alternative that he favors. He traces "republican Christianity" back to the 19th century "Second Great Awakening" and its attendant groundswell of activism for social reform. In that association Hart detects an unwholesome inversion of priorities -- a desire to "assert the relevance of faith for the affairs of this world," or a desire for a "a relevant faith" that "uses cultural health or social order as leading indicators of the world to come" and for which "social uniformity and political centralization became the means for creating a godly nation." For Hart, too many republican Christians "gave the impression that their faith only mattered if it could be shown to advance the cause of political independence, republican government, and the creation of wealth." If we think of the "religious right" as opponents of the progressive "social gospel," Hart analyzes religious politics from a greater remove and criticizes the religious right in the same terms the religious right uses to criticize the social gospel. The religious right (aka small-r "republican Christians") "redirects Christianity from convictions about the supremacy of eternal realities to the demands of the present," Hart writes. His article is no comfort to religious or secular liberals, since he seems to affirm religion's indifference to forms or quality of government and applauds a Presbyterian who refused to take sides in the Civil War. But if Hart's critique of republican Christianity is correct from the perspective of Christianity itself, it only proves that Santorum's supporters in Kansas are practicing yet another form of false consciousness.

11 March 2012

Amoklauf in uniform

It's a cynical commonplace to say that killing one or two people makes someone a criminal, while killing hundreds or thousands makes one a hero. The moral is that war legitimizes murder, while the deeper moral is that war is really no better than murder. Now we have cause to split hairs. It appears that an American soldier in Afghanistan, allegedly acting on his own initiative, has murdered at least 16 civilians, including nine children, before turning himself in. Inevitably, Afghan survivors claim that more soldiers were involved in the attack, but they don't know Americans like we do. We know all too well that one individual is quite capable on his own of this kind of carnage. But we probably don't expect it of a trained soldier, except if he's a Muslim and thus an enemy within. However, some observers suggest that today's atrocity is nothing new, but more likely the sort of revenge attack that supposedly happened often in Vietnam. The suspect soldier's identity isn't known yet so it's impossible to say whether he lost a buddy to motivate him. Then as now, however, this is clearly a disciplinary problem, unless, as some cynics will certainly suggest, the soldier acted with the connivance of his superiors. Actually, that's still a disciplinary problem -- it only rises higher in that case. I expect little sympathy for the Afghan victims from Americans, many of whom will most likely condemn congenital Afghan savagery should reprisal attacks occur. But there seems to be little to choose from between Afghans and Americans as far as savagery is concerned. Is any crime more savage than an amoklauf, when the motivation is only to take victims with you while watching them die, with no hope (I assume) of afterlife reward? Yet Americans, for whom the amoklauf is something like a national sport, have assumed for themselves a civilizing mission, not only in Afghanistan, but in Iraq as well. Americans like to accuse each other of hypocrisy, yet here is an obvious case, but what do we hear?

09 March 2012

Ideology and Ego: why can't the far right unite?

You could get the impression that next week will be a bye week for Mitt Romney from the way pundits are treating the upcoming Mississippi and Alabama primaries as a knockout round for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. It's do-or-die time for Gingrich, who needs to win at least one of those states to remain a credible candidate as Santorum supporters pressure him to quit and clarify the campaign. Ever since the social-conservative conclave endorsed Santorum over Gingrich, friends of the former have been trying to push the former Speaker out of the race. But Gingrich soldiers on, and while the Republican party is supposed to be dominated by a strident reactionary base, that base remains hopelessly divided against Romney, who has no challenger for his bloc of supporters.

Why does there seem to be an irreconcilable difference between the Gingrich and Santorum camps? How different are they, really, and how meaningful can the differences be to the ideological base to which both appeal? While the persistent split may raise conspiratorial questions about whether one or the other has cut a deal with Romney to divide his opposition, the simpler conclusion seems to be that ideology alone isn't enough for the alleged ideologues of the vaunted base. Maybe I miss some of the nuances because I'm not of the base, but I can't really see a dime's worth of difference between Gingrich and Santorum apart from the latter's more overt piety. As he's proven the stronger candidate of the two, the real question is why the Gingrich supporters stand by their man. I can see two possible reasons. One is Southern chauvinism, and the other is a personality cult driven by faith in Gingrich the visionary genius -- the notion that makes all other Republicans scoff or choke. Gingrich himself still hopes to convince the base that he is the most outre outsider of all, despite his past honors and positions, on the perverse ground that his failures to work well with others while Speaker prove his redeeming alienation from "Washington" and his fitness as a radical reformer. But many more people believed all that months ago, yet many of them have since sided with Santorum. Wasn't the base sending Gingrich a message? Of course, he has no obligation to listen, but if he believes that Romney can't beat Obama, and that Obama must be beaten, hasn't he an obligation to hasten Romney's defeat by yielding to the stronger conservative? Perhaps Gingrich and his people don't believe that Santorum is a conservative. If so, that might clarify things for the base. Their choice would be between a madman of the right and a pure-and-simple madman.

08 March 2012

Bill Maher on free speech and fatwas

Bill Maher is probably the most prominent defender of Rush Limbaugh from the firestorm that's spread since his slander of that college student whose opinion can't be dismissed as partisan. In a pair of -- it's hard to write this -- controversial tweets, Maher has chided liberals for not accepting Limbaugh's apology for his "vile" language, that adjective being Maher's own, and for subjecting the radio talker to a "fatwa." Maher has himself been designated Exhibit A by many who decry the inevitable double-standard in play during these protests. They cite his use of a profane monosyllable starting with the letter c to describe former Governor Palin and the failure of those now condemning Limbaugh to condemn Maher with equal vehemence. As this Washington Times article reminded us, Maher was roughly handled by conservatives back in 2001, while he broadcast for ABC, for daring to deny the premise that the September 11 hijackers were cowards, especially when compared with those who kill by pushing buttons from a distance. He apparently emerged from the ordeal a free-speech absolutist, objectively committed to the defense of provocateurs from across the political spectrum. But if anything, the latest Limbaugh scandal should compel people to reappraise Maher. If it is unacceptable for one to call a woman, and presumably any woman, a slut, what makes it acceptable for Maher to call one what he did? Think what you will of Sarah Palin, what good is done by denouncing her with Maher's language? I suspect that there's a "blacks-can't-be-racist" reasoning at work for some people, according to which Limbaugh, as one of the powerful, has oppressed the poor college student in a way that millionaire Maher could not oppress Palin, a peer in celebrity. Worse, it may be assumed that the downtrodden or their presumed spokespersons should always have more license to denounce the powerful, fewer limits on invective, than the powerful should have to denounce the downtrodden. I like to fancy myself a friend of the downtrodden, but such a rule doesn't seem fair.

On the other hand, is Maher right to equate sponsor boycotts or sponsor withdrawals with fatwas, especially given the inaccurate yet likely equation of fatwas with death sentences? At most, opportunistic Democrats are seeking Limbaugh's professional demise. Maher also calls this "intimidation," which it is in a way, but deploring such intimidation begs the question of whether Maher claims an entitlement for himself or Limbaugh to commercial sponsorship. The reasoning seems to be that if an advertiser sponsors you in order to reach your large audience, he should never pass judgment on the content of your show. Sponsorship should be a purely commercial transaction between the sponsor and the performer's audience, with no implicit endorsement of the performer and no need to repudiate him for anything he says. The sponsor should be guided purely by objective economic motives, but why should the sponsor be different from anyone else? It's every sponsor's prerogative to refuse to subsidize a performer who becomes repugnant, no matter what the cost to his business. By refusing the subsidy of sponsorship he isn't violating any recognized right of the performer to the subsidy. He doesn't owe the performer anything, even if the performer believes reasonably that his livelihood depends on sponsorship. In an ideal world, the sponsor should not be intimidated or coerced into repudiating a performer through boycotts, but that doesn't mean the sponsor himself can't repudiate the performer anytime he pleases. There may be no good reason behind it, but that's free enterprise for you. As far as I can tell, Limbaugh's sponsors are dropping out not due to coercion -- correct me if I'm wrong -- but because of sincere revulsion over his slander of the student. Advertisers may have bailed on Maher's ABC show for similarly sincere reasons. It's natural to see such gestures as "political" and thus somehow unfair or illegitimate, but the Constitution only forbids such "political" measures to suppress speech when the government takes them. I stand by my belief that everyone ought to grow thicker skin and take offense less easily so that we all can say what we mean, but there's no law against what's happening to Limbaugh or what happened to Maher in the past, nor should there be. Maher can think what he likes and think better of himself for doing so, but this is still a free country, and Limbaugh will almost certainly survive anyway.

07 March 2012

A hierarchy of insults: Limbaugh against the 'hypocrites'

After an appearance of contrition as advertisers deserted him this week, Rush Limbaugh is back on comfortable ground. Whenever Republican opinionators like Limbaugh are condemned for something they say, their preferred defense is to accuse their accusers of hypocrisy, the assumption being that Democrats, liberals and leftists have no real consistent moral ground, but condemn their ideological opponents for words or acts that would be forgiven from fellow leftists. Limbaugh has raised the double standard by complaining that the President made no objection last year when the president of the Teamsters union, while sharing a podium with him, referred to Tea Partiers as "sons of bitches."

As George Will would write, "Well." I'm not sure if Limbaugh wanted Obama to chide the speaker for swearing, or if the radio talker really thinks that calling anyone a "son of a bitch" is morally equivalent to a man calling a young woman a "slut" and a "prostitute." While "bitch" on its own retains some malignant potency, and it would be beyond the pale for any Democratic orator to call conservative women "bitches," and maybe even more so to use that term for conservative men, "son of a bitch" is practically meaningless. How many people even envision a dog when using the epithet? If this is Limbaugh's best evidence of Obama's hypocrisy as a judge of rhetoric, he needs to try harder.

Limbaugh was further embittered by the President's comment on the talker's apology to the insulted college student. Asked whether he felt Limbaugh was sincere -- why his opinion on the question mattered was unclear -- Obama seemed subtly snarky when using the language of Franklin Graham to confess that he "did not know what's in Rush Limbaugh's heart" and therefore withhold judgment. This provoked Limbaugh into invoking old Rev. Wright once more, reviving the forlorn Republican hope that someday, someone will care about the crackpot divine's condemnation of America. But as not all Christians in America go to anodyne megachurches, it's possible that most Christians have heard a pastor of theirs condemn America (or Americans) for some sin or another. So let the Limbaughs keep bringing him up; they only waste their own airtime.

As I wrote earlier this week, we should strive to avoid real hypocrisy in our outrage at controversial statements. We don't want to set a standard by which only statements insulting or seeming hurtful to liberals are condemned while conservatives have to endure every form of invective. But if we sit down to cobble together an informal code of etiquette, someone like Rush Limbaugh would probably be too interested a party to have a part in the negotiation. Those who agree with his position on collegiates' entitlement to contraception without condoning his slander of a student would be better suited for the job.

The Ohio Players: meet the Campaign for Primary Accountability

Overshadowed by last night's death struggle between Romney and Santorum in Ohio was the activity of a "SuperPAC" that has had no dog in the presidential fight so far. The Campaign for Primary Accountability intervened in at least two congressional primaries, one for each major party, and emerged with a 1-1 record. On the Republican side, the CPA-supported insurgent Brad Wenstrup upset incumbent Rep. Jean Schmidt. On the Democratic side, in an incumbent-vs-incumbent battle for a redistricted seat, establishment Rep. Marcy Kaptur whipped antiwar Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who was supported by CPA. Kaptur will go on to face "Joe the Plumber," who won a close GOP primary in the new district, in the general election.

The Campaign for Primary Accountability declares itself against incumbents, though in the Kaptur-Kucinich race they targeted the more powerful of two incumbents, perhaps with an eye of giving "Joe" a weaker opponent. As a SuperPAC, the CPA exercises the rights confirmed by the Citizens United decision to counterbalance the recognized advantage incumbents have against challengers in almost every primary. Because Ohio has been redistricted, CPA probably had a better chance to make a splash and claim a scalp there than anywhere else this season. The group's mastermind, Eric O'Keefe, is a deficit hawk and advocate of term limits. He also has some revisionist ideas about the evolution of political parties that should be of interest to regular readers of this blog. He recorded some of those ideas for a 2007 talk uploaded to the YouTube channel of his Sam Adams Alliance.

In short, O'Keefe sees the purported democratization of the party-nomination process through direct primaries as a kind of coup perpetrated by elected officials against party "activists." On one level, this is a bizarro-world or mirror-universe interpretation of the movement for direct primaries 100 years ago, which sold itself as the empowerment of the rank-and-file at the expense of dictatorial party bosses. One of the biggest advocates of primaries 100 years ago was a former officeholder, Theodore Roosevelt, who had become an insurgent. He believed that primaries gave him the best chance against the incumbent advantage enjoyed by William Howard Taft, and he promoted primaries on the assumption that they empowered the rank-and-file to overrule bosses. On the other hand, we should take the movement's own propaganda with a grain of salt. One can see why an elected official might resent a boss's decision that it was someone else's turn in office, and why he might want to appeal over the boss's head to the people. The question for a revisionist like O'Keefe is whether he goes too far in idealizing the old process simply because it resulted in more frequent rotation in office, which he regards as an end unto itself. If such a system were back in place today, would it give more power to "activists" or to a new generation of bosses? It may not matter to O'Keefe as long as the restored system enforced rotation in office, but it might matter to the rank-and-file as it did to all those partisans of a century or more ago who resented bossism. In any event, O'Keefe's observations help a little to clarify my own thinking about how the state embedded itself in the party-nomination process, even if I don't agree with all his conclusions on the consequences.  He may not be welcome as a SuperPAC provocateur, but his underlying ideas about the party system are worthy of further discussion.

06 March 2012

In search of nonpartisan political etiquette

With criticism hitting him where he lived -- advertisers were pulling out of his program -- Rush Limbaugh took the rare step over the weekend of admitting error. He allowed that he had been excessive in his condemnation of the college student whose call for access to contraceptives had led him to call her a "slut" and "prostitute." Advertisers continue to pull out, however, and the usual critics have not let up on Limbaugh. For a generation, they've been looking for the "Have you no sense of decency?" moment that might destroy him, and the current scandal looks like their best chance in a long time. While I have little sympathy for Limbaugh, the chase has left me wondering what would really be fair -- whether agreement is possible on a kind of discourse etiquette that would allow people of all political and ideological persuasions to express moral indignation in no uncertain terms without sinking to the level of insult. It's a trickier task than it should be, simply because people on all sides today have a bad habit of equating criticism with hatred. It seems more difficult than ever to tell someone that he's wrong on a political or moral question without the person thinking you wish him misery, ruin and possibly eternal damnation. Are the stakes really that high all the time? They shouldn't be. We ought to be able to criticize each other without seeming to threaten each other. That's really a matter of character rather than etiquette -- everybody needs thicker skin these days -- but moderating our language might help character assert itself. For example, Limbaugh should be within his rights to assert, however stupidly, that the student is immoral for wanting contraception, if that's what he means, but he clearly would have been better off not stooping to language worthy of lumpen Islamists. Meanwhile, my advice to the "Left" is nothing new: stop calling people Nazis, for starters, unless they explicitly endorse the views of Adolf Hitler. That goes for some on the "Right" as well. Some on the left might also be advised to give up calling people "devils." Neither restriction would stop anyone from saying that Republicans would take the country in a profoundly wrong or even immoral direction, but they would discourage cheap shots that might rightly anger the targets. Ideally, politics should be free of ad hominem attacks, but too many people today take "you're wrong" as ad hominem. Part of the problem is that so much of our political discourse is speculative; we campaign against each other on the possibly-unfalsifiable basis of the damage each thinks the other will do to the country or the culture. Assumptions of bad intentions tend to follow from such speculation. Bipolarchy probably exacerbates this tendency. In a multiparty campaign we might compare three, four or more platforms thinking only of which is best, but when we have only two "real" choices we're tempted to consider which is worst. Once we assume that certain choices are "wrong," ad hominem attacks are almost inevitable. I don't mean to say that there could never be a "wrong" choice in a multiparty election -- you could have real Nazis on the ballot,  -- but more choices would most likely make the choice itself seem less stark or fateful, while each partisan would likely be less hostile toward any of his rivals than today's partisan is toward his one big rival. Our lack of apparent options today may explain the hostility of our rhetoric, but such a recognition alone can't change the situation. More choices might mean less hatred in our discourse, but there might not be more real choices until we hate less. People may not see the choices that already exist until they forswear the fear and hatred that sustain Bipolarchy.

05 March 2012

Are we really all socialists now?

Lane Filler is a well-intentioned columnist for Newsday whose column from last week on "socialism" has been picked up by newspapers across the country. Filler wants to defuse the critique on the alleged "socialist" policies of President Obama by arguing that all the presidential candidates, except for "Uncle" Ron Paul, espouse socialist policies. But in this case, as with the accusations by Republicans, socialism is in the eye of the beholder.

"Socialist" is not a bad name, it's a well-meaning philosophy that most Americans and almost all western Europeans embrace, though they might deny it. Social Democrat-type socialists believe in using varying levels of taxation and collectivizing risk to ensure everyone gets a decent amount of government service. They think the richest should pay the most and the poorest shouldn't eat Hamster Chow (pundits traditionally use cat food as an example, but it's crazy expensive, and not at all tasty)....

Unless you're willing to abolish public schools, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Postal Service, public roads, et cetera, you're a socialist. Socialism isn't just about the government taking from us what we don't feel we can spare. It is also about what the government provides us that we don't think we can spare.

My problem with Filler's warm-fuzzy notion of "socialism," apart from its ahistorical analysis that defines public schools as a "socialist" phenomenon, is the same problem I have with the hellfire-brimstone Republican notion. Seen from either side, socialism is missing an essential if not defining component, but there seems to have been a collective loss of memory on that point. I looked up some online definitions of "socialism" and the consensus seemed to be that it involved "collective" ownership or management of the economy. It occurred to me that "collective" can be a very vague term depending on the context. Most people today seem to equate "collective" with "the state" so that any definition of socialism that stresses the collective can be translated into a definition of statism, with socialism meaning, just as Republicans believe, that the state (i.e. the political-bureaucratic class) controls everything. But both "collective" and "state" beg questions, the real defining questions being "who is the collective?" and "who controls the state?" Call me old-fashioned, but for me if socialism is to be distinguished from rather than equated with mere statism, it has to be defined as control of the economy or rule of the state by the working class and not by elected or self-appointed representatives. That definition refutes both the Republican idiots who identify the Democratic party with socialism and Democratic sympathizers who want socialist-leaning people to think that their platform is good enough to settle for. Ironically, it's "Uncle Ron," who presumably yields to no one in his hostility to socialism, who sees the landscape clearly. He's the one who refused, when invited, to call the Obama administration socialist, opting to call it "corporatist" instead. Ron Paul may not like socialism, but at least he knows that it's not the only bad option -- or at least he knows that not all bad options are "socialist." We could stand more people knowing that socialism isn't necessarily a bad option -- but we could really stand to learn more about it from people who know what they're talking about.

02 March 2012

The Christian Right: theories of evolution reconsidered

"I have said for some time that, in my opinion, the strongest opposition to [the President] would come, not from the economic reactionaries, but from the religious reactionaries (if you can separate the two)."

As you might have guessed from my little editorial intervention, the person quoted was not referring to Barack Obama and the 2012 elections. The writer was a Democratic party operative, but the year was 1935, for by that time, argues Matthew Avery Sutton in the new Journal of American History, a certain segment of fundamentalist Protestantism had declared their opposition to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his agenda. Prof. Sutton's article, "Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age," is part of an ongoing historiographic effort to find the point of convergence between traditionalist religion and America's curious form of entrepreneurial "conservatism." Historians have long since revised the once-prevailing narrative that had the "religious right" in humiliated retreat into quietism for a generation following the Scopes Trial and the repeal of Prohibition. Fundamentalists were hard at work building congregations and institutional networks between those dark days and their reappearance as a self-proclaimed "Moral Majority" in the 1970s. But we still want to know why they allied themselves with right-wing Republicans and endorsed an economic order dedicated to the sort of "creative destruction" that seems antithetical to traditional conservatism. Sutton's thesis, in broadest terms, is that premillennial fundamentalists -- the ones who expect the Rapture and/or Tribulation to take place before the Second Coming -- got to worrying that FDR was, if not Antichrist himself, a harbinger of his advent. This fear wasn't really far removed from the more secular notion that Roosevelt might -- some even said should -- have become a dictator. Spooked as well by the rise of Mussolini (who brought with him the spectre of a renascent Roman Empire) and Hitler (seen initially as furthering God's purpose by driving the Jews to Palestine), premillennials seem to have developed a superstitious suspicion of Big Government in general based on an understandable anxiety that any powerful political leader might well be Antichrist. As Louis Bauman wrote in 1936, "America may begin with a benevolent dictator, but dictators do not long remain benevolent! Benevolent dictator; then, tyrannical dictator; then, Antichrist." As if Antichrist was a title you could earn by achieving the top score in despotism.

But if even FDR's power seemed menacing, did it follow that his policies were wicked? According to Sutton, many fundamentalists seemed to think so, though they were very lonely voices in the 1930s. The problem with Sutton's article, however, is that he never really establishes a biblical basis for opposing the New Deal apart from the fear of FDR as potential Antichrist. Yet he quotes fundamentalist pastors raving against "the dole" and dependency upon the state, just as some secular Republicans did then and many more do now. Fundamentalists articulated a critique of the New Deal that did not follow automatically from their premillennial fears. Did they simply accept secular reactionary criticisms of the welfare state? Why should they have? To answer, you would have to delve more than Sutton does into debates on socio-economic policy within the churches. Sutton himself observes that "Conservative Christians during the Progressive Era were generally comfortable with an activist state," in order to accentuate the novelty of their opposition to FDR. But it seems less likely that FDR scared them into espousing laissez-faire economics than that their pro-capitalist faith evolved over the course of a lengthy, still-ongoing debate with proponents of the "social gospel." The social gospel gets little attention in Sutton's article, but his subjects would probably have spent most of their polemical time arguing with social-gospel pastors rather than debating politics with Democratic operatives. As I've explained often, social-gospelers thought Christians had a special duty to relieve the material suffering of the poor, while their opponents put a higher priority on saving souls. Each side accused the other of neglecting an essential part of Jesus's ministry. Based on the research I've done occasionally, my impression is that the fundamentalists embraced right-wing economics as a kind of push-back against the social gospel, which pushed hardest and hit the fundamentalists nearest to where they lived when they argued that doctrine didn't matter -- that insisting on esoteric points of theology did less good toward converting people than simple charity or a commitment to social justice. There was a "globalist" element to this debate that Sutton might have emphasized more, based on fundamentalists' suspicion of international ecumenical movements in which correct doctrine inevitably would be stressed even less. While Sutton is probably correct to point to an apocalyptic mood in the Thirties that fundamentalists exploited, it's still possible to argue that fundamentalists might have been driven to the right, or chosen it for their own purposes, even if the Great Depression hadn't happened and FDR never became President. By opposing the social gospel, these fundamentalists were already the right wing of American Protestantism -- they may yet prove to have been the vanguard of secular conservatism as well.

01 March 2012

Idiot of the Week nominee: Rush "John" Limbaugh

As I write, a police bomb squad is investigating a suspicious package found on Rush Limbaugh's property in Palm Beach. Even if the package proves a practical joke, as opposed to some random innocuous object, it will be uncool because no matter how powerful or how idiotic a radio talker is, Americans shouldn't be threatening or pretending to threaten his life just for what he says. I doubt whether this is the first time Limbaugh's person or property have been put under an apparent threat, but it does seem like Limbaugh hit a new low this week. He was provoked into it by the testimony of a college student before a committee of congressional Democrats in favor of access to contraception. According to Limbaugh's outraged calculations, the student's claim that her university include contraception in its medical coverage meant that she wanted to be paid to have sex. "What does that make her?" the radio host asked his audience before answering, "It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute." In his fury, Limbaugh grew confused, first concluding that subsidizing contraception made taxpayers into pimps before determining that they had, in fact, become johns -- clients of prostitutes. We are all virtual johns, apparently, since we pay for co-eds to have sex, according to Limbaugh, but not for them to have sex with us. But Limbaugh, with that legendary wit of his, wants value for his money. In another of those comedic epiphanies that liberals just won't get, he proposed that, in return for taxpayer-subsidized contraception, the co-ed should record her sexual encounters and post them online for everyone to watch.

Predictably enough, Democrats demand an apology from Limbaugh and insist that Republicans rebuke him. Just as certainly, I can predict that no apology will arrive, Limbaugh and his loyal listeners falling back on the ever-popular "humorist" defense. Nevertheless, readers of the news site where I read the story are paying Limbaugh in kind with equally predictable jokes about his weight and drug use. The world will go on as before. Both the spectacular non sequitur at the heart of his rant and the public tastelessness of it entitle Limbaugh for serious consideration, even if you're convinced of that judge's epic stupidity regarding the Obama bestiality joke. But Limbaugh really merits another form of recognition. Since Limbaugh smeared that student by name, I'd like to see her father man up, make his way to EIB headquarters, and give the great bloviator the thrashing of his life. Wouldn't that be funny?

Idiot of the Week candidate: Judge Richard Cebull

Let's be clear about why this federal judge from Montana is up for consideration this week. Judge Cebull has scandalized people by admitting to having forwarded a lame yet nasty joke about the President and his mother on his official e-mail account. The joke, as transcribed here, has for its punchline the insinuation that the President's mother may have had sex with a dog on the same night when Barack Obama himself was conceived. Har har de har har. Reader comments on this story in a Great Falls newspaper are illuminating in a predictable way. The majority condemn the judge while an obviously Republican minority take the usual "liberals can't take a joke" line. In many cases, that familiar observation is probably true. They are not what used to be called "hard-boiled" and are too empathetic to appreciate the notion that life itself is a kind of joke on the living. But Cebull's was no joke on life in general. It's an expression of raw hatred for the President of the United States. It can seem funny to no one except those who hate the President and those who find bestiality inherently hilarious. As to whether the joke is racist, Cebull tries to have it both ways. He acknowledges now that the joke itself is racist, but claims not to have been racially motivated in spreading it around. Admitting opposition to the President's party and policies, the judge says his dislike of Obama is purely political and not racist. His is also an implicit admission of a political hatred so deep and visceral that he could find that joke amusing and worth forwarding to friends. That kind of political hatred is all too common. It can be found on both sides of the major partisan divide, and Democrats will not be honest if they deny unanimously ever making salacious jokes about southern conservatives and the alleged sexual habits of rednecks and hillbillies. There's hatred in that humor as well, and Republicans have been vigilant and unforgiving toward expressions of hatred toward their party in either federal or federally-subsidized institutions like National Public Radio. But the "hatred" expressed by NPR officials that disqualified the network from federal funding as far as most Republicans were concerned was mild, and in fact hardly hateful at all, compared to what Cebull circulated through his official e-mail account. If there is a public offense here, it consists entirely of abuse of office. No one can stop this judge from hating the President or telling nasty jokes about him in private -- which can mean both his home and his office as long as he isn't doing public business in the latter. But he ought to be reprimanded, however slightly, not for the political offense of insulting the President, but for using his official e-mail to circulate a dirty joke. That's nearly equivalent to telling the joke from the bench during a hearing, and that's what makes the judge eligible for Idiot honors. Cebull's case is a matter of propriety rather than politics. It's also a timely reminder of the depths of political hatred to which Americans can sink. But to be fair, if anyone has heard any good ones about the Republican presidential candidates, we may as well air those out in the name of equal time.