29 June 2012

Stolen Valor: the right to lie vindicated

Nearly lost in the hubbub over the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of Obamacare's individual mandate was its decision on the "Stolen Valor" law that had criminalized false claims of military service and honors. By a 6-3 margin, the justices struck the law down. In the lead opinion, Justice Kennedy affirmed a Constitutional right to lie. Congress can only make a law against lying, Kennedy wrote, when the lie is told for "material gain," e.g. to receive veteran's benefits. As written, the Stolen Valor law was too sweeping for his taste. The three most conservative justices -- Alito, Scalia and Thomas -- voted to uphold the law, Alito in the official dissent making a telling comparison to the protection the law grants manufacturers of luxury brands against counterfeit knock-offs. The three dissenters accept the premise that lying about heroism debases the entire system of military honors. Alito argues that the First Amendment doesn't protect lies that cause "real harm" or "serve no legitimate interest." The Court leaves us to weigh the competing standards of "real harm" and "material gain." My gut feeling is that the conservatives have the better of the argument this time. Kennedy claims that it should be sufficient for society to shame someone caught in a lie, but I wonder whether society can be depended upon to do that in the absence of an objective sanction like the Stolen Valor law, or an agreement with the minority that fraudulent claims cause "real harm." However, I'm curious to know whether Alito, Scalia and Thomas would apply their principle across the board, condemning not merely false claims of service and honors but any "false factual claim" in a public context. Let's not ask for too much here; there should be some leeway for even paranoid speculation in some matters. But when someone makes a claim opposed to verified truth, will the dissenters accept that "real harm" has been done? I suppose we'll have to wait for Congress to write another law to find out.

28 June 2012

The Roberts Mandate

Like a Hollywood thriller, the Obamacare case had a twist ending. While swing-vote Justice Kennedy voted against the individual mandate, Chief Justice Roberts, Bush's man, provided the deciding vote for the mandate on the ground that Congress has the power to "tax" people for failing to purchase health insurance. He did not agree with the President that the Constitution's commerce clause enabled Congress to compel individuals to make the purchase, but says Congress can punish them for not doing so. Of such hairsplitting is the common law made. While many will try, no one can read Roberts's mind. Some will suddenly discover a principled inclination to compromise in this decision, while some may see a cynical ploy to give the Republicans a new "anti-tax" issue to campaign against, and some, no doubt, see the Chief Justice as a traitor.  Roberts pointedly avoids comment on the policy merits of the law, as is appropriate. I was prepared to see the mandate go down and have already said that the Democrats had it coming for perpetuating the commodification of health care rather than going all-out for "single-payer." That tempers my feelings today. I wish not to rush to judgment praising Roberts simply because he ruled against Republican designs. His gesture does not bring peace and justice to the multitudes. I won't begrudge anyone a gloat at Republican expense, but if the GOP reactionaries lost -- and it's a moral defeat at most -- I'm not sure who really won. As Mitt Romney noted today, there's a difference between unconstitutional law and bad law. I don't exactly agree with his view of Obamacare, but I don't exactly agree with Obama's either. Albany saw a demonstration today in favor of single-payer; it made little difference to the demonstrators how the Court decided. One legal fight is over; a larger political struggle continues.

26 June 2012

Snyder's Paradox: 'If everyone's a critic, everyone's a slave.'

Timothy Snyder is a professor of Eastern European history and a World War II historian. I'm currently reading Thinking the Twentieth Century, Snyder's book of dialogues with the late historian Tony Judt, in which both men reflect on a disillusionment with Marxism and a frustration with the follies of democracy in 21st century America. Snyder in particular is unafraid to say that the 2000 election was stolen by the Republicans and the invasion of Iraq contrived at least in part to facilitate George W. Bush's re-election. That may disqualify him as an objective thinker in many eyes, but his interviews with Judt make clear that neither man has conventionally left-wing solutions in mind for their culture's ills. Their observations are often quite unorthodox, this one of Snyder's perhaps the most so. It arises from their shared criticism of teachers who focus on historiography rather than history, on interpretation (or worse, deconstruction) rather than facts.

I think that a lot of apparently critical history is actually authoritarian. That is, if you're going to master a population, you have to master its past. But if the population has already been educated -- or induced -- to believe that the past is nothing but a political plaything, then the question of whether the play-master is their professor or their president becomes secondary. If everyone's a critic, everyone seems free; but in fact everyone is in thrall to whoever best manipulates, with no possibility of resort to fact or truth as self-defense. If everyone's a critic, everyone's a slave.

It should be clear that Snyder isn't talking about an objective critical faculty but a sort of knee-jerk skepticism or inclination toward conspiracy theories of knowledge. Snyder seems to be saying that once we assume that history is always manipulated by historians or teachers for political purposes, we'll be tempted simply to prefer a history that suits our particular political prejudices. Hence, I suppose, both a Howard Zinn-style "People's History" and the "Patriot's History" promoted as a conservative counter-narrative. The passage arguably makes more sense if you replace "critic" with "skeptic," though Snyder's usage is probably purposefully provocative, playing on our assumption that criticism is the essential function of the free mind. But the mindset Snyder deplores is the postmodern mindset that denies objective truth in most if not all fields of knowledge, and the pseudo-intellectual paranoia that trickles down from the academy until everyone assumes "bias" in any account of events. Snyder and Judt agree that historians should be capable of teaching pure fact -- the things that actually happened. Snyder insists that objective history can convey the "underlying moral reality of [past] experiences," but a problem does arise once we concede that historians in any country have not conveyed that reality fully or accurately in the past. The practice of history in the U.S. is driven to a great extent by a felt need to compensate for past neglect of certain underlying moral realities, while a backlash has been fueled by a belief that the reformers have overcompensated to the point of neglecting more important underlying moral realities. In short, Snyder's case would be more compelling if he could demonstrate that past historians, particularly in the U.S., have practiced objective history. To prove that it's possible, you have to prove that it's been done, but many observers won't accept past proof if they perceive that neglect of certain subjects that disproves objectivity. How many facts are necessary for history to become objective? Who decides?  Once you ask that question Snyder might throw up his hands, since objectivity ideally isn't for anyone to decide; it is what it is regardless of who perceives it. On the other hand, history is inevitably the telling of facts, not the facts themselves, and while democracy doesn't entitle the people's historians to lie, it does make the question of what matters subject to debate. It should be possible to debate what matters without enslaving ourselves to "whoever best manipulates," and debating what matters is criticism. I still think there's something true in what Snyder says, but I have to criticize the way he words it. At least that doesn't make me his slave.

25 June 2012

Who's afraid of Islamophobia?

The Nation has devoted a special issue to the subject of Islamophobia, first affirming that such a thing exists and then denouncing it. The affirmation is necessary, as Laila Lalami notes in the main article, because many critics of Islam strongly deny that their criticisms amount to a "phobia," much less bigotry. This blog has taken a similar position to the one Lalami challenges. To the extent that Islam is a value system, criticism or outright opposition to Islam isn't equivalent to the really mindless "ick factor" reactions we identify with bigotry. Lalami's attempt to equate Islamophobia with homophobia, for instance, won't work. She argues that homophobia could be seen, as some do see it, as a similar sort of fraud designed to deligitimize criticism, but finds the claim as self-evidently false as the argument against using "islamophobia" to describe a genuine, deplorable phenomenon. Her answer to writers like me seems to be that no criticism of specific precepts or practices justifies a blanket condemnation of Islam itself.

None of this is to suggest that ideas should not be debated, still less ideas about Islam. But if you are opposed to specific religious edicts—retrograde blasphemy laws, say, or unfair divorce laws—then why not say you oppose them? Folding distinct issues under the banner term “Islam”—a term that covers an entire religion, a geographical region and countless individual cultures—is imprecise and maybe even useless. By all means, denounce fatwas on free speech, speak out against misogyny, criticize hateful practices. But don’t deny that Muslims, too, defend free speech; that they, too, fight for equality; and that they, too, can be victims of hate.

As Lalami acknowledges, Muslims get it from all directions these days, both from Christians who have no ground to stand on but their resentment of Islam's refusal to recognize Jesus as Son of God and from "new atheists" who unsurprisingly see Muslims as the current worst case of threatening religious fanaticism. I don't know if Cathy Young is an atheist, but she represents a similar secular libertarian perspective on a Reason magazine blog criticizing the Nation project.

Of course all religions have fringe groups and ideas. But for complex historical and cultural reasons, radicalism in Islam is far closer to the mainstream than in other major religions right now. There is no country today where a Christian government executes people for blasphemy, apostasy or illicit sex; several Muslim states do, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Some supposedly moderate Muslim clerics, such as Qatar-born Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, defend executions of gays, sanction "light" wife-beating and peddle hatred of Jews.

Insisting on a contemporary perspective contributes strongly to transmuting a principled general critique of religion and its extreme monotheist form into particular Islamophobia. The problem with Islam as a religion remains the problem with monotheism: the insistence on a Creator as the absolute ruler of the universe and postmortem judge of humanity who also authorizes agents to enforce his will, or at least his worship, among the living. For centuries, critics have tried to account for a perception that Islam is the worst of the monotheisms, but the circumstances generating Islamic virulence today probably have less to do with some decisive flaw in the Qur'an, as compared to other monotheist scriptures, than with the historic circumstances of Muslim peoples around the world. The Nation heavily underscores this point, several authors emphasizing the dark skin of many Muslims as an implicit underlying factor in American Islamophobia. If religion makes Arabs today, for example, more violent than their often more secular parents or grandparents, my hunch is that religion itself, not Islam in particular, is to blame. Were the nations of the Middle East, or the people of Pakistan, Christians rather than Muslims, with all else being equal, we might well see the Christian terror whose absence Young finds telling.

Permit me to claim the middle ground. I'll concede that "Islamophobia" may describe a state of ignorance, either of actual Muslim belief or of the lives of actual Muslims. However, I can't agree with Lalami's proposition that Islam as a whole is off limits for critics. Absolutist monotheism is a poison -- I don't mean to say that polytheism is preferable intellectually -- and as such a thing Islam as a whole may well deserve condemnation. That doesn't mean that every Muslim is a benighted potential menace; the practice of Islam must provide some sort of fulfillment to people or else they wouldn't defend it against alleged bigots and extremist co-religionists. But secular and atheist people have the prerogative to challenge anyone who cites an unverifiable being as their authority on anything. Is atheism Islamophobia? No more or less than Christophobia would be -- and the equation should remind us to be consistent. Principled critics need to remember, despite present appearances, that monotheism is the problem. Christians and Jews have had their violent days before, and nothing prevents another in either case. There is no phobia involved in saying that there is no god -- though some believers might claim otherwise. Nor should anyone be afraid of saying so, even if it gets them accused of being afraid, or worse. Someday The Nation should do an issue about the fear of atheism -- but someone will have to coin a cool word for it first.

21 June 2012

Thomas Friedman answers his critics

You can tell that Thomas L. Friedman is a centrist because anyone with any kind of ideology despises him. Depending on who you read, the New York Times columnist and best-selling author represents an overbearing "do something" government philosophy, an obtuse neo-liberalism, or unacceptable austerity in the guise of a "grand bargain." Most often, Friedman is attacked by liberal Democrats who resent his opinion that their party shares in the blame, equally or not, for gridlock and stagnation. As far as Democrats are concerned, Republican obstructionism is the necessary and sufficient explanation for everything that ails America today. Friedman half agrees. He condemns Republican obstructionism at every opportunity, but refuses to concede that that's the only problem. He infuriates Democrats with is constant suggestion that, no matter how much they've compromised already, they haven't compromised enough. "Why should we compromise more when the other side doesn't seem to compromise at all?" is the typical response. For Friedman, however, it doesn't follow that, as long as Republicans haven't compromised, Democrats have done enough. To a provocative degree, he seems to question Democrats' own vaunted willingness to compromise, even as he bashes Republicans unreservedly. In his latest column, Friedman once more bemoans the absence of a credible (i.e. celebrity centrist) presidential candidate willing to put tough, objective questions to both Romney and President Obama. He goes on to suggest that Obama could still carry independents, but only as long as he commits to a "grand bargain" recovery plan with emphases on deficit-reduction and wise investment. Then he addresses Democratic criticisms that have dogged him all year.

Obama loyalists often say: “Those Republicans are so bad. They’ve tried to block us at every turn.” Yes, the G.O.P. has tried to stymie Obama; it’s been highly destructive. But the people who keep pointing that out don’t have an answer for the simplest next question: Why have they gotten away with it? My view: It’s because too many Americans in the center-left/center-right do not feel in their guts that Obama is leading — is offering an economic plan at the scale of the problem that has a chance for bipartisan support and that makes them want to get up out of their chairs and do battle. 

The Obama loyalists would probably answer that they have a plan, only Friedman doesn't recognize it. Nor, Friedman suggests, do millions of Americans. What would these people recognize as a plan. Friedman sets some impressionist criteria: a proper plan will get 'voters to react in three ways: 1) “Now that sounds like it will address the problem, and both parties are going to feel the pain.” 2) “That plan seems fair: the rich pay more, but everyone pays something.” 3) “Wow, Obama did something hard and risky. He got out ahead of Congress and Romney. That’s leadership. I’m giving him a second look."'

The question for Democrats is: why doesn't Friedman see this in what we offer. I think the answer comes down to the desired second reaction: "everyone pays something." In a word: austerity. Friedman's suspicion seems to be that Democrats aren't really as interested in "shared sacrifice" as they claim. They obviously want the rich to sacrifice, but who else, really? Here's what Friedman sees:

When the Grand Bargain talks with John Boehner fell apart, Obama retreated to his base when he should have rallied the center by laying out — in detail — the Grand Bargain the country needs. That would have forced Romney to speak in detail about his plan — the Paul Ryan plan — and reveal it for what it is: a radical plan that few Americans would embrace if they understood it. Then people would see a real choice: a tough-minded-but-centrist plan with real bipartisan support versus a radical plan to gut Medicare, give more tax cuts to the already wealthy and drastically shrink discretionary spending so eventually nothing is left for education, veterans, roads, research, the F.B.I. or the poor. 

Notice that most of this excerpt is a strong denunciation of the Republican party -- but notice also the damning phrase, "retreated to his base." This gets to the heart of Friedman's beef with the Democratic party. He blames the failure of all grand bargains so far not just to Republican obstructionism and fanaticism but also on the presumed unwillingness to compromise -- to "pay something" -- on the part of a nebulous Democratic "base," or else on Democratic leaders' unwillingness to risk alienating the same base by making the "tough minded" case to them for compromise or paying something. Obviously Friedman is describing something real. Anyone who has seen anyone else ask, "why should the poor have to sacrifice?" or posed the question himself must admit it. But is this the attitude of the "base" of the Democratic party, defined either as its most reliable voters or its most generous donors? More importantly, Friedman's account begs the question: how crucial to his hoped-for recovery is it that this base "pay something," and how decisive actually has this base's presumed refusal been in the government's failure to achieve a grand bargain?  Given what we all know well about Democratic constituents' unwillingness to hold their representatives truly accountable, how much do elected officials really fear their base? At most, they probably fear its apathy, but aren't Democrats always fishing for independents and centrists to make up for that? As for whether this base is unwilling to share in the sort of sacrifice Friedman recommends, and whether their failure to sacrifice will ruin us, that's a question of priorities nearly as much as it is a question of resources or sustainability. Those who ask why the poor should "pay something" have every right to point to money being spent profligately on other projects (foreign wars, drug war, etc.) and question the priority or utility of those projects. The ultimate issue between Friedman and the Democrats, or between him and the "left" in general, is whether he's right (or "right") in his insistence that "everyone pays something." The left doesn't necessarily have a trump card for this debate -- the poor aren't always right -- but they definitely have every right to challenge Friedman when he takes the necessity of austerity for granted.

20 June 2012

Partisan Immunity and Partisan Witch-Hunts

Bipolarchy enables corruption in government through its presumption that any investigation of corruption, or even any investigation of error, is no more than a "partisan witch hunt." That bad-faith presumption amounts to a principle of partisan immunity which is also sustained by the balance-of-terror reasoning that anticipates a tit-for-tat when the balance of power shifts in any direction. To illustrate my point, Democrats are now circling the wagons around the President and the Attorney General following the President's denial, on the beloved principle of "executive privilege," of documents demanded by a congressional committee investigating the Attorney General's management of "Operation Fast and Furious," a botched ATF sting operation targeting cross-border gun-runners. By any measure an episode of incompetence, "Fast and Furious" became a cause célèbre when one of the guns involved, which had been lost track of by investigators, was found at the scene of the killing of a Border Patrol agent. The public should know what went wrong here, but Democrats, who were all for investigating executive branch abuses when Republicans ran that branch, now cry "partisan witch hunt." Republicans, many of whom had few problems with executive privilege a decade ago, now find Obama's assertion of it abhorrent. But the objective questions to be asked and answered about "Fast and Furious" should have nothing to do with whether Republicans benefit in any way. Yes, Republicans hope to benefit, and the President has probably given them just what they wanted by claiming executive privilege and confirming, to the conspiratorial mind, that his administration has Something To Hide. But does the potential for Republican benefit, or any presumption of cynical motives on the part of Republican congressmen, oblige us to take a "nothing to see here" attitude toward "Fast and Furious?" If you think so, you've just put partisanship ahead of truth and accountability -- but remember: Bipolarchy put you in this predicament. When scandal threatens one party, it takes evasive action and tries to change the subject because the scandal, in our present political environment, can only benefit the other major party. This attitude assumes that anyone disillusioned by Obama's handling of this matter will either vote for Romney or aid Romney's election by denying Obama a vote. The implicit principle is that preventing the enemy party from taking power has a higher priority than enforcing accountability in your own elected officials. I don't want Romney to win this fall, but I also want to get to the bottom of "Fast and Furious," and Democratic stonewalling is as much to blame for that as Republican pressure. Call the Republicans hypocrites to your heart's content: as far as I'm concerned, you're absolutely right. But does that give Democrats a free pass? It had better not. I await the opinions of independent parties, particularly those on the left that have remained critical of the President's policies. "Fast and Furious" should not be a right-vs-left thing, after all. If we've reached the stage of ideological immunity, then things are even worse than I thought.

19 June 2012

American politics: if it aint fixed, don't break it -- but if it is ...

Katrina vanden Heuvel and Robert Borosage contradict themselves in the course of their latest plea for progressive unity, "A Politics for the 99 Percent," in the June 25 issue of The Nation. One of their subheads reads, "The System Isn't Broken; It's Fixed," but further down, in their wrap-up, they write, "Americans understand that the system is broken -- and rigged against them." They're consistent on the system being "fixed" or "rigged," but seem confused about the implications of admitting that it's broken. Or they may just be playing clumsily with a familiar proverb, as I am in the tag. Whether the American political system is "broken" or "fixed," the unhappy consequence for Nation writers and readers is that self-styled progressives seem shut out of power and influence. Acknowledging this, the authors still feel obliged to rally round President Obama and the Democratic party, while conceding that "Defeating Romney and the Right's ruinous agenda is necessary but not sufficient." As inevitable apologists for the Democrats, they offer the usual advice to progressives: support Democratic politicians but hold them accountable. The usual advice gets my usual response: how can you hold Democrats accountable when you have to support them unconditionally whenever a Republican walks into a room? In an ideal world the answer would be "primary them!" Vanden Heuvel and Borosage write to us from that ideal world -- one in which they can cite the example of Ned Lamont's primary victory over Senator Lieberman in 2006 without reminding us that Lieberman won the general election. Looking beyond primaries, the authors call for "movements" to "force politicians to adopt positions they might otherwise avoid." What kind of "force" do they have in mind? It seems to be the force of demonstrations, which have proven so effective in the past year -- haven't they? If anti-foreclosure movements "gain traction" in battleground states, they write, "the presidential and Congressional candidates will have to respond." But will they? Assuming an unresponsive Romney and the existential threat the Republican party always poses to the liberal imagination, why would Obama or any other Democrat have to acknowledge demonstrators at all? If anti-foreclosure groups come from the left, who else are they going to vote for, based on The Nation's own recommendations? Would the authors advise them to threaten not to vote? Of course not; that would elect Romney, as would anything, in their minds, but a vote for Obama. Where is anyone's leverage over the Democratic party if the Democrats can't be allowed to lose?

What the authors really want is a progressive movement bigger than the Democratic party -- an entity populous and powerful enough to dictate Democratic nominations and defeat disgruntled bolters in a general election. Their problem is that they can see no other way to nurture such a movement than having the Democratic party act as its nursemaid. So long as fear of Republicanism is progressives' first principle, they can only build their movement around the Democrats, with the hope that the movement will overlook its emotional dependence on the established party and learn to dominate it. After all, that's what happened with conservatives in the Republican party, right? That's the story in simplest terms, but I don't know if the analogy fits history or the current situation. My sense is that movement conservatives chose the Republican party fifty years or so ago, at a time when it remained theoretically possible to turn the Democratic party back to the right. I don't think that the Goldwater people feared the Democratic party as such the way progressives seem to fear the Republican party today. They may have identified the Democrats with what they really feared -- "communism" -- but their anti-communism at least gave them a sense of a larger struggle than the usual party battle, while for progressives today Republicanism itself is the overriding evil. Today's progressives are offered no choice: get behind the Democrats again or democracy dies in four years' time. They approach the Democrats in a posture of helplessness while the movement conservatives, I suppose, were more willing to take a "rule or ruin" risk with Republicans. They ruled and ruined the party in 1964 but had made a point; thereafter Republicans were more responsive to their demands. Some may say the Democrats had a similar moment in 1972, yet despite Republican claims to the contrary, the party wasn't permanently altered into a McGovernite image. One likely reason for that is the way circumstances encouraged centrism within a party perceived by foe and friend alike as representing the left. If all Democrats had to do to rule was prevent Republicans from ruling, progressives should never have been surprised if little positive was done. Fear of Republicans has only grown in recent years, so if anything Democrats have less, not more incentive to govern progressively, much less radically. How building a mass movement dedicated, at least initially, to defending the Democratic party will change that paradigm is unclear.

Naturally, the Nation article inspired passionate comments. They're worth reading to clarify the picture of the conflicting impulses among progressives. Apologists for the Democrats stress the short-term imperative to prevent whatever damage the GOP intends, and such short-term, purely preventative thinking surrenders all initiative to the party at the expense of the movement. While the exchanges are often bitter, it's also clear that everyone's against a common enemy. The difference is that one group clings to the ideal that one of the major parties is ultimately on their side, while the other group argues that the party in question has already gone over to the enemy, whether through its pandering to Wall Street or its prosecution of unjust wars. For one group the fact that Democrats are not Republicans, hence not evil, suffices, while for the other the distinction between the two parties is of decreasing significance in the face of the power of the "1%" whom all claim to oppose. Liberal risk-aversion is largely to blame for the current stasis on what passes for the American left. For some, risk-aversion is a moral principle, expressed in denigration of those supposedly too "pure" to care for the people sure to suffer from Republican rule. People can cry about the Republican threat to democracy, but if they think that a political party must be prevented from taking power at all costs -- though right now the real cost is only to one's integrity -- then democracy in America is already in mortal peril. When you believe yourself to have no choice but to hold your nose and cast a preventative vote, how much democracy do we really have? Vanden Heuvel and Borosage can write all they want about building movements, but if these movements only reinforce the current Bipolarchy they'll neither fix nor break the current system -- which will only continue to rot.

18 June 2012

Christopher v Smithkline Beecham: must attention be paid?

In shocking -- shocking! -- news, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 majority today in favor of an employer against employees. Actually, the decision in Christopher et al  v. Smithkline Beecham Corp. was so predictable that it wouldn't be worth writing about except for how it points toward the future for the American working class. What happened was that two employees of the pharmaeutical conglomerate sued for back overtime pay, claiming that their work as "detailers" -- representatives who make promotional visits to doctors to talk up the company's products -- did not fall under the category of "outside salesperson" that was exempt from mandatory overtime pay under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. The Department of Labor took the petitioners' side, arguing that they could not be considered salespeople if their work wasn't meant to result in closed sales on the spot. The majority of justices, represented in writing by Justice Alito, rejected this reasoning on the arguably commonsensical assumption that detailers are meant to generate sales for the company in the long run. Alito also rejected the Labor Department's new understanding of detailers' status (as of 2009) as an ex post facto "unfair surprise" that could expose employers to countless lawsuits for overtime compensation. My issue with the ruling isn't with the legal reasoning or with whether detailers are salespersons or not. On those points, I'd agree that detailers are sales reps and that employers shouldn't be subject to retroactive litigation due to a change in regulatory interpretation, not a change in law. The real problem with Christopher is twofold. First, and most obviously, it shows again the Republican justices' tendency to side with employers against employees and regulators. Second, it's a bad omen for a future when more Americans will probably have to be sales reps of some sort rather than actual productive workers, and when more of them will more likely be off the clock rather than punching one. It shouldn't be hard to imagine businesses structuring their sales forces so that more will fall into categories ineligible for overtime, existing simply to "promote" rather than sell. The majority in Christopher affirms repeatedly that the plaintiffs were well compensated for their work apart from the overtime issue, but the majority's reasoning will remain valid even if future workers aren't as well compensated, but are expected to work however long to get meetings with doctors or any potential customers. The Christopher principle looks lawful but also seems unjust. The obvious solution is to change the law itself rather than tweak the interpretation. That'll require lawmakers responsive to the working class and committed to the idea that working people's rights are not determined by the Market but by the people. And if you have enough legislators of that sort, you'll eventually have jurists who'll uphold that view as well.

16 June 2012

McCain: maybe he is a maverick after all

One of the reason Republican conservatives never really warmed to John McCain was his opposition to the influence of money in politics and his insistence on money's corrupting potential if not its proven corruption of politicians. For the base Republicans to limit or even regulate campaign donations is simply to surrender to incumbents, one of whom McCain, of course, long has been. On this issue the Arizonan has taken his cues from Teddy Roosevelt, whom he invoked yesterday in remarks certain to embarrass the candidate he has endorsed for the Presidency, Mitt Romney. McCain specifically criticized Sheldon Adelson, who has also endorsed Romney, albeit indirectly by donating to a SuperPAC, after playing sugar-daddy for Newt Gingrich during the spring. Because Adelson owns casinos abroad, McCain suggested that Adelson could serve as a conduit for foreign money. The Senator also took advantage of the opportunity to renew his criticism of the Citizens United decision and to contradict Romney's famous affirmation from last year that corporations were people. Whatever his faults, McCain can't bring himself to swallow that particular article of current Republican faith. So McCain's way of supporting Romney was to insinuate that foreign money was subsidizing ads in his interest. We knew from 2008 that he's never been a fan of Romney; "contempt" probably summed up his attitude well enough. Now he's become the sort of ally the candidate would probably rather do without, like Cory Booker for President Obama. McCain certainly deserves credit for sticking to his principled heresy on the subject of campaign finance, but you do have to wonder how badly he hates Democrats in order to line up behind Romney. Maybe it's just the old military instinct, but the Republican party is no army. He wouldn't get shot for deserting -- though given the way some Republicans think, I might want to take that back.  

15 June 2012

What is extremism?

Cal Thomas takes issue in his latest column with Jeb Bush's recent criticisms of the current Republican party. Quoting Bush's description of "an unorthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement," Thomas infers that the Floridian has called the Republican base "extremist," though Bush never used the word during his interview. Republican conservatives have a conflicted relationship with the concept of "extremism." Barry Goldwater, a founding father of the modern movement, famously said at the 1964 Republican national convention that "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,"  adding that "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Goldwater embraced the label liberals applied to him, but nearly fifty years later, Thomas rejects the label and attempts to apply it to others. It seems that Goldwater and Thomas mean different things when they use the word, but "extremism" is still more flexible for rhetorical purposes. Consider three possible definitions for the term.

1. The holding of extreme opinions, "extreme" being understood as synonymous with "radical" in either the progressive or reactionary sense.

2. The resort to extreme means to realize an end, i.e. "extreme measures." In this case, one might say that vice in defense of liberty is extremism.

3. A refusal to compromise.

The third definition is the one Thomas infers from Jeb Bush's remarks, while Goldwater's use of the word comes closest to the second definition in the context of his purported belligerence toward international communism and his presumed preference for "brinksmanship" and "rollback" in waging the Cold War. Thomas himself comes closest to the first definition in his attempt to label people other than Republicans and Tea Partiers as "extremists." But when he asks why Democrats are rarely labeled "extremists" when they refuse to compromise or take a supposedly "moderate" position on certain issues, -- he defines a moderate as someone "who is pro-life or who favors less spending, smaller government and lower taxes," -- Thomas implies that the term is always subjective, selective and pejorative. He wants to define extremism objectively as a deviation from founding values, e.g. "Why aren’t liberals who are attacking the economic and moral foundations of the country the real extremists?" He also wants to reject "refusal to compromise" as an indicator of extremism, since he insists on the right and rightfulness of Republicans to refuse compromise with liberals simply for the sake of "getting things done." Obstructionism is not extremism for Thomas, and that raises the question of the relationship between extremism and compromise.

Compromise was once a virtue, and possibly the supreme virtue, in American politics, but it got a bad name after the Civil War. The Framers expected Congress to function through compromise, but the compromise they expected and depended upon was a compromise of interests -- economic interests specifically. Farmers compromised with merchants, merchants with industrialists. Such compromises could be quantified, usually in monetary terms. But as sectional conflict intensified, issues pertaining to slavery and the rights of slaveholders became more explicit and emotional conflicts of principle as well as conflicts of interest. It's more difficult to quantify a compromise of principles, and many principled people think such compromises are impossible. From the older perspective, the anti-slavery faction were the extremists because they insisted that moral principles trumped the imperative to reconcile all interests. That's where we're at today, though not for as good a reason. Conflicts over taxes and spending should be amenable to quantitative compromise. Instead, ideology insists that taxation beyond a bare minimum is always wrong on principle, or else that moral imperatives require the state to keep spending beyond its means. Centrist advocates of a "grand bargain" hope for a quantitative compromise on every front and see resistance on any front, from those unwilling to give in on taxes as well as those unwilling to give in on cuts, as "extremist." Ideology blinds many people to their own interests, though any ideologue will insist on their concrete interest in any dispute, since they see the very fate of the nation at stake in every debate. But if there is an objective ground from which we can indict extremism, it must be the one the Framers provided in their expectation that interests would be compromised. Here a better case can be made against Republican conservatives if you accept the liberal premise that Republicans put ideology ahead of the interests of needy and vulnerable Americans. Against that assertion of interest Republicans seem only to offer a moralistic insistence that each person accept the consequences of his life choices without making unconstitutional demands upon the state or fellow citizens. In a conflict between interests and ideology the ideologue should be presumed the extremist, however you judge him otherwise, unless the interest group resorts to extreme measures, e.g. the secession of slaveholding states. 

So was Goldwater wrong? In the domestic sphere, he was wrong if he saw every legislative conflict of interests as a threat to liberty. Globally, "liberty" however defined is not worth exterminating the human race to spite a tyrant. In general, the extremist's vice is his neglect of the material interests of others, down to their interest in life itself, in his exaltation of principle. But a person's free to think otherwise, and you have to respect Goldwater for making the label his own instead of hiding from it or trying to throw it on others, as Cal Thomas does. Unless you accept the dogmatically liberal premise that no end can justify any means, you can imagine situations when extreme measures may be justified. Such situations are more likely to put material survival than ideological integrity at stake. I have a hard time envisioning such situations in the halls of Congress, at least when legislators are debating budgets and tax rates.   When ideology prevents you from compromising, you're an extremist, and someone like Cal Thomas should neither fear admitting it nor bitch when someone even seems to call him one.  

14 June 2012

Idiot of the week nominee: Karl Rove

To be fair to Karl Rove, he, unlike many of the people tapped for Idiot of the Week, did not say or do something self-evidently stupid this time. Instead, Rove, in his capacity as a Fox News talking head, is a victim of circumstance, but it's a circumstance that throws his credibility as a master of measuring or manipulating public opinion into question. It may just have been bad timing, too. Last night, on the Greta Van Sustern show, he dared the President to keep blaming his predecessor, Rove's former boss, for the state of the economy. " I want him to keep doing this," Rove said, because "First of all, it shows the contempt of the President of the United States for the intelligence of the average American." Later, he added: " Let him keep doing that because the American people see that as a weak leader. That's not somebody who's in charge. That's somebody who's making excuses. And we do not like to elect people President of the United States who are excuse makers."

Today, the Gallup polling organization reports that "Americans continue to place more blame for the nation's economic problems on George W. Bush than on Barack Obama, even though Bush left office more than three years ago. The relative economic blame given to Bush versus Obama today is virtually the same as it was last September." According to Gallup's non-zero-sum poll -- respondents didn't have to choose who was more to blame -- 68% of Americans still hold Bush to blame either a "great deal" or a "moderate amount" for the current state of the economy, while 52% blame Obama to a similar extent. The percentage blaming Obama has understandably risen since he took office, from 32% in July 2009 to the present number, while the percentage blaming Bush has slid from an understandable 80% in 2009 to a still-damning 68% today. Even among Republican respondents, who are predictably most likely to assign Obama the most blame for current conditions, 49% still say that Bush deserves a great deal or moderate amount of blame. The ever-mysterious "Independents" are more likely to blame Bush, 67% of such people assigning him major or moderate shares of blame compared to 51% who blame Obama in like proportions. In the name of objectivity, however, the most unrealistic respondents are the Democrats, only 19% of whom are willing to blame Obama to any significant extent. But if you believe that forceful leadership and an unflinching commitment to creating public jobs if necessary would have made a difference, then you either have to blame Obama for obvious failures or admit that Republican obstructionism, which Democrats would like to blame for everything, depends on presidential weakness to succeed.

Unfortunately for the President, he isn't running against George W. Bush this fall and the poll doesn't allow respondents to assign Mitt Romney any share of blame for the state of the economy.  I'm sure Democrats would blame him if they could, but the rest of the public may prove more willing to try someone else if more than half blame Obama for our present plight. Polls like this one help our party system survive. They invite people to blame George W. Bush as a person, but not the Republican party or Bush's (disputed) conservative ideology. Reducing blame to a personal level allows people to see Romney as a fresh hand, untainted by any association with Bush. That's how it should be in an ideal polity, but in a party-state like ours it's not unreasonable to predict Romney's performance by reference to Bush's. If there is a "Republican" mode of stewarding the economy, it can be presumed that Bush practiced it and Romney will. Our whole political culture assumes that there is a "Republican" and "Democratic" mode of stewardship, but at election time partisans will insist that Romney resembles Bush not in the least, despite their common Republicanism, and in 2016, whether Obama wins or loses this year, Democrats will say if necessary that their new candidate has nothing to do with Obama's policies. In any event, the Gallup poll isn't necessarily good news for Obama, since his numbers aren't that impressive, but it's bad news for Karl Rove insofar as it proves him wrong. Whatever they think of Obama, most Americans will agree with him when he blames Bush for their troubles. That's not what Rove was saying last night, and the truth makes him look like an idiot. The real proof, however, is yet to come.

13 June 2012

Gingrich resents wealth -- or does he?

One reason why Americans often look to billionaires for political salvation, from Ross Perot to Michael Bloomberg, is the assumption that their ability to fund their own campaigns would leave them unbeholden to campaign donors. While the billionaire will still need to make promises to citizens to get their votes, he should not have to make promises to wealthy people or corporations to get their donations. Look at it from another perspective, however, -- from the vantage of the billionaire's rival, or even from the vantage of Newt Gingrich during his race against Mitt Romney. From Gingrich's perspective, as he explained to Al Sharpton yesterday -- and how did I miss that momentous meeting of minds? -- the ability of a super-rich candidate to finance his own campaign gives him an unfair advantage. This is because election laws restrict the amount that anyone can donate to a candidate, but not the amount a candidate can spend on himself. The fact that an individual can donate no more than $2,500 to a campaign, Gingrich argues, effectively rigs elections in favor of the super rich. As is well known, millions were spent in support of Gingrich, but much of that money went to Super PACs to make attack ads against Romney, not toward subsidizing Gingrich's campaign operations. The actual Gingrich campaign ended up deep in the red. Things might have turned out differently, he believes, were there no upper limit on the amount individuals could donate to candidates themselves. Things may have turned out differently had Rick Santorum never been born, too, but election law is something Gingrich can theoretically do something about. So to review: his solution to an election law skewed to favor the wealthy is to allow unlimited campaign donations by individuals. That, he argues, would level the playing field to the advantage of the middle class -- the middle class candidates, that is, in which category Gingrich includes himself. Since limiting how much anyone can spend on his own campaign is not an option Gingrich is willing to contemplate, I guess this is the best he can offer. But if he has a problem with money in politics, apart from his inability to raise adequate amounts of it, solving that problem by allowing more money in is like throwing gasoline on a fire. And if he's not burnt, how will Gingrich repay -- what will he owe the people who gave him the gas? That question brings us back to where we started, but looking to billionaires for salvation is no solution to the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is that the system itself, not just the candidates, depends on money. Until we can have elections with less money rather than more, the problem remains.

First Ladyism: the dynastic tendency of egalitarian politics

Michelle Obama sent me a begging letter the other day. It didn't read much differently from the ones her husband sends -- they may well come from the same ghostwriter -- except that partisanship is minimized almost to the point of absence in the First Lady's missive. While the President alternates between denouncing the Republicans by name and not mentioning them, Mrs. Obama might leave you believing that no one actually opposes her husband's policies. She poses the same stark choices the President does between "you're on your own" and "I am my brother's keeper," but can't quite bring herself to admit that anyone actually endorses the first option. This is perhaps a politically calculated reticence, guided by a belief that the First Lady shouldn't stoop to personalities in a political campaign. Why, then, is the First Lady sending me a begging letter for campaign donations? Does Ann Romney send similar stuff to National Review or Weekly Standard readers? I suspect not, and the suspicion got me wondering.

The Democratic party has cultivated First Lady cults since the days of Eleanor Roosevelt. Even the apolitical Jackie Kennedy had a cult, though that was inspired more by the fact that, by First Lady standards, Mrs. Kennedy was a goddess of glamor. More typical, however, is the assumption that the President's wife is an important partner in his political work who also shares some of his authority. Even the Republicans have come around to this view somewhat, but the Democrats still surpass them in their presumption that the First Lady is entitled to some kind of political power. There is, of course, no constitutional basis for such a belief, and even John Adams, for whom his wife was an informal political adviser, would never have imagined nor desired a public role for  Abigail as a spokesperson or advocate. Yet as liberal culture has taken a more egalitarian view of marriage, it has seemed to endorse a sense of entitlement on the part of political wives that really has no place in a representative democracy. The idea seems to be that it would be unfair for the husband to exclude the wife from his sphere of work and relegate her to the domestic sphere, even if it happens that voters elected the husband only, and not the wife, to that sphere of work. The Clintons made the modern understanding overt with their 1992 pitch that voters would get two for the price of one. Now we have Mrs. Obama asking for donations, while the news reports that the Obama campaign is depending on her strong personal popularity to help keep voters loyal to her husband. Should the President win a second term -- and possibly even if he doesn't -- we might expect to see Michelle Obama seek political office in her own right, as did the wife of the last Democratic President. Meanwhile, I don't expect to see Laura Bush run for any office, ever.

Is there a paradox at work when the more egalitarian of the two major political parties seems to practice a more dynastic form of politics? Republicans aren't immune from dynasticism of course, with two ex-President Bushes among us and a former Gov. Bush waiting his turn with apparently growing impatience, and a Gov. Romney, son of Gov. Romney, now contending for the White House. But there seems to be a qualitative difference between a son following a father into power -- that idea goes back to John Adams and his son -- and the Democratic party tendency to elevate the First Lady into a kind of queen with inherent powers. Feminism rather than plain egalitarianism may make the difference, since the ostensibly egalitarian Communist party of the Soviet Union gave no such prominence to leaders' wives until Raisa Gorbachev's emergence arguably signaled a terminal decadence. It may be, too, that Democrats are guilty of the charge Republicans make (hypocritically?) against them, that they regard the President as ideally a benevolent, energetic monarch and his household as a royal family who have shares of his power. In simpler terms, Democrats may just long for a wise leader (rather than a strictly constitutional one) whose ideal characteristics include treating his wife as an equal partner and full-time adviser, while that isn't part of the Republican ideal.

Interesting in this regard is the way Mitt Romney's father used Mitt's mother politically. George Romney had been shunted to a minor post in the Nixon cabinet after the 1968 election and wanted to reassert his control of Michigan politics. He tried to do this by getting his wife to run for a U.S. Senate seat in 1970. The elder Romney seems to have bullied Republicans into supporting her, while everyone understood that Senator Romney would have been a plain puppet of her husband. As it happened, she was humiliated by a landslide loss to an incumbent Democrat, despite young Mitt's efforts on the campaign trail. The entire episode reflects badly on George Romney, but is that because he attempted dynastic politics or because it was clear that Mrs. Romney would not have been her own woman in the Senate?  But is the Democratic attitude that First Ladyship entitles a woman to a political career, or even to campaign for political donations, much better? In both cases, politicians are playing the sort of brand-name politics on which Bipolarchy itself depends. Call me old fashioned, but my understanding remains that I don't elect the President's spouse, or any political spouse, to any political responsibility whatsoever, and that any delegation of responsibility to the spouse only increases dynastic tendencies in American politics. Getting that otherwise harmless letter from Mrs. Obama just rubbed me the wrong way -- though readers may rest assured that it makes me no more likely to vote Republican in November.

12 June 2012

David Brooks's Follower Problem: Where are we going, anyway?

David Brooks raises interesting questions in his latest New York Times column, which begins unpromisingly with grumpy comments about the uninspiring monuments the country erects these days. Brooks thinks these unheroic monuments testify to the country's increasingly conflicted attitude toward authority, and the people's apparent inability to imagine or idealize what Brooks calls "just authority." He sees many reasons for this problem, and they cut across ideological lines. Americans have become too egalitarian and too individualistic, he claims. Worse, they've become indiscriminately cynical.

These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.
The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.
You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed [sic?]  semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king. 

Brooks's equation of the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers will doubtless offend both groups, each assuming that it challenges only wrongful or abused authority, and only for indisputably good reasons. At the same time, each group probably seems authoritarian to the other, the Occupiers demanding more power for the state in the minds of the TPs, the TPs demanding more for corporate patriarchy, depending on what Occupier you talk to. But Brooks is probably onto something when he includes that both groups, if not the society as a whole, have what he calls a "follower problem." What are they missing? 

Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority. 

Brooks may complicate the issue more than he needs to, because what he's really talking about is representative government. Democratic republics depend on people trusting the people they elect, with the election itself the fundamental act of trust. But too many people, Brooks claims, take the too-democratic attitude that you're no better than I am, so who are you to tell me what to do? The problem isn't just cynicism, he writes; it's vanity. This brings him back to the monument problem. We can't create inspiring monuments, he thinks, because we're reluctant to acknowledge a hero's superiority or present him (or her) as someone who should be emulated by others. This seems more like a description of the Tea Party or larger libertarian attitude, but a shift of perspective might make widespread distrust of business leaders look very similar.

But if Brooks perceives a "follower problem," he fails to ask the most obvious next question. He may be right that "to have good leaders you have to have good followers," but before you can have good followers you have to have a general agreement about the direction we're all going in. That has to happen before anyone decides who leads and who follows, unless you presume that only a leader can decide the direction, while everyone else should trust him. I'd like to think that in a democratic republic the people decide the direction and the leaders steer us there. But we live in the American Bipolarchy, where the people do not choose the direction. Instead, we decide where we don't want to go, or who we don't want to steer us, by voting for one party as a veto on the other. Republicans may hope that Mitt Romney will get a mandate in November, but if President Obama loses it won't be because voters have positively chosen Romney's direction, but because they'll have repudiated Obama's. Romney will find, as have his recent predecessors, that such a verdict comes with no automatic deference to his will, no matter what he might assume. But if we mistrust leaders, we mistrust each other as well -- our fellow followers whether we think of ourselves or others that way or not. We may be more cynical than we were in Eisenhower's time, to choose an example Brooks offers, but is that crippling cynicism a cause or a consequence of our real trouble? Brooks gives us an interesting preliminary diagnosis, but further research is necessary.  

11 June 2012

Bipolarchy and the Bush League

Jeb Bush talks lately like a man history has passed by. That is, he's trying to get history's attention. The former Florida governor, once thought likely to be the second member of his family to become President before his erratic older brother jumped ahead of him, believes that he could beat Barack Obama this year, but he also seems to believe that he could not have gotten the Republican presidential nomination he no doubt considers necessary to topple the incumbent. He's done his duty to the party by endorsing Mitt Romney, but he told Bloomberg News that there was something wrong with the political climate, something that would have made it difficult for his father to have gotten a Republican nod today -- not that it was easy for the old man in reality. Unintentionally echoing a popular Democratic talking point, Bush said that even Ronald Reagan would have trouble in the GOP primaries because of his willingness to seek bipartisan support for his measures. Or at least that's what Bush seemed to say. He told the Bloomberg people that Reagan and his father "would have a hard time if you define the Republican party -- and I don't -- as having an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement." You could almost mistake this for a denial of the false charge that Republicans don't tolerate disagreement. But Bush appears actually to be contesting the definition of the Republican party. He would not define it as an intolerant orthodoxy, but the implication of his remarks is that many Republicans do define it that way, even though they shouldn't.

In the Bloomberg interview Bush sounds more like a centrist than an "orthodox" Republican. Despite endorsing Romney, he criticizes the nominee-apparent for taking positions on immigration during the primary campaign that put him in "somewhat of a box" when it comes to appealing to Hispanic voters in the general campaign. The Bushes pride themselves on their outreach to Hispanics, at least on the rhetorical level, and Jeb is probably well aware that this, as much as his occasional appeals to bipartisanship, makes him persona non grata with the GOP base -- the people who probably think I just wrote something in Spanish to insult them and who scold Bush in the comments section of the Bloomberg page. Bush acts as if he were auditioning for Thomas Friedman in his endorsement of Friedman's holy grail, the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan. He echoes Friedman's criticism of Obama for failing to support Simpson-Bowles for nebulous "political reasons." Such statements are likely to confirm many Democrats' belief that if Simpson-Bowles sets the standard for centrism, then centrism be damned. But Bush may be reading Friedman too much for his own good, to the point where he believes in a constituency for the sort of "radical centrism" that Friedman espouses, the advocates of  a "wise austerity" who deplores Republican base intractability and its whiff of hatred while hoping that their own more sensitive attitude and their lip service to "shared sacrifice" will soften the blow of austerity wherever it falls. Maybe Jeb Bush is the candidate Friedman's been looking for all along, the would-be wise man who doesn't see himself having a shot within his party, but with a pedigree that would make him instantly plausible, it's sad to say, as a third-party candidate. Why not build a movement to persuade Jeb to reassert his family's noblesse oblige and reclaim their birthright -- the White House. I've even thought of a name for such a movement -- but I gave it away in the headline.

08 June 2012

Patriot Voices: Rick Santorum and his enemies

Rick Santorum made news twice over today with the launch of his new "Patriot Voices" pressure group and the report that he would not release the delegates committed to him for the Republican National Convention, despite the suspension of his candidacy and his endorsement of Mitt Romney. "Patriot Voices" is offered as a non-partisan Christian Right vehicle serving those "left behind by both parties" in the interest of "faith, family, freedom and opportunity." He missed a chance to brand his cause as the "Four Fs," but that's probably just dumb luck on his part. He told FoxNews that the group would stress "importance of understanding where our rights come from and who we are as a people and a culture." I'd like to think that we don't need Rick Santorum to tell us who we are, but it's obvious enough that he means to tell us who we should be. Well, it's a free country.

More interesting is Santorum's motivation for keeping control of his delegates. While they may vote for him on the first ballot, it seems more likely, now that he's endorsed Romney, that he'll instruct them to vote for the Man From Bain. But there's more to a convention than nominating a candidate, and that's where Santorum still wants to play a major role. The Pennsylvanian is still spoiling for a fight, it seems, but before he goes after the President on Romney's behalf he's going to have it out with Ron Paul. As readers may know, Paul's people have been quietly accumulating delegates at state party conventions above and beyond their primary earnings. They've been so successful that they can claim retroactively to have won certain states. Paul's people plan to push for libertarian planks on Romney's platform, but Santorum's delegates intend to push back, it seems, in the interest of social conservatism. Santorum told his supporters that he wants his delegates to have a chance to "represent the values that I did" in the face of "candidates who have delegates coming who, let's put it this way, may have a different approach." ABC doesn't speculate on specific planks Paul and Santorum might fight over, but the report points to a personal angle, recalling that Paul had called Santorum a "fake" during one of the primary debates. It looks like Paul may learn how "for real" Santorum is this summer. This could be very interesting, both as a test of Romney's ability to manage the conflicting ideological factions that form his coalition and for the possibility of a Paul-Santorum feud causing a wider rift in the Republican party. However you vote in November, the Republicans are guaranteed to have the more interesting and entertaining convention this year.

07 June 2012

The "Constitution" Party in name only

The new American Conservative has an article by W. James Antle III about an independent presidential candidate already in the field. Virgil Goode of Virginia is a former Democrat, erstwhile Independent, and renegade Republican who is now the nominee of the Constitution Party. Goode will appear on the ballot in at least 17 states as of this week, though he's still working on meeting his home state's stringent requirements for ballot access. Like Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, Goode has credibility as an elected official that previous Constitution candidates, including the 2008 nominee, Chuck Baldwin. The party had its best showing ever with Baldwin heading the ticket, but has yet to win even 200,000 popular votes in a presidential election.

The Constitution Party probably comes closest among established parties to the "paleocon" philosophy. That means they have a less warmongering platform than the Republicans, but in Goode they've nominated a candidate who votes to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He now wants to bring the troops home, telling Antle that "we can't stay in Afghanistan and the Middle East forever," but he remains somewhat unrepentant about his past support for war, reaffirming a suspicion that Saddam Hussein did possess weapons of mass destruction. He has repented, however, his votes for the Patriot Act. Goode is an outright Islamophobe who freaked out when the first Muslim congressman swore his oath on a Qur'an. He believes that Islam is out to conquer the U.S., but now seems more suspicious of subversion from within by Muslim immigrants than of any military threat by a Muslim nation. This is most likely the true belief of the Constitution Party as a whole, based on their Christian Right biases. I suppose it's reasonable of them not to fear Muslim countries, but fearing the religion of Islam is just as bad when the fear is based on nothing but religious chauvinism.

If we can infer Goode's priorities from his website, it looks like he intends to run on a platform of homophobia, xenophobia and all-around populism. His plan to stop issuing green cards to anyone, however, is motivated less by fear of foreigners than by a desire to stop them from taking American jobs. Economically speaking his positions are predictably right-wing, with the populist exception of opposition to international "free trade" agreements. He also promises to "preserve and protect" Social Security and seems disinclined, unlike most Republicans, to privatize the system to any extent. His position is actually at odds with the Constitution party platform. Like any right-winger, Goode has to deal with the persistence of Birtherism. He told the Independent Political Report that he reserves further comment on the question of the President's nativity until he can inspect the original birth certificate. That generated a free-for-all of commentary from birthers, conservatives, libertarians, etc. The most telling comment came from one "RedPhillips," who wrote that "Had [Goode] declared himself a convinced anti-birther or brushed off the question he would have alienated a huge portion of the kind of people who might vote for a conservative third party candidate. Had he declared himself a convinced birther he would have created a big distraction. His answer expresses just the right amount of skepticism." That's a matter of perspective, since many people see no middle ground on the subject. For most, there's no good reason to question Obama's birthplace and there's no room for reserving judgment -- but how many of those people will vote against Obama this November? The sad part of it all is the implication that some people might make birtherism a litmus test for their support -- that it's not enough to think that Obama is wrong, not evil. Even sadder is the thought that someone might actually want their votes.

Goode's concern for American jobs is admirable, but unless it comes with a commitment to create jobs by any means, instead of merely waiting for our wonderful entrepreneurs to create them, it does the country little good. His newest party affiliation seems to have had a positive influence on Goode's foreign policy, though the rank and file might well keep an eye on him based on past performance. In any event, the deal breaker that makes the Constitution Party as a whole unacceptable is a Christian ideology that makes the party's very name a lie. When the party can include "Family" as one of its Seven Principles while invoking a "divinely instituted" family structure, and when it acknowledges Jesus Christ as Creator in its Preamble, they have nothing to do with the Constitution of the United States. You would think that, had the Founders meant the U.S. to be as Christian a nation as the Constitution Party believes it to be, they would have included such language in the actual Constitution. They did not, however, and that forces a choice on Goode's party. It can be the Constitution Party, or it can be the Christian Party. It cannot be both.

06 June 2012

On Wisconsin

For Republicans, Governor Scott Walker's victory in yesterday's recall election in Wisconsin is a vindication of his policy of standing up to public-employee unions. For Democrats, it will most likely be taken as proof of the malignant power of money, given the spending advantage enjoyed by the governor and his supporters. In short, Republicans will gloat and Democrats will gripe, but what seems to have happened is that a movement to recall Walker fueled by organized labor was co-opted, inevitably, by the Democratic party and turned into a do-over of the 2010 gubernatorial election. My gut feeling was that the recall was doomed as soon as the Democrats nominated Mayor Barrett of Milwaukee, the man Walker had beaten in 2010, as their candidate to replace Walker in 2012. Whether or not Badger State voters still wanted Walker, they'd already decided that they didn't want Barrett in the statehouse. Democrats should have learned from that, but they were apparently too concerned about turning the recall into a reversal of 2010.

Nominating Barrett made the recall just another Bipolarchy squabble; from what I've read, the Barrett campaign actually downplayed in their advertising the labor issues that led to the recall in the first place. That makes it easier now for the Republicans to see Walker's victory as a positive omen for the presidential election. It is somewhat ominous, no matter how you look at it. There remains a disconnect between the obvious and widespread animosity toward Republicans and the support that Democrats expect as their due and demand as a national necessity. That disconnect will persist so long as people assume that partisan interest, not the people's interest, determines the intensity of Democratic opposition to Republican schemes.

While the recall certainly scared Republicans, in retrospect they should realize that they picked a pretty easy fight. From the time Walker targeted public-employee unions last year, it was easy for him and his advocates to portray those unions as a privileged class that had exploited political connections to get a better deal for themselves than ordinary working people could manage. People in Wisconsin, who reportedly approved of Walker's measures by a narrow margin before yesterday's vote, did not see the public-employee unions as success stories worth emulating but as allies of the ruling political class who enjoyed their perceived privileges unfairly, and on the taxpayer dime. It's easy for working class people to envy other workers' job security, especially when everyone assumes that there are always more state workers than they really need. If there's actually a popular constituency for austerity in this country, it consists of people who assume that only the likes of state workers will suffer from it.

People are funny about their perceptions of parasitism. Sometimes a parasite can get so big and strong from feeding off other people that those people begin to feel that they depend on the parasite rather than the other way around. So things are seen in the private sector, but perceived parasites in the public sector are always assumed to be disposable. This nation appears divided politically between those who expect to solve our problems by purging some class of parasites and those who honestly think that there aren't any parasites anywhere. If that doesn't seem to cover all possible answers or options you see the problem with our two-party regime. Under Bipolarchy conditions there could never be a pure referendum on Gov. Walker, as a recall vote should have been, so long as Democrats get involved. As long as any struggle between Republicans and the working class can be turned into a referendum on Democrats, the workers will labor under a handicap. Bear that in mind as the year rolls on.

05 June 2012

Markets or Democracy First?

In the new American Conservative Martin Sieff relates how Russia's experience with post-Soviet democracy proves the Russian think-tanker Andranik Migranian's theory of of democratic evolution. When the Soviet Union fell, Migranian opposed rapid democratization on the not-novel basis that democracy could not flourish in the absence of free markets. The important corollary of his theory, Sieff says, is that free markets can't be created from nothing by a democratic regime. As Sieff explains:

First, you cannot create a successful democracy if a successful free market and a large middle class enjoying basic property rights and the rule of law do not already exist. Second, the system of checks and balances in any democratic society allows existing interest groups to prevent a free market from emerging. So there is no free market to generate the overall rising levels of prosperity and optimism across society that any democracy needs to survive and flourish. Third, it takes a tough, centralized authoritarian government or a strong, self-confident oligarchy to create the conditions for a free market to emerge. Only a strong central government can impose a free market and prevent the less efficient members of society from blocking it.

While Boris Yeltsin's democracy lapsed into oligarchy and evolved into Putin's authoritarianism without developing either free markets or real democracy, the Weimar Republic also seems to prove Migranian/Sieff's point, if you accept that post-WW1 Germany had no free-market preparation for proper middle-class democracy. But it could just as easily be argued that all Weimar proves is that new democracies will fail in conditions of economic privation. Sieff doesn't claim that Weimar democracy caused or exacerbated Germany's pre-Hitler economic crises; he argues only that Weimar's ineffective answers to these crises discredited democracy among Germans. He goes further, however, to say that pre-democratic Germans wouldn't have given Hitler the time of day, while adding that Hohenzollern Germany under the Kaisers was "largely democratic." What does democracy mean to Sieff, exactly? We know this much: to him, democracy isn't worth a damn if there aren't free markets, and if democracy gets in the way of free markets, a country is better off without it until it has a middle class that knows how to use democracy right, as opposed to the "less efficient" elements that might otherwise exploit the system to save themselves from markets. Sieff estimates that it might take "one or two generations -- from about 20 to 100 years" for proper middle-class, free-market democracy to take root in new soil, citing South Korea and Poland as successful examples. He recommends patience to democratizing nations and is probably unmoved by any argument for democracy as a moral imperative -- he is, after all, a big critic of the neocons. But all this theorizing makes me wonder. If democracy is only worthwhile under free-market conditions, and only authoritarian regimes can create free markets where they don't already exist, what are your options if you're convinced that your democracy has undermined free markets by pandering to entrenched interest groups or empowering the inefficient? What if you believe that free markets need to be re-established where they've been uprooted by democracy? Do you go about it democratically, or do you decide that democracy has to be set aside for a generation or three? If free markets matter more to you than anything else, even if for the heartfelt reason that prosperity is possible only with those markets, do you decide that under certain circumstances you have to roll back or end democracy where it already exists? If Sieff hasn't considered this possibility, I wonder if others have.... 

Polarization of the People?

It's time again for the annual Pew Research Center survey of American Values, and this year's survey reveals an electorate more polarized than at any point in the 25 years since Pew began this tradition. Polarization on partisan lines accelerated after the election of George W. Bush and has not slowed down under Barack Obama. Pew claims that party identification is now a stronger determinant of polarized attitudes than any other demographic category -- more so than class, race, religion, etc. The last time polarization decreased was between 1994 and 1997, a short-lived trend probably traceable to some soul-searching and cooling of heads after the Oklahoma City bombing. Polarization accelerated most dramatically during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq but has climbed steadily to its new peak since Obama's election. Polarization is ideologically driven, the differences between partisans being most stark on questions touching on the role of government and the need for a social safety net. In simplest terms, fewer Republicans are willing to see government spend money on poor people, while Democrats explicitly disregard questions of deficits and debts when insisting on government aid to the needy. Self-styled independents predictably fall in the middle. They're more likely to agree with Democrats that government should "take care of people who can't take care of themselves," though an independent may define that category more narrowly than a Democrat, while they draw closer to Republicans when the survey raises the specter of national debt. Possibly explanatory are the findings of an "Efficacy vs. Fatalism" question. While all groups agree that "the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer," the major parties draw different conclusions from that observation. A majority of all people surveyed reject the "fatalist" premises that "success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control" and that "hard work offers little guarantee of success," but Democrats as a group tend towards "fatalism," while Republicans presumably assume that hard work can overcome all obstacles, and independents occupy the middle ground. Republicans are also the group most likely to blame poverty on "lack of effort" rather than "circumstances."  Going back to the question of government's responsibility to the needy, we can infer that Republicans assume either that anyone currently incapable of taking care of himself can just work harder and take control over his life, or that such people may as well vanish from the face of the earth. Perhaps tellingly, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to complain that government isn't responsive to them and their concerns, though independents are even more likely to make that complaint.    

Pew makes no attempt to explain why polarization has accelerated so dramatically since the 1980s, and theirs is an insufficient sample to back any claim that today is the most polarized moment in American history. I imagine the Civil War period will always hold that position, but polarization has been a persistent feature of political life under a Bipolarchy. The intellectual bases and emotional intensity of polarization differ across time. A century or more ago, it was often a matter of raw "team" identification or ethnocultural identity politics, Democrats being the party of immigrants, Catholics, working class city folk, etc. while Republicans were the WASP and country party. Partisan propaganda was as ubiquitous in the past as it seems now, though it obviously took different forms. Take all of this as a warning against automatically blaming talk radio, Fox News, MSNBC, etc., for today's climate. They clearly play a role, but we can question whether they instigate polarization or only exacerbate it. To some extent public opinion must come straight from the public, not from the spinmeisters of the party propaganda offices. Despite the survey finding that Americans mostly deny the premise of national decline, it looks fairly obvious that millions of people, for any number of reasons, have decided that millions of other Americans need to be kicked to the curb and made to fend for themselves, whether because we can't afford to carry them anymore or because we never should have carried them. These millions may believe sincerely that those other millions can and will fend for themselves, or they may feel that it's none of their business -- unless they choose to be charitable -- if anyone can't. People with such opinions may not be "declinists," but they certainly represent a nation in decline. Decline itself may be the ultimate or fundamental cause of today's polarization, since it does seem to force an eventual either-or choice on us: "no one left behind" or "every man for himself." Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans perfectly represent these choices, but Americans may pick between the parties based on their own choice of options. We could get rid of Bipolarchy tomorrow and Americans may well feel the same way they do today. Who do we blame then?

04 June 2012

Reichle v. Howards: Don't touch the Veep!

Steven Howards probably blew whatever chance he had with the Supreme Court the day he lied about laying hands on Vice President Cheney at a Colorado shopping mall. Howards sued the Secret Service officers who subsequently arrested him for violating his First Amendment rights. He claimed that the arrest was retaliation for his comments on Cheney's metaphoric kid-killing role in the Iraq War. The officers appealed for immunity, and today a unanimous Court (minus Justice Kagan, who had dealt with the case while Solicitor General) granted it. In the official opinion Justice Thomas ruled that Secret Service agents should not be subject to suit for "retaliatory" arrests made on "probable cause." Probable cause kicked in once it became apparent that Howards had lied about what he's since described as a laying on of hands, and what others have called an attempted shove. The key quote from Thomas's opinion is "This Court has never recognized a First Amendment right to be free from a retaliatory arrest that is supported by probable cause." Since the charges against Howards were eventually dropped, the arrest is all he could have sued over, though that's not an option now. Clarifying the real meaning of the ruling, two of the liberal justices, Ginzburg and Breyer made clear that Reichle, et al were entitled to special consideration in their appeal because they were Secret Service agents and were obliged and empowered to make snap decisions for the security of their charges. One gets the feeling that the ruling would have gone the same way had Howards never touched Cheney, since the real issue, as far as the justices were concerned, was the rights of the agents, not Howards's rights. Thomas hints that "probable cause" might be found for a retaliatory arrest, and to immunize the arresting officer, even if someone had only spoken and not confronted an official hands-on. "[T]he connection between alleged animus [the basis of Howards's suit] and injury may be weakened in the arrest context by a police officer's wholly legitimate consideration of speech," he writes. Of course, an actual assassin trying to get close to a politician is unlikely to give "probable cause" by declaring his hatred for all to hear. On that understanding, it seems that all the Court has done is give the Secret Service free reign to bully anyone who dares tell off a politician at close range. In our current political environment disagreement is equated with hate; speaking truth (or anything else) to power inevitably looks like a threat. Let my opinion seem partisan because of Cheney's involvement, I can just as easily see some crank carted off for confronting the current President and demanding that he prove his place of birth on the spot. When the safety of power comes before the right to confront power verbally, something has gone wrong in this country.

We need independents, not centrists

Writing in The New York Review of Books (the article is available to subscribers only online), Michael Tomasky reviews Linda Killian's new book on "The Untapped Power of Independents" but seems more interested in taking down a straw man. Tomasky wants to refute the supposed contention of self-styled centrists that "'both sides,' liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are more or less equally to blame for our problems." He cites some roll-call research proving, to no one's actual surprise, that Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats have to the left. But he can't cite any writer who's actually written or said that both parties are equally to blame for gridlock. It's one thing to say that they share blame, another to say that they deserve equal shares. Nor does it follow from the proof of greater Republican blameworthiness that the correct response is for everyone to rally behind the Democratic party. Not even Tomasky himself recommends that explicitly. He proposes "one far-reaching solution to our problems," -- electing more moderate Republicans "who would be willing to legislate and compromise as in the old days," -- but admits that "there is no sign that it will be done." The one thing he won't recommend, of course, is forming another independent party. The failure of Americans Elect has convinced Tomasky that there is no constituency for the sort of moderate or centrist that AE seemed designed to promote. For all practical purposes, he offers his readers no choice but to support the Democrats for the following reason.

In our current climate, about 40 percent of the electorate is very conservative and would vote for Sarah Palin. All Bloomberg, or anyone [who  runs as an independent] would do is split the remaining 60 percent. So [any moderate independent candidacy] is a plan that would reward the very people who are the main cause of the problem.

While Tomasky doesn't want to reward the party that's the main cause of the problem, he leaves us no choice but to reward the party that is a cause of the problem. He can disprove that Democrats are as guilty as the GOP, but he didn't prove that they are not guilty. Merely restating the terms of the polemic between liberals and centrists underscores the real problem with the Democratic party. Liberals complain that party leaders compromise too much and strive too much to be centrist, while centrists complain that the party base doesn't compromise or strive enough to be centrist. Arguing over which is right is folly. The problem is that the Democratic party compromises or refuses to compromise, tacks to the center or the left, when it serves the electoral and fundraising interests of the party. Instead of fighting to overturn a situation where 40 percent of the electorate skews every political question, the Democrats exploit it. They take advantage of the plight Tomasky acknowledges, in which they're the nation's only defense against Republicans, and compel their constituents to settle for whatever they decide is practical or pragmatic. Then they tell us that to protest is to "make the perfect the enemy of the good" and guarantee the victory of evil. It is their position as the only practical option for liberals that allows them to get away with centrism, and their need to cater to a liberal base during primary/fundraising season that frustrates centrists. Neither group gets what it really wants from the Democrats, but fear of Republicans forces them to settle time after time. Democratic pundits resented Americans Elect and centrists in general because they felt that the Democratic party was already quite centrist, thank you -- while resenting that very fact. Despite their protests, there's still a place in this campaign season, at every level of elected office, for independent candidates. But if Americans Elect proved anything, it was that there's no place in these campaigns for people who promise to do what the Democrats are already doing, only more so. What we need are parties and candidates who'll end the political culture of dependency and fear in which Democrats flourish -- which isn't the one Republicans are always ranting about. What that requires from us is the courage not to care if Republicans win another election. After all, if more people are "very conservative" than are liberal, moderate, leftist, etc., then I suppose they deserve another chance to get the government they want. And if that 40 percent statistic scares you, there's probably no better way to reduce it than to let Republican conservatism fail again. But if you honestly believe that the stakes are too high this time, your problem isn't necessarily with the Democratic party, but with democracy itself, at least as practiced in the U.S.A.

01 June 2012

Private-Equity Democrats

The Democratic party appears to be split between people who believe the private-equity business to be above criticism and those who disagree. Mayor Booker of Newark had been the most prominent private-equity Democrat until ex-President Clinton spoke up in defense of Mitt Romney's business record yesterday. Clinton made sure to say that Romney's economic plans for the nation are inferior to President Obama's, but those remarks were buried under headlines reporting that another prominent Democrat had criticized the Obama campaign for criticizing Bain Capital. Like Booker, Clinton has personal reasons for his stance. In Clinton's case, he admits to having "friends" in private equity. He objects in particular to the implicit portrayal of private equity as "bad work." On this issue, then, Clinton (and Booker) stand to the right of Newt Gingrich, who notoriously described Bain as a "vulture capitalist" firm during his campaign against Romney, insofar as "left" and "right" positions are determined by your stance on capitalism.

The real issue isn't whether Booker or Clinton is criticizing the President, but whether they're faithful to the heritage of their party. Going back to its Jeffersonian antecedents, the Democratic party has often if not always taken a critical if not adversarial stance toward finance. Jefferson himself had a physiocratic bias in favor of agriculture as the true basis of national wealth, while classic "Jacksonian Democracy" in the 19th century idealized physical labor at the expense of speculation and banking. Before Karl Marx, Democrats harbored suspicions that capitalists, owners, bosses, or the "money power" in general weren't giving working people their due. This stance often took extreme or irrational form, from Jefferson's anti-modern physiocracy to the antebellum argument that wage slavery was worse than literal human slavery. But the consistent point remained that there was always something to criticize, from the perspective or ordinary working people, in the workings of capital itself, not just the practices of specific companies or executives. Apologists like Booker and Clinton seem to be saying that there is nothing inherent to criticize in private equity or, by implicit extension, other forms of finance capital. But regardless of what Democrats see as the relative virtues and flaws of Bain Capital, there is always an argument to be made against the exploitation of labor by capital, or else there's no reason for a "left" to exist in this country, by anyone's definition. Democrats who miss this point can't be ranked with the left unless you really believe, as they may themselves, that the real issue between "left" and "right" is the power of the state. But if you still believe that "left" has something to do with the interests of the working class, then you should question again whether a Democratic party represented by Bill Clinton and Cory Booker is really on your side.