30 November 2012

Cal Thomas calls for a tax strike

He calls it a "tax revolt," but Cal Thomas stresses in his latest column that he's calling for fiscal conservatives to "creatively, but legally, withhold from the government some of the money they earn" in order to compel Congress and the President to cut spending. On the premise that "The tax system in this country is based on willful compliance," Thomas suggests that "the so-called 'rich,'" as opposed to the truly rich who often have no problem with higher taxes, limit their taxable income by shifting enough into legal tax shelters to keep them out of the highest bracket. Thomas's tax strikers are urged to do this "until we see real spending reform and policies that result in economic growth, which by itself would produce more tax revenue." This is supply-side dogma, indifferent to whether the country can wait for its prayers to the private sector to be answered with growth before getting the revenue it needs. It's also behind the times. Thomas invokes Howard Jarvis of Proposition 13 fame as the model for a tax revolt or tax strike, but Jarvis's state of California has just revolted against his legacy by voting for higher taxes by referendum. Of course, any Californian inspired by Thomas could go on a tax strike on the state level as well. Maybe some could be convinced to walk a symbolic picket line and let the people know where they stand, too.

The amazing thing about Thomas's screed is his claim that, by not cutting entitlements as drastically as he might like, Congress is "failing to put the people first." Any Democrat will argue that he or she is putting the people first precisely by demanding more revenue and resisting cuts to programs that assist the poor. As always, it comes down to how you define "the people." Republicans take a collective view of the people despite their individualist rhetoric. They often sneer at "no x left behind" rhetoric, even or especially when it comes from their own party. As long as the people in general endure, those individuals who can't hack it in the modern economy can fall by the wayside, whether or not charity has a net in place. Just as you can't have a war without casualties, you can't have a free economy without losers, or without defeat having consequences that educate the survivors. In short, for Republicans "the people" does not mean "everyone." Thomas clarifies things further. The object of his proposed tax revolt is "to keep government from constantly pilfering the assets of the productive so politicians can subsidize the unproductive, buy their votes and addict them to entitlements." For Thomas, "the productive" are "the people," or at least the people whom Congress must put first. The "unproductive," all of whom, one might infer, Thomas presumes to be so willingly, are at most a lesser category of the people, if they count at all for him. They only become "productive," one might infer further, when the "productive" rather than the government employs them. They are kept idle until the "productive" decide it might be profitable to employ them rather than foreigners, and all the while they are blamed for being unproductive and "addicted" to government, as if some change in the attitude of the "unproductive" will at once make them not only employable, but employed. Such are the premises that justify Thomas's call for a tax strike. His proposals may indeed be legal. If so, they make him a "legal" enemy of the people, for what that's worth. If he denies the charge, let him defend himself to those people, and not just his own "red" amen corner. Thomas often writes about successful people reaching out to mentor the poor, to teach them skills and good work habits. He should practice what he preaches politically and show some courage by telling the people he thinks are wrong why they're wrong, why they ought to make do with less, why the poorest have to tighten their belts, and why they should have more faith in the "productive" than in God. Cal Thomas is still thought of as a representative of the Christian Right, but I'm challenging him to go into "blue" America and preach his true religion.

29 November 2012

The contradictory voice of the people

Here's an interesting tidbit I turned up while reading an article in The New Republic. John B. Judis writes: "According to 2012 exit polls, a majority of Americans think government is 'doing too many things better left to individuals and businesses.'" If it's an exit poll, then Judis means a majority of American voters. A majority of American voters also re-elected President Obama, who was portrayed by his opponents as believing the opposite of what the exit-polled majority had affirmed. The re-election of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives seems more consistent with the exit poll but the presidential election is presumably the more definitive statement of the American people as a whole. So have the American people contradicted themselves? How do we account for this? Judis himself suggests: "[T]his distrust has always co-existed with support for specific initiatives. When elections hinge on abstractions and unrealized programs, as the 2010 election partly did, Republicans fare well. When they hinge on specifics -- like the auto bailout or taxes for the wealthy -- Democrats often thrive." In addition, it doesn't follow from a belief that government does "too many things" better left to the private sector that someone believes that all things government does, or even nearly all, are better left to the private sector. In other words, one may believe that government is doing "too much" without endorsing authentic Republican doctrine or wanting government to do as close to nothing as possible. As well, while the exit poll elicits a statement of principle, it doesn't address whether circumstances may require government to do what it normally shouldn't. If the exit poll accurately describes Americans' general principles, it may indicate where the critical divide in politics actually lies. We may not be divided so much between those who would limit government's scope and those who see no necessary limit to it as between those who recognize when exceptions should be made to a general principle of hands-off government and those dogmatically opposed to any exceptions. If so, Mitt Romney wasn't defeated by a mob of willing dependents upon omnipotent government, but by a voting majority convinced that, when individuals and businesses fail, government has to step in. This presumed majority was presumably unpersuaded by the argument that we should instead affirm our belief in fairies by clapping our hands until Tinker Belle wakes up, or by throwing money at her -- excuse me: by "letting Tink keep more of her money." To sum up, it doesn't follow from a belief that government does many things we'd prefer individuals and businesses to do that we believe that only individuals and businesses can save us. The American people believe one thing, apparently, and the Republican party believes the other. If voters nationwide believed that about Mitt Romney, it helps explain why he lost.

28 November 2012

Is 'False Balance' a price of pluralism?

In the aftermath of the presidential election, Nation columnist Eric Alterman has pressed his attack on those "Mainstream Media" outlets he has accused of neglecting to expose Republican lies and errors out of some misguided commitment to balanced coverage of politics. In his latest piece, Alterman quotes a New York Times editorial department exchange in which one editor disclaims any responsibility to "litigate" between the two major parties, the paper's responsibility being, in his opinion, solely to "state what each side says." That quote first appeared in an article in which the Times addressed charges of "false balance," defined by Margaret Sullivan as "the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side." She protests, however, that determining the objective truth isn't always as easy as critics like Alterman assume. She warns, also, that "sometimes readers who demand “just the facts” are really demanding their version of the facts" In some fields, science particularly, there's little excuse for "false balance," but on the question of voter fraud, for instance, Times editors are reluctant to state as bluntly as Alterman would like that Republicans are wrong, and Democrats right.

But while we can assume that Alterman expects all objective questions to resolve that way, his bias doesn't devalue his core question: does a commitment to balance between (or among) all the parties in political disputes compromise the pursuit of truth that ought to be everyone's objective? Should the news media be in the business of telling the public that a political party is wrong on some subject, or does its responsibility end at informing the public of each party's opinion on the subject? This shouldn't be such a hard question, especially if we assume that every party will be objectively wrong some of the time. Media objectivity should not result in the media always siding with one party against another, Alterman's hopes notwithstanding. But what if that was the trend? What if we had a major party that was as consistently wrong on objective facts as Democrats and Republicans claim each other to be? What if a political party, or at least its program, could be determined objectively to be detrimental to the country? Why shouldn't such a party be discredited unto extinction, presuming that it can't be extinguished by law?

The U.S. remains a liberal democracy to the extent that it privileges dissent. In every other realm but the political, the absence of dissension would be regarded as proof of harmony, but in the political realm, liberals -- classical or otherwise -- identify the absence of dissent with the existence of tyranny. For liberals, to borrow a system of measurement from Randolph Bourne, dissent is the health of the state. For that reason, self-conscious liberals in particular, no doubt highly represented within the "MSM," are reluctant to appear as if they are contributing in any way to the suppression of dissent. For the same reason, we give foreign dissidents the benefit of the doubt most of the time, especially when we presume that their rulers aspire to tyranny. Whether it's Pussy Riot or Falun Gong or Venezuelan millionaires or Syrian rebels, dissent is good because it is dissent. Exceptions are made for mobs protesting insults to Islam or European austerity measures, but wherever alarming concentrations of power are perceived, dissent is praised by Americans, and tolerance of it is urged upon foreign leaders. In the U.S. itself, Bipolarchy probably makes the imperative to "false balance" more urgent, on the assumption that the fatal discrediting of one of the major parties would result in the nation becoming a one-party state. Since a one-party state is tyranny almost by definition, at least as far as American liberals are concerned, the impulse to give the one party standing between the other and political monopoly the benefit of the doubt is powerful. By comparison, harmony has little appeal in the political realm, since harmony is presumed to depend on the deference of the many to the few, be they the medieval nobility of Europe or the administrative elite of 21st century China.  Liberals don't aspire to the absence of dissent, since they either think it impossible or assume it possible only through force. Nor should the permanent absence of dissent be anyone's goal. If it's always possible that a leader can be wrong, it should always be possible for someone to say so. The problem arises in a Bipolarchy state in which one institution attains, or two regularly exchange, the privileged status, de facto if not de jure, of an official and therefore protected opposition. Rather than empower dissent, that condition enables the official opposition to get away with dissent as an end unto itself, with taking opposition to justify its existence, even if the opposition itself is unjustified, while real dissent may languish unnoticed or disrespected, should the dissident not belong to the official opposition. So long as the Republican party is perceived as the only opposition to the Democratic party, it will enjoy this peculiar indulgence from liberal culture, and so will the Democrats in turn. The more viable political alternatives exist, the more willing society and culture might be to punish one major party definitively for its factual errors or rhetorical sins. If Americans won't accept a one-party state as the solution to the current gridlock, they should demand a true multi-party system -- or make it happen themselves by taking chances on existing alternatives --  in which they could afford to toss a defective party on the ash-heap of history. Until then, the defective party, or parties, will continue to get the benefit of the doubt on the assumption that nothing could be worse than the absence of dissent. The world history of republics, however, warns us that that assumption can't always be relied upon.

27 November 2012

The American Conservative on the Republican crisis

The December American Conservative hit my mailbox this week with eagerly-awaited commentary on the presidential election. As regular readers will recall, the Conservative favors neither the neocon/globalist tendencies within the Republican party nor, more predictably, the statist tendencies of the Democratic party. Influenced by co-founder Pat Buchanan, the magazine defined itself as a forum for "paleoconservatives" who despite their often reactionary cultural views have often been more open to ideas from the "left" than their more conventional fellow Republicans and claimed common ground with the left in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. No fans of Mitt Romney were likely to be found in the Conservative's pages, nor does there seem to be much mourning over Romney's defeat. "The GOP's greatest problem is not an inability to win elections," the lead editorial claims, "but its inability to govern in a principled and prudent conservative fashion." Romney would only have proven this again, the editorial implies.

To emphasize the importance of prudence, the December issue gives five pages to Bruce Bartlett, the former think-tanker ostracized by the GOP mainstream for criticizing George W. Bush. As Bartlett writes here, he "grew totally to despise the man for his stupidity, cockiness, arrogance, ignorance and cluelessness." But his disaffection with Dubya only presaged Bartlett's deeper estrangement from the Republican intelligentsia, who suffer, in the faddish terminology of the moment, from "epistemic closure," which Bartlett translates as "living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction."

Bartlett feels that he began as a critic from Bush's right, chiding him and the Republicans who controlled Congress for rampant pork-barrel spending. He discovered that epistemic closure is sometimes an economic imperative. His fall from GOP grace accelerated once people determined that "my criticism was threatening contributions from right-wing millionaires in Dallas." He lost his think-tank job because his boss claimed that an as-yet unpublished book by Bartlett was "already costing the organization contributions." I'm reminded of the Republican donors Joe Scarborough spoke of following the election, who complained that they had wasted their money donating to SuperPACs because the PACS assured them that Romney would win. Such people demand affirmation, not information, while Bartlett continued to inform himself. He started a book on the rise and fall of economic theories, expecting to show that Keynesian demand-side economics had had its moment, during the Depression, but was no longer relevant in changed circumstances. To his credit, Bartlett, an early champion of supply-side economics, intended to show that his preferred theory also had a limited lifespan. What surprised him was his realization, based on his research, that in the 21st century "we needed Keynesian policies again...We still need more aggregate demand, and the Republican idea that tax cuts for the rich will save us becomes more ridiculous by the day." Bartlett now sees himself to President Obama's left on fiscal issues, characterizing himself as "somewhere on the center-left" while Obama himself "is not a leftist. In fact, he's barely a liberal." Bartlett refuses to confess himself a liberal, but laments that "these days they are the only people who will listen to me." Republicans won't be on the road to recovery, he claims with slight arrogance, until they "once again start asking my opinion," -- and apparently the Conservative editors agree with him.

Pat Buchanan feels that Republicans have succumbed to globalization. Noting Romney's failure, Buchanan sees the Man From Bain as a scapegoat for "the de-industrialization of America [in which] the Republican Party has been a culpable co-conspirator." Buchanan is a double protectionist, specifically concerned with protecting American workers from outsourcing and from competition for jobs from immigrants. He rejects all suggestions of outreach to Hispanic voters, who voted less readily for Romney than they did for Bush. Despite Bush's relative popularity with that demographic, Buchanan feels that Hispanics in general are destined to be Democrats, on the assumption that Hispanic immigrants will not get the skills-intensive jobs the country still offers, but will become dependent upon government. "Why would they vote for a party that is going to cut taxes they do not pay, but take away government benefits they do receive?" he asks. That extends to immigrants from anywhere but Europe, in Buchanan's view. Unless something can be done soon to reverse demographic trends, Buchanan warns, the GOP faces an "existential crisis." If no power can restore the country's manufacturing sector, he may be right, but why can't any power do that? People like Buchanan talk a good game about protecting workers, but to the extent that they still see capitalism as the morally superior system of economic organization, they can't help but concede defeat once the bosses take their jobs elsewhere, since the alternative violates their ideal of liberty. To the extent that he is a protectionist, in his advocacy of tariffs and other measures against imports, Buchanan is willing to violate the absolute ideal of economic liberty, but to the extent that he is a conservative, in his defense of property and "free enterprise," a moment must come when he will choose liberty over protection, to workers' detriment.

American conservatism has long been torn between an American commitment to liberty and a conservative dedication to order. Their intellectual gamble depends on a balance being struck between liberty and order, the balance itself depending on some kind of morality keeps liberty from becoming license and order from becoming oppression. Should the balance fail, however, perceptions may become skewed -- if too strong a commitment to liberty makes order appear more oppressive, or vice versa. Inescapably, definitions of both liberty and order are open to challenge. This becomes more problematic the more thinkers are inclined, as American conservatives often are, to see things in intellectual or moral terms rather in practical material terms. Is order (or liberty) simply the prevalence of a certain moral code, or can -- or must -- either be measured in terms of the physical well being of citizens? Editor Daniel McCarthy hopes that his magazine's thoughtful readers can begin shaping change at "the level of philosophy and education" instead of wasting their resources by throwing them at Karl Rove. That's an admirable idea, but he should bear in mind that American conservatives still have a lot of thinking to do before they try to educate the rest of us. 

26 November 2012

The party of Grover Norquist?

In the weeks following the presidential election, Republicans have been debating amongst themselves how to rehabilitate their image for the majority of voters. The debate has focused on some Republicans' realization that many Americans believe that Republicans hate them. This year really ran the alarm bell for the GOP because Mitt Romney was perceived as hating people for class reasons, rather than for reasons of race, religion, gender, etc. Alarmed Republicans have said that their party needs to choose between outreach and rabble-rousing, preferably by repudiating those divisive personalities most suspected of hating people for any reason, no matter how beloved those personalities may be by the party's primary base. Lost in this confusion of recrimination is another, perhaps more immediate choice the party faces. The weekend's news featured reports of Republican legislators repudiating the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" of perpetual opposition to tax increases. The Pledge was the brainchild of Grover Norquist, who promises, in barely veiled terms, primary challenges for any Republican who breaks his word. On CNN yesterday, Norquist specifically rejected the argument of Rep. King of New York, who had suggested that the Pledge was appropriate to an earlier time and different economic conditions, but ought not to be binding today. For Norquist, resistance to high tax rates is an eternal principle grounded in timeless economic truths. Tax cuts, in his view, were the foundation of the "Reagan recovery" of the 1980s, preferable in terms of rapid re-employment to what Norquist perceives as a tax-hobbled "Obama recovery." He still upholds the premise that lower tax rates result in greater revenue, since lower taxes encourage economic growth, and growth means more income to tax at the old rate. The essential assumption is that growth is inevitable if not constant so long as government doesn't impose disincentives to investment. Rep. King's skepticism toward the eternal relevance of the Pledge is understandable. King himself presumably remains a kind of fiscal conservative, but just as some Republicans now seem to realize that conservatism shouldn't come with a presumption of hate, King and his fellow GOP apostates indicate that fiscal conservatism need not be synonymous with the supply-side dogma preached by Norquist. Supply-sideism in modern times is founded upon the coincidence of economic growth and tax cuts during the 1960s, but presumes a correlation applicable in all times and under all circumstances. From that perspective, as another writer asserts, if you want economic growth tax increases are always wrong. This columnist puts the choice for Republicans in the starkest terms; he calls on the GOP to fight tax hikes "to the death," since giving in to Obama would be "economic suicide." Most observers believe, however, that going over the "fiscal cliff" would be economic suicide, unless we can grab a tree branch on the way down. The centrists demand a "grand bargain" of tax hikes and cuts to entitlements, albeit a combination of the two less drastic than would come automatically should we go over the "cliff." Norquist and his acolytes would have the Republicans challenge Obama to a chicken run to the cliff's edge, hoping that the President will chicken out first and capitulate to a cuts-only plan. On their planet they don't need to compromise any more because they've done all the compromising so far by acquiescing in the closing of loopholes, while Obama, despite the critical perceptions of the activist left, has done no compromising at all. I can't imagine that even many Republicans actually believe that. The question now is: what do they believe? If they blame their losses this year on a perception that they hate people, they should also consider the perception that they place ideology before national interest. They may accuse Democrats of doing the same, but there's always something more concrete in Democratic ideology because they always claim to be looking out for the weak and the needy, while the GOP has to argue the trickier proposition that the rich and secure need government's care, albeit by government restraining itself. If Republicans want to win over more people, they might try convincing those people that they care for people more than ideological economics -- that their patriotism is loyalty to the people, not loyalty to dogma. If that means risking primaries with fanatic challengers backed by Grover Norquist, then it's up to Republicans to decide whether the GOP is their party or his.

23 November 2012

Revolutionary prerogatives and constitutional coups, then and now

Whatever favorable impression President Morsi of Egypt may have made upon liberal observers abroad as a mediator between Hamas and Israel this week has most likely been overshadowed by his perceived "power grab" at home this weekend. The recently-elected leader has conferred a kind of immunity upon himself against a judiciary still infested, to use his own metaphor with "weevils" from the Hosni Mubarak regime. The rationale is that Morsi and his government are trying to carry out a "revolution," and that leftovers from the old regime should not be able to impede them. The situation is awkward, obviously, since the revolution has left the "weevils" in place, though Morsi is now trying to sideline them or at least limit their relevance. In keeping with the revolutionary imperative, Morsi has claimed authority in terms inevitably ominous to western ears, granting himself by decree the power (as quoted by the Guardian newspaper) to "take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution." In other words, Morsi is acting like the "commander in chief" of the revolution, and if what's happening in Egypt actually is a revolution, what else could people expect? Taking the broadest perspective, the real complaint against Morsi and the Egyptian reformers in general is that theirs is a haphazard revolution. Can it even be a revolution if it retains a judiciary dedicated to enforcing the old regime's constitution, presumably by the old regime's standards? But had he or any other revolutionary authority simply done away with the judiciary, or even with specific untrustworthy jurists, the same critics would cry "power grab!" But what's a revolution if not a power grab? How can a revolution appear other than "unconstitutional" from the perspective of relics of the old regime? Constitutions are designed to preempt revolution, or at least so think many constitutionalists. It was Abraham Lincoln's idea, for instance, that a constitution could have no provision for its dissolution through revolution. In Egypt the confusion seems rooted in everyone's desire to maintain some actual continuity between the old regime and the new. At risk, as far as liberal critics in and out of Egypt are concerned, is the rule of law. From their perspective, Morsi has empowered himself to govern as a dictator, just as American presidents have seemed to do through sweeping claims of national-defense prerogatives. The likelihood of a president actually becoming a dictator depends in part on partisan perceptions. The Muslim Brotherhood is probably unalarmed by Morsi's move, while smaller parties are understandably spooked and are hitting the streets of Cairo to protest. Americans should keep their own history in mind as they watch Egypt and the rest of the "Arab Spring." It's not too great an exaggeration to note that almost every word of the Constitution was opposed as some kind of power grab by the executive branch or the judiciary or the larger states, and the work of the Philadelphia convention was denounced as unconstitutional under the Articles of Confederation. Antifederalists saw aspiring tyrants all around them in 1787. That doesn't prove by analogy that liberal Egyptians are wrong to see Morsi as an aspiring tyrant, but it's a reminder that revolutions always come with such fears. If they didn't, they wouldn't be real revolutions. A real revolution inevitably replaces one rule of law with another that will inevitably judged by the standards of the past and contending ideals. It's always a messy project, and Egypt's revolution may be messier, if not necessarily bloodier, than others. It's no surprise the people are pressing panic buttons now, -- need I remind you that Morsi and his party are dreaded Islamists? -- but objectively speaking it's probably a little too soon to panic, just as it's definitely too soon to tell whether the Egyptian revolution will amount to anything at all.

20 November 2012

George W. Bush: An unrecognized political genius?

Republican soul-searching continues. Today's contestant is Jonah Goldberg, for whom the last Republican President is looking somewhat better right now in the reflected light of Mitt Romney's flameout. Goldberg is newly respectful of George W. Bush's popularity among Hispanics, recalling that Dubya got 44% of the Hispanic vote in the 2004 election, while Romney won but 27% of that demographic. Attempting to account for the difference, Goldberg joins other Republicans who've focused on Romney's perceived contempt for common people. Even if exit-polled voters deemed Romney more capable of leadership and economic stewardship, they were more convinced, and it apparently mattered much more, that President Obama "cares about people like me." This brings Goldberg back to the recently-discredited Dubya brand of "compassionate conservatism." Goldberg had never been a fan of the brand, finding it an implicitly insulting redundancy -- the implication being that conservatives who differed with Bush on certain issues were less compassionate than he. As articulated, if the verb fits, by Dubya, compassionate conservatism struck Goldberg as "a philosophical surrender to liberal assumptions about the role of the government in our lives," the genuine conservative (or Republican) assumption being that "government is not the best and certainly not the first resort for acting on one's compassion." Goldberg apparently found Dubya contemptible when the Texan said "when somebody hurts, government has got to move." If that's compassionate conservativism Goldberg still doesn't like it. But "given the election results, I have to acknowledge that Bush was more prescient than I appreciated at the time."

Republicans are confronting the fact that perceptions matter, though many have chosen to confront it by pushing Romney out front to walk point. The first move of the 2016 presidential campaign, if not the 2014 congressional elections, is for Republicans to begin convincing the electorate that it was Romney, not Republicans as a group, who despised the poor or the larger 47% Romney dismissed as hopeless, irredeemable dependents. Against the instincts or impulses of their own electoral base, Republicans must convince a majority of voters that they actually do care whether any American lives or dies. Many Republicans have probably felt it beneath their dignity to have to make such assurances, since they most likely don't care sincerely and feel that those to whom such assurances have to be made have no dignity. Whatever Romney really feels, many Republicans definitely despise those who refuse to prefer death or deprivation to dependency. Nevertheless, those people vote, and despite Republican preferences they want some assurance from their political leaders that they will live, at least. Ideally, Republicans could find a way to convince people that dependence upon the state is the wrong way to live while assuring those people that the Republican party actually wants them to live. Compassionate conservatism may still strike Republicans like Goldberg as contemptible, but he at least begins to see the necessity of combining compassion and conservatism in some way, even if the one doesn't modify the other as much as Ole Dubya may have desired.

19 November 2012

Scapegoating Romney; or, the GOP exorcises itself

Whatever credit Mitt Romney had been given since Election Day for grace in defeat has been largely lost since he was quoted blaming his defeat on "gifts" that President Obama gave potential voters in the forms of various programs and benefits. Interestingly, he's faced the most scorn and condemnation from within the Republican party, from people presumed to be to his right. On television yesterday, George Will found the "gift" quote damning proof that Romney "despised" the American people, and even the likes of Newt Gingrich, who has also insisted lately on greater inclusiveness within the GOP, see it as clinching Romney's unworthiness. This is all very strange. I certainly expected the right-wingers to dogpile on Romney, but I expected a repeat of their damnation of Sen. McCain; a complaint that the candidate had not been authentically conservative enough to attract the hidden majority Republican diehards believe in desperately. But when you protest against Romney's blaming his loss on "gifts" to voters from the liberal welfare state, you are not attacking the Man From Bain from his right. Wasn't Romney saying what Republican conservatives actually believe? Isn't it their opinion that government spending makes people dependent on Democratic politicians and grateful to them on Election Day? You know it is, but some Republicans realize that there has to be a better way than Romney's of expressing their principled opposition to this system. Condemning Romney this weekend, Will said that the candidate's problem was less that voters didn't like him than that voters felt that he didn't like them. In the end, Romney the distrusted moderate is the hater, not all the other Republicans of more obvious prejudices. By throwing him on the bonfire, Republicans hope to begin convincing voters that the party itself doesn't hate poor people, without changing its actual agenda one perceivable jot. It is probably true that the GOP should never run a candidate like Romney again. He was too obviously a plutocrat rather than the sort of businessman that the party's numerical base identifies with. In attitude the post-Goldwater Republican party has always more closely resembled the ambitious, competitive and perhaps socially anxious climber rather than the old-money types evoked by the Occupiers' misguided political scapegoating of the 1%. Romney really wasn't of the base, not just because of his uncertain ideology or heretical faith, but also because he was privileged in a way hardcore Republicans don't identify with. Their self-made pride comes with a perception that no one has ever done anything for them, that they've never gotten breaks that others get, unless they make their own luck somehow. There may well have been an undeclared class war within the Republican party that both sides -- Romney's friends and enemies -- projected onto the general public by accusing Democrats of waging class warfare and appealing to envy. After this month's defeat, that class warfare seems to have broken the surface. How else shall we explain Republicans accusing Romney of class hatred merely for regurgitating standard Republican rhetoric? Why jump to the conclusion that Romney despises ordinary Americans unless they've suspected all along that Romney despises them? Well, at least they know how it feels to be despised. It could be a step in the right direction.

16 November 2012

Should 'actions have consequences' in a civilized society?

Katha Pollitt's column for the November 26 Nation, apparently written before the election, put the choice between Obama and Romney in almost the starkest terms possible. Some of the terminology is borrowed from Obama himself, who often characterizes the Republican attitude toward fellow citizens as "you're on your own." Expanding on that, Pollitt writes that "The logical corollary of 'You're on your own' is 'You're your own damn fault,'" explaining that "Americans in general are keen on seeing social problems in terms of individual weakness....After all, if you can hold people solely responsible for their problems, you can ignore them, even hate them." She finds examples of this attitude in the health department, deploring "how we demonize fat people" as well as the unsympathetic responses of New York Times readers to a columnist's account of a friend who had no insurance, despite having a job that offered a plan, when he contracted prostate cancer. Pollitt criticizes the mindset that looks upon suffering and says "actions have consequences." Her response:

Yes, actions have consequences, and that’s why we need society to protect us from our folly, ignorance and bad judgment—our own and one another’s. Sooner or later, everybody takes risks that turn out poorly. Some people have unprotected sex, cross against the light, drive too fast, ride a motorcycle without a helmet in Connecticut (where for some crazy reason that is legal), don’t wear a seat belt, drink too much, send money in response to e-mails from Nigerian princes, don’t vaccinate their kids. Some people refused to evacuate during Sandy—should relief workers deny them a hot meal and a blanket?

Pollitt puts the fundamental issue in all-or-nothing terms, but many readers -- the comment thread at the Nation website includes a lot of criticism from conservatives and libertarians --  reject those terms. There are two propositions in play. The first, which comes later in the text, is that there should be a limit to the consequences of actions, well short of death or even real suffering. The second is that society should set the limit and enforce it by protecting its members from the consequences of "folly, ignorance and bad judgment." Implicit in the second proposition is a third: that no one's actions have consequences exclusively for themselves. Because anyone's actions and/or suffering impacts others -- "No man is an island," Pollitt recites -- a "you're on your  own" attitude is unjustified in a social environment. Because she puts the issue in all-or-nothing terms, she may not seem to account for consequences well short of death or profound deprivation that individuals could be expected, even in a civilized society, or even obliged to absorb on their own. Critics will point to many cases where taking the consequences would be salutary to the individual, those consequences obviously being well short of death or permanent disability. Many on the right clearly believe that many other Americans should accept consequences that would ultimately prove salutary yet are delayed by liberals, presumably on the liberals' assumption that those consequences are truly unendurable or should not be endured by people in a compassionate society. Since Pollitt herself concedes -- it's really part of her main point -- that "we all make mistakes," her critics may wonder why she won't let people learn from them by feeling some consequences. Critics of the "nanny state" complain that people will never learn not to make the same mistakes so long as the government shields them from the consequences, and that such people will never become productive members of society until they do learn, however hard the lesson may be when they do. A lot of the popular ideological conflict in this country is a dispute over where to draw the line separating consequences from compassion. Pollitt takes an extreme position if her column reveals a hedonist "zero tolerance" attitude toward suffering. The opposite extreme would be that which requires sufferers to learn the lessons of their suffering on their own without making any effort to teach them; its most drastic form would be the "Darwin Awards" mentality that welcomes the demise of "losers" as beneficial to the race. I suspect that this is what Pollitt perceives whenever she hears that actions have consequences. At heart, I suspect, all she wants is for poor people not to die. A middle ground should be possible. Hedonists should be willing to concede that some "pain" can teach useful lessons. Will the other side concede that everyone must live?

15 November 2012

Ron Paul's American myth

Expect before long to see Rep. Ron Paul's "farewell address" to the House of Representatives, which he delivered today, become a best-selling book concisely summarizing his complaints against the state of the nation and his remedies for them. The big news headline taken from the speech is his lament that "the Constitution has failed" to check the immorality of the people. As has been his wont, Paul exits damning both major parties, condemning both "welfarism" and "warfarism" as insidious, authoritarian and ultimately violent tendencies. Neither party is sufficiently dedicated to freedom for his tastes, each privileging a limited idea of freedom while rejecting its full scope. "Why do some members defend free markets, but not civil liberties?" he asks, "Why do some members defend civil liberties but not free markets? Aren’t they the same?" Missing from either side is the "appetite for liberty" that inspired the American Revolution, an appetite he sees starting to revive after appearing "quite weak" during most of his time in Congress. Liberty he defines as "the principle that protects all personal, social and economic decisions necessary for maximum prosperity." Whatever makes wealth is good and must be protected; any disagreement is "authoritarian," driven by "envy," from the left, and "intolerance," from the right. Whatever the motive, the authoritarian impulse results in violence, first implicit in governmental coercion but eventually literal. If the people do not reform themselves before reforming government, Paul envisions a "corporatist" future tending toward fascism. The prerequisite for reform is a renunciation of coercion by both individuals and government. The left must renounce envy -- in effect, it must renounce itself,  -- and the right must renounce intolerance, which amounts virtually to the same thing. Only then will society resume creating wealth rather than fight over the dwindling savings from our prosperous past, and only then will the U.S. cease to be hated by the people of other countries and other faiths.

As he resumes private life, Dr. Paul can be dismissed to the extent that he denies a right to be kept alive as the basis of civilization. But it might be more useful to find the weak point in his argument before you hear it from too many other people. At first glance, the weakness of his position as expressed in the Farewell Address is its dependence on myth. The myth is that economic activity -- the creation of wealth -- takes place in a zone uniquely free from coercion. Paul proposes, or at least implies, a simplistic dichotomy: public sector = coercion; private sector = non-coercion. The ideal economy -- one that Paul appears to believe actually existed in the United States until the early 20th century -- is fueled entirely by free association; everyone played his or her role by pure individual choice. Everyone was doing what they wanted to do, on terms agreeable to everyone involved. The workers consented to every decision of their employers, even if only implicitly by not quitting. Stop me when it starts to sound absurd; actually I'll quit now.

Take my own implicit argument to a certain point and Paul or his followers will challenge its underlying premise. As far as I can tell, libertarians have never accepted the argument that someone compelled by economic necessity to do things he'd rather not do, on terms unfavorable to himself, isn't free. I presume that's because they don't make the distinction between "realm of necessity" and "realm of freedom" that many leftists do; they're aren't two different realms in their minds. The "realm of necessity" is the "realm of freedom" for them because freedom, in sociopolitical terms, is the ability to do what is necessary despite someone's desire to stop you. By this standard, you can't say you aren't free just because you have no choice but to die if you don't take the boss's offer. They'd deny that such a stark choice ever exists, but their main point would be that you can only say you aren't free if some other power -- a labor union goon squad, let's say -- can prevent you from taking the boss's offer.  Should it really come down to kowtowing to the boss or starving, you're free as long as you accept the prospect of starving. From this vantage, despite Paul's familiar scolding, envy isn't the problem. Once you decide that you must live, that the choice between submission to the boss and death is unacceptable, you become an authoritarian. You entitle yourself to coerce, to take from others to keep yourself alive instead of living with what the libertarian perceives as the rightful consequences of your decisions. Somehow, though, the people who built factories and put household production and traditional crafts out of business and dictated (before the dreadful intervention of coercive power) the hours and wages of labor coerced no one. It is unthinkable, if not outright heresy, to suggest that American prosperity was founded on coercion -- no to mention violence -- of any sort. If entrepreneurs were angels, as James Madison might say, the people and their government might not have to compel them to respect their workers, the consumers or the environment. But Ron Paul seems to believe that entrepreneurs are angels. Madison made his actual crack about angels as propaganda in favor of the Constitution that Ron Paul says has failed to protect his angels. This closing sophistry doesn't prove that the Constitution hasn't failed -- many more people than Ron Paul could argue otherwise -- but it might make you question whatever alternative the doctor has in mind. 

14 November 2012

Obamaphobia: a symptom, not the disease

Two disturbing items in the national news. In Arizona, a woman ran her husband over with her Jeep last Saturday because he didn't vote in the presidential election. The wife seems to believe that her husband's vote could have thwarted President Obama's re-election, which she believes will cause her family to "face hardship." Romney carried the state by more than a quarter-million votes. In Florida, a tanning-salon owner is apparently one of the rare Americans who carries out a threat of departure depending on election results. After telling friends before the election that he wasn't "going to be around" if Obama won, he was found dead of an overdose last Thursday, leaving behind a living will with "Fuck Obama!" scrawled on it. His business will be subject to tax increases under "Obamacare." Sensitive observers will be quick to insist that both these people were sick before any political provocations, not driven mad by politics. That doesn't get politics off the hook. Something is wrong with the country when elections can serve as triggers for violence from such people. Something more than partisanship is at fault; Democrats, if less violent or self-destructive, were no less hysterical following George W. Bush's re-election in 2004 than many Republicans are now. The nation remains at an impasse; neither side can or is allowed to destroy the other. Despite the belief of extremists in each party that the other party is out, consciously or not, to destroy the country, neither can be stopped definitively without violating our identity as a pluralistic, classically-liberal democratic republic. The electoral war cannot be fought to a finish; neither party yet seems likely to die the way the Whigs did in the 1850s. Whatever keeps both alive is something the Framers didn't anticipate -- they didn't anticipate forming parties themselves -- and something self-evidently subversive of the workings of government planned by them. Bipolarchy is a national madness and a national straitjacket; while it persists, we shouldn't be surprised if more individuals go mad.

13 November 2012

Why did they vote Democrat? The guessing game continues

While some Republicans blame themselves for Mitt Romney's defeat last week, or at least blame other Republicans, another cohort of partisans prefers to blame the voters who gave President Obama a second term. Although a few Republicans, ranging from the relatively moderate Kathleen Parker to the relatively crazy Newt Gingrich, feel that their party must find ways to become more inclusive, on the assumption that more Americans would vote Republican if they didn't perceive the party to be bigoted in some way or another, others prefer to say that the majority of voters are wrong. How and why they are wrong is another subject for debate. Some angry opinionators equate votes for Democrats with a lack of intelligence or shame. These are the writers and talkers who assume that people vote for Democrats only because they want something for nothing and see the state as Santa Claus. These Republicans long for a time when folks preferred misery to dependence, as long as they kept their pride. Jonah Goldberg attempts a more intellectual if not more objective analysis. He sees Obama as the heir to Woodrow Wilson's Progressivism. The Progressives of 100 years ago are the bogeymen of ideological historians on the right because the likes of Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt are seen as innovators of big regulatory government. Goldberg characterizes Wilson's philosophy of government as essentially European rather than American. His evidence of this consists of a quote in which Wilson calls on individuals to "marry our interests to the state." This quote has a lineage in modern conservative and libertarian literature going back to a 2000 book by James Bovard, who cites a 1995 article in Policy Review magazine. On the internet, I can find no direct citation of where or when Wilson said it. Even if it represents Wilson's beliefs, whether Wilson saw his beliefs as "European" is unverifiable on Goldberg's evidence. All we know from him is that "Under the European notion of the state, the people are creatures of the state, significant only as parts of the whole," while under the American vision, "the people are sovereign and the government belongs to us." Of course, these ideas conflict only if you believe the state to be something prior to the people; a second opinion might be that the people are creatures of the state because the state is the creature of the people. But we're getting away from Goldberg's real point.

The point of conflict between "European" and "American" ideals of government, Goldberg claims, isn't a chicken-and-egg debate over the relationship of the state to the people, but the rival claims upon individuals of the state and the family. "The family, rightly understood, is an autonomous source of meaning in our lives and the chief place where we sacrifice for, and cooperate with, others," Goldberg writes, "It is also the foundation for local communities and social engagement." By contrast, Progressives, represented by the feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, perceive the "private home" as an "unchecked tyranny." For Goldberg, this charge isn't worth refuting. Straying from direct quotes, he claims that Wilson "believed the point of education was to make children as unlike their parents as possible." Even if we render this more accurately to say that education's point is to allow children to become as unlike their parents as they wish, I sense that Goldberg would still be appalled. This isn't really the time to debate the relative rights of parents and children under "American" or "European" values, however, since our question for today is: what did this have to do with the Presidential election?

Goldberg makes a demographic claim for the significance of the family-state tension. "If only married people voted," he writes, "Romney would have won in a landslide." While acknowledging that "obviously Obama got some votes from the married and the religious," he generalizes to identify Obama voters as "people who do not see family or religion as rival or superior sources of material aid or moral authority." Goldberg's own words could be taken to mean that Democrats, Progressives, etc. do not see a conflict between the family and the state, and that such a conflict is entirely in the eyes of Republican beholders. Nevertheless, these people prefer to "fall back" on the state rather than on families during hard times; their "first recourse is an appeal to the government" when government, in Goldberg's view, is more properly "reserved as a last resort." The issue, then, isn't who gets to mold kids' minds, but who you depend on when things get tough. We have unsustainable entitlement programs, one infers, because too many people lack strong family ties and see no reason not to turn to government. If this determines voting patterns, what short of compelling marriages and forcing people to keep up family ties can win presidential elections for Republicans?

There's some real basis for discussion in Goldberg's column to the extent that people's economic options and choices are influenced by family connections of any sort, but it's hard to agree with Goldberg's implicit claim that the voters of 2012 were choosing between the state and the family. Few people would claim that this was a "social issues" or "culture war" election. Those most likely to say so are those Republicans who think their party needs to give up those issues to win new demographic blocs. The real choice included a choice Goldberg doesn't even seem to want to write about. We can say in broadest terms that 2012 posed a choice between "public sector" and "private sector," but for most people "private sector" did not mean families. It meant the workplace, the realm of employers and employees, which most Republicans, I suspect, see as another "autonomous source of meaning" and, more than the family, "the chief place where we ... cooperate with others." Democrats most likely saw their choice not as one between state and family, but between state and bosses. In their worst nightmares, CEOs, rather than family patriarchs, define our values and determine our lives. To assert, as Goldberg does implicitly, that attitudes toward business determined no one's votes is to misrepresent not just the 2012 elections but the last century, at least, of political conflict in this country. Writing about family rather than business is not going to get to the bottom of the Republican problem, such as it is with the party still capable of thwarting the President. But maybe Goldberg just didn't want to make the problem worse.

12 November 2012

The "conservative media" confidence game and the conflicting impulses of Republicanism

For many disappointed and disgruntled Republicans, the image of Karl Rove impotently defying Fox News's own clinching call of the state of Ohio for President Obama last Tuesday seems to symbolize a feeling that the American right has been conned. Rove himself, not just as a Baghdad Bob-like dead-ender on television but as the impresario of the American Crossroads SuperPAC, has come in for extensive vituperation for somehow having ripped off Republicans by getting them to donate to a losing campaign. While Republicans may deny that campaign donations are meant to "buy" elections, we're definitely hearing from a lot of disappointed customers this week. Adding to the confusion is Joe Scarborough, the former congressman who serves as MSNBC's house conservative, who today denounced the "conservative media establishment" for lying to people about Mitt Romney's prospects. Scarborough's charge is a strange one. He contends that the CME enticed conservatives into donating further to a lost cause by telling them that Romney was winning or would win the "battleground" states. In particular, he claims that the CME "knew all along" that Romney would lose Ohio, yet kept lying about his certain victory in order to keep people donating. I'm not sure this makes sense. But that's because I'd assume that, were the CME assuring everyone of Romney's success in Ohio, the people writing checks would have less reason or incentive to donate. If they really wanted to keep the cash coming in, wouldn't they have said something like: Romney's barely holding on there and needs fresh funds in order to remain competitive? Yet Scarborough says "guys [kept] writing checks" because they believed Romney would win.

Scarborough's charge might make more sense if he used different verbs. If the suckers donated because they thought Romney could win, and if the CME knew he could not, Scarborough might have more reason to perceive a big lie. Let's remember, however, that Ohio was no landslide. Given the actual numbers, it'd be hard to prove that it was impossible, as Scarborough now claims, for Romney could take the state. Nevertheless, Scarborough and many like him feel conned, and it's probably a conservative habit of mind to feel that way.

This round of recrimination exposes a sort of philosophical fault line among Republicans resulting from the overlap of Reaganite optimism over the territory of traditionally pessimistic conservatism. Reaganism is the conservatism of entrepreneurs concerned mainly with their freedom to do business with as few regulatory constraints as possible. Confidence is an imperative for entrepreneurs; they need to remain confident and, more importantly and dangerously, they must inspire confidence in others. The danger is enshrined in our language in the term "confidence game" -- con game for short. By comparison, traditional or philosophical conservatives are skeptical toward innovation in a way that should extend to entrepreneurship, but Reaganism strives to suppress that skeptical, pessimistic impulse because confidence is what keeps the economy going, some might say, when the money runs out. Before the election, Republicans complained of a pessimistic streak among their comrades, a glum assumption that Romney would lose. Those pessimists are probably angry this week as well, but for different reasons, and at different people: Romney himself, the Obama majority, etc. Scarborough's anger is different. It may be a belated recognition of the con in confidence, or it may be conservatism rebelling against the alien element of optimism in its midst.

It may be something else, too. For some observers, the easiest explanation of Scarborough's complaint would focus on his claim that people donated more the more they believed that Romney would win. I questioned the logic of this above, but that was because I wanted to focus on donations as a utilitarian device to get Romney elected. Why donate if victory is assured? An obvious answer, despite all the provisions permitting secret donations, is to be remembered by the victor. Donors to Romney and his allied PACs have no reason to complain about being conned if their donations, as they often claim defensively, are simply expressions of their political opinions. No use of our constitutionally protected right to speak on political matters is a waste. It might seem a waste, however, if you spent the money in the expectation of getting anything more in return than the sight of a Republican in the White House. So when Joe Scarborough and others denounce fellow Republicans for ripping them off by soliciting donations for a lost cause, are the whiners really denouncing themselves?

09 November 2012

Obamaphobia, the second term: four more years of conspiracy theories begin early

Today's bombshell announcement of Gen. David Petraeus's resignation from the CIA, with an explanatory confession of an extramarital affair, has predictably provoked some of the sore losers in the country. While admissions of affairs are regarded as ruin for Republican politicians, some Republicans see Petraeus's confession as an inadequate explanation for his sudden retirement. Had the affair been revealed without his resigning immediately, however, many of the same people would have demanded his departure and blamed the President for keeping an irresponsible person in a sensitive post. Now, they seem to distrust the story of the affair. Some suspect that the President ordered Petraeus to resign so that the general would not have to testify before Congress about the terrorist attack in Benghazi and the death of the ambassador to Libya. Implicit here is a hardly-diminished faith that the Benghazi debacle is something that could and should destroy Obama, or at least a spiteful impulse to pay Democrats in general back for all their criticism of the previous President's unpreparedness for the 2001 terror attacks on American soil. The main idea behind today's conspiracymongering is that Obama kept Petraeus from resigning until after the election. He would do this, the critics believe, because 1. on the literal level Petraeus's confession of irresponsibility would have reflected poorly on Obama's choice of personnel; and 2. the nearness of Petraeus's resignation to his scheduled interrogation would have raised those supposedly damning questions about Benghazi in time to change some voters' minds. But everyone who cares about Benghazi has most likely made up his or her mind without needing to hear from Petraeus. Depending on your biases, the Libya episode either proves Obama incompetent (or malignly negligent) as a national-security president, or it has nothing whatsoever to do with your choice of a President. Petraeus's testimony is unlikely to have changed anyone's opinion, but the Obamaphobes are determined to keep the issue alive, perhaps because they think it has longshot potential to result in what they most likely hope for, an impeachment. I am satisfied that Obama has not used the Benghazi attack as a pretext for waging punitive war on Libya, and rather than blame him for lax intelligence in that country, I might credit him, despite his drone war against Islamists worldwide, with a relative lack of attacks on American diplomats in the Muslim world, compared to what we may have seen under a President McCain.  Don't take this as a whitewash: Obama is bad, but another Republican administration would almost certainly have been worse. So much for the credibility of his critics -- and that's even before we consider the conspiracymongers of today. I only wish we could do without considering them at all.

Compromise at the cliff's edge

Although he, too, was a winner last Tuesday, the Republicans having retained control of the House of Representatives easily, Speaker Boehner has been quick to acknowledge the President's victory by affirming his own willingness to compromise on measures necessary to keep the government from going over the so-called "financial cliff." The term portrays a schedule of spending cuts and tax increases as a calamity, and economists apparently regard it so, warning that the combination would plunge the country into another recession. Both the cuts and the tax increases are more drastic than either party desires, so the object is to reduce the deficit, presumably, while both cutting and taxing less. Look more closely -- it doesn't take much -- and Boehner's newfound compromising mood looks little different from his party's past mulishness. Boehner proposes "compromise" by allowing the government to bring in more revenue -- how generous of him! But the added revenue must result only from the end of existing deductions. The Speaker still refuses to countenance increasing tax rates for anybody.

There's an obvious difference between compromise and surrender. Under normal circumstances, there'd be little point to Boehner capitulating on taxes immediately. Rather, even were he sincere, he would hold out against tax increases as long as possible in the hope of getting the Democrats to accept the most minimal increase at the last moment. Likewise, Democrats will try to hold out against the cuts most likely to hurt their base until Republicans agree to minimize the cuts that must come. The circumstances this fall are abnormal. Given the economists' warnings about the consequences of going over the "cliff," stock markets have panicked a little since the election. While some would like to see the sell-offs as votes of no confidence in Obama personally, uncertainty over whether the country will take the plunge seems to be the major factor. If so, that would seem to impose an obligation on the politicians, and the market-worshiping Republicans in particular, to calm the markets by offering terms and making deals as soon as possible rather than posturing. Otherwise, we might fairly accuse them of trying to spread uncertainty and spook the markets in order to spook Obama into giving up early.

Again, the Republicans are under no special obligation now to bow to the President. The only thing definitely repudiated last Tuesday was Mitt Romney; otherwise, Americans as a whole voted for gridlock, emboldening both parties to hunker down if not double down on their core positions. If Americans as a whole actually voted for compromise rather than gridlock, how would anyone tell? However, being stuck with one another for at least two more years, until the next congressional elections, makes compromise look like a practical necessity. But it won't be compromise unless it includes a compromise of principles from each side. Democrats can't tell their constituents to make do with less unless they see Republicans telling their constituents to sacrifice, and vice versa. Republicans may insist on the supposed objective fact that tax increases will inhibit economic growth, but we know that's not the real reason they oppose higher taxes or deplore taxes in general. Their opposition is essentially ideological, and that's the kind of opposition that should be compromised if Republicans are sincere about compromise. Given everyone's fear of the cliff, Boehner may well give in, but if he takes it seriously, why stall? Meanwhile, Americans may look at what awaits at the metaphorical bottom of the cliff -- automatic cuts and tax increases when everyone's worried about deficits -- and wonder what the fuss is about?

08 November 2012

Can elections be bought?

The great paradox in the debate over limiting campaign donations has been the way apologists for unlimited donations, by individuals or corporations, argue for their inefficacy. Defending donations as a form of "speech," the apologists seek to refute the argument that large donations corrupt the election process by citing the numerous occasions when the candidate who spent the most on advertising, or had the most spent on his behalf, still lost. Sheldon Adelson is the apologists' new poster child, after serving as a sort of moneyed bogeyman throughout the year for the opponents of unlimited donations. The casino magnate, once Newt Gingrich's primary patron, is estimated to have spent $53,000,000 on the 2012 elections, with very little to show for it. As NBC News points out, the four biggest individual donors this year all supported Romney -- or, more specifically, pro-Romney Super-PACs -- in vain. By comparison, the largest individual donor to Democrats or allied SuperPACs spent less than one-quarter of Adelson's wager.  The dreaded Koch brothers don't appear in NBC's top five because the network lists the top donors to "candidate-specific" PACs, and the Kochs apparently didn't focus on individuals this cycle.

If we are to indulge suspicions of bought elections, we can't really conclude whether anyone bought the 2012 elections until we know which candidates actually received more private donations, directly or indirectly. If it turns out that Obama and sympathetic PACs received more money than Romney and his surrogates, would the opponents of unlimited donations admit that Obama's friends had bought the election? Probably not, since the pro-Obama total is presumed to include many more small (not to mention non-corporate) donations than the pro-Romney sum, and most critics object to the size of individual donations, not to the principle of donating to campaigns. For now, presuming that Republicans spent more, the evidence at the polls indicates that they failed profoundly to buy the Presidential election. Does that prove that there's nothing to be afraid of when billionaires throw money around?

The more paranoid opponents of unlimited spending will probably note, not without a sigh of relief, that the bad guys simply did not spend enough this time, citing the widespread lack of enthusiasm for Romney among the true believers as a reason. It's impossible to know whether there's an objective tipping point to be reached by greater spending on campaigns. We can guess that, had Romney won, some people would say that the sum that proved insufficient in reality had been sufficient, in the alternate reality, to buy the election for the Man From Bain. Campaign spending is to paranoid Democrats what fraud is to paranoid Republicans: the unfair advantage that can be used to explain away every defeat. On the other hand, the apologists for unlimited donations are not mere civil libertarians. While insisting on billionaires' constitutional right to "speak" as much as they can afford to, they also express a hope that free spending in the "marketplace of ideas" will counter the advantages of incumbency enjoyed by the chimerical "political class." When the apologists argue that spending limits only benefit incumbents, they clearly expect unlimited spending to change the nature of political campaigns. Both sides in the dispute might well agree, each for its own reasons, that the Presidential election was closer than it might have been because of unlimited donations. Could either side prove this? I'd accept nothing short of exit polls showing that voters minds' were changed by a critical mass of ads as evidence. But I suspect that news reporting, biased or not, did more to change minds than advertising, perhaps especially in the final week that saw the President working in a nonpartisan manner on disaster relief and allegations of a big lie about outsourcing in a pro-Romney ad. Perhaps the billionaires should get into the news media business if they really want to influence elections.

A real objection to unlimited spending is that it turns elections into a matter of competitive bidding for ad time among the donors rather than a debate in which all parties or candidates are presumed equal. The real affront to democracy is not Republicans outspending Democrats, or vice versa, but the way corporate-subsidized Bipolarchy prices alternative voices out of the marketplace of ideas. When the most convenient means of access to the electorate is for sale to the highest bidder, all candidates cannot be equal. When only billionaires are thought capable of waging credible independent campaigns, something has gone wrong with democracy in America. Even noting this objection, however, I question the ability of political advertising to change minds. Too much of it is reminiscent of political commentary in general. When it isn't simply or crudely ad hominem, it usually has the rhetoric of preaching to the converted. If you can tell that a Democrat or Republican is talking, you can shut him or her out according to your biases. Americans disagree about ends as well as means today, so it's hard for anyone to change a voter's mind by saying: you want this result but your party won't provide it, while ours can. Nor is advertising likely to take the confrontational tone possibly necessary to convert many viewers. It's one thing for an ad to say that your candidate is wrong, another for it to dare say you are wrong, and explain why. Advertising is most likely unpersuasive even to the swing voters, who presumably at least recognize partisan rhetoric when they hear it. We may not resolve the Bipolarchy gridlock afflicting the nation today until one party rethinks the art of persuasion altogether. Doing that may change the rules of the game more significantly than any regulation of wasteful political spending.

07 November 2012

Four more years ...

Americans perpetuated gridlock, narrowly rejecting Mitt Romney's bid to replace President Obama while keeping Romney's Republican party in control of the House of Representatives and in a position to obstruct such of Obama's second-term agenda that they might object to. Both major parties, then, can claim mandates to keep doing what they've been doing for the past four years. That doesn't sound like good news for the country. You might like the Republicans to feel that, by rejecting Romney, the nation as a whole has set a limit on how much they should obstruct the President, but each congressman can say that he must listen to his immediate constituents first. Moreover, Republicans can continue to delude themselves by scapegoating Romney, the man they chose as their standard bearer, the way they've scapegoated Sen. McCain since his 2008 defeat. Again we'll hear that the Republican presidential candidate was not a "real" conservative, and that a "real conservative" would have attracted many more voters who didn't come out this year, or four years ago, than he (or she) would have alienated. The success enjoyed by Tea Party incumbents in keeping their seats will only encourage such fantasies. It's up to Tea Partiers to test this premise some day, but it's far from clear that they'll get their chance in 2016. They could have performed the experiment this year, but there were too many politicians competing with each other while flighty constituents flirted with a number of eccentrics without settling on a single champion. That could happen again unless wire-pullers behind the scenes can agree on a favorite soon enough, and with enough promises of resources, to discourage rivals. Even if the TPs rally around one candidate, they may still face another long battle with one big "moderate," should Jeb Bush decide that his turn has come at last or if Condoleezza Rice can be persuaded to give Republicanism a human face.  A one-on-one for the 2016 nomination might be more significant than the general election if it results in a decisive verdict for or against Teapartyism. The general election itself could prove anticlimactic if politics follows the pattern of the last twenty years. Obama's survival may leave us asking whether G.H.W. Bush will be the country's last one-term President. It seems now that once you get in, you're assured of two terms no matter what the circumstances. Eight years of Clinton were followed by eight years of Dubya, now followed by eight years of Obama. If this makes a pattern, a Republican should win in 2016, perhaps regardless of whether a "moderate" or a TP gets the nomination, unless the moderate-vs-TP conflict cracks up the party.  Whom the Democrats nominate as Obama's successor might make a difference, but right now all I can imagine is Secretary Clinton, aged 69, going up against Gov. Cuomo the austerity liberal, with Vice President Biden unlikely to be a major factor. Someone may come to the fore before then, but obviously I have no clue who that might be. Democratic voters may be ready for a grass-roots insurgency by then, but I suspect it'll be up to the rank-and-file to produce its leaders, for all the good it would do in the primaries. In the meantime, many people no doubt assume that we've only accelerated our slide toward ruin, while others anticipate another four years of grimy muddling through. Either way, there seems to be little cause for celebration today -- and anyway, my candidate lost, too.

06 November 2012

Love those modern voting machines!


Here's the sort of story everyone's been dreading, with video evidence uploaded to YouTube by centralpavoter. Notice that both major parties have things to complain about. The point for now isn't that someone's trying to rig the voting in any given election district. The point is that computerized voting is bound to be glitchy in ways that voting with the old school machines that worked for a century, and that my neighborhood had until last year, wasn't. Boosters will say this is still the necessary answer to hanging chads, but all I see is that some manufacturers made a lot of money off taxpayers with little return in more secure elections. No wonder "progress" has a bad name in some places. Happy Election Day!

You have a choice ... unless you choose not to

My polling place was moved this year. Boo hoo: the old place was a senior-citizen center about a block and a half from my house, but the new one's on the other side of Washington Park in a Presbyterian church. I'd be annoyed if I didn't travel in that general direction every morning; practically speaking, it's just a one-block detour on my way to the public library. The church, for what it's worth, is a "progressive" one. A sign claims that Jesus led the original Occupy movement. Another claims that He loves the "99%" more than the "1%" God may or may not be a Republican, but the congregation here seems convinced that His Son is a Democrat. Outside, electioneering is illegal, but it was OK for activists to solicit signatures for a petition demanding a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. Inside, a rainbow flag denoting tolerance of sexual preference as well as ethnic difference hung over the hall where the voting machines had been set up. These are the scanning machines that were introduced last year -- for no better reason, as far as I can tell, than to make money for the manufacturer. You sign in and are given a paper ballot and a folder to keep it in. You fill in the blanks with a blue pen in a "privacy booth" before feeding the finished form into a scanner. Once the machine confirms receipt you're politely sent out, on the understanding that you'll return the folder to the table for your election district.

In New York State we have six Presidential candidates to choose from. One of these is constitutionally ineligible, being younger than the minimum age, but Peta Lindsey has said that she's interested in protest votes only. That leaves the Democratic, Republican, Green, Libertarian and Constitution tickets. If you think that President Obama is too conservative, you can vote for Jill Stein. If you think that Mitt Romney is too liberal, you can vote for Virgil Goode. If you think that both Obama and Romney are too statist, you can vote for Gary Johnson. If you think the incumbent has done well and can do better, you can vote to retain him. If you worry that four more years could ruin the nation, your only option would seem to be Rommey. And if you worry that merely four years of Romney will ruin the country, your only choice would seem to be Obama.

We all know that we always have more than two choices, but it remains hard for most people to take the others seriously. We've gone over the reasons people feel that way repeatedly on this blog; suffice it to say that all the reasons are stupid. If you are only willing to entrust power to those who've had power, there will never be change in this country. Preventative voting betrays a fundamental flaw in party-based representative government. No one, I suspect, is voting for any of the five credible candidates on the New York ballot because he or she believes that only that candidate can save the country. However, most people will vote because they believe that only Romney can defeat Obama, or only Obama can prevent Romney from taking power. That is, they limit their options because they think it more important to prevent some worst candidate from winning than to choose whoever has opinions and policies closest to their own. When critics complain about this tendency, they are accused of "making the perfect the enemy of the good." But the Bipolarchy "lesser evil" tendency itself makes the "evil" the enemy of the good by compelling people to commit to power rather than principle in order to prevent the "evil" or worst-case result. When you feel that you have no choice but to vote for a party to prevent an evil outcome, that party gets something like a free pass to do as little as necessary to continue appearing less evil than the other party. Understandably, the main object of the Democratic party is to make the Republican party appear evil; just as understandably, the Republican party does the same with the Democrats. Through it all, no one asks why an "evil" party is allowed to continue contesting elections, since not to allow it, no matter what awful consequences are feared from its victory, would make ours less free a country, freedom being measured by how much dissent is tolerated -- the more extreme the dissent, it seems, the more free the country is. Inevitably, lesser-evilism must result in legislative paralysis as both major parties dedicate themselves primarily to resistance rather than progress. If we want pluralism, and if we want a pluralistic electoral system to result in the best government, than we cannot presume that any party is evil, or that it will destroy the country. If you want to argue that a party can become objectively evil -- the position someone like Eric Alterman takes toward the Republicans -- than you may want to rethink your commitment to pluralism. If Republicans can somehow be proven evil, their continued existence would really only benefit Democrats, who would have to promise nothing but resistance to Republican evil, while voters would have to settle for whatever Democrats decide actually to do for the country. If Republican victory becomes an intolerable option for millions of people who then feel that they have no choice but to vote Democratic, where is democracy, exactly? Where is freedom of choice?

Many voters probably feel that they face a bad choice today. Most of them are simply ignoring the existence of more than two parties, but those who feel that they have no choice except between Democrats and Republicans regardless of the other parties only have themselves to blame. Bipolarchy subverts democracy and makes citizens less free. Any alternative involves some kind of risk. Does Bipolarchy make us cowards too? We'll probably find out eventually.

OFFICIAL Idiot of the Week (not my choice!)

There'll be plenty to say about the election today, but I couldn't let this news story out of Cleveland go without mentioning it. A judge yesterday sentenced one Shena Hardin to wear a sign at a public intersection identifying herself as an idiot for driving her SUV onto a sidewalk rather than stop while a school bus was unloading children. Video shot from the school bus confirms her offense, despite her "not guilty" plea. In addition to wearing the sign for an hour on two mornings next week, Hardin must pay court costs and go without driving for 30 days while her license is suspended. This should prove an interesting test of whether public humiliation has a deterring effect beyond monetary penalties or imprisonment. People can debate over who has the right to shame other people, and over what, but this particular case seems minor enough to be a no-brainer -- the punishment fitting the crime. So there's one amusing thought for you today.

05 November 2012

"Romney will raise taxes:" the Republicans' China syndrome?

Here's Fareed Zakaria in the current issue of Time:

Romney partisans quietly admit that the Republican Party will have to accept higher taxes but claim that only one of its own can take them there.

Two pages later in the print edition, here's Rob Long, a National Review editor:

So why not nip all this “Romney might actually win” stuff in the bud? Which is why, for the past week, most of my Republican friends have been reminding one another that doom really is just around the corner, that the polls are misleading, that Obama’s get-out-the-vote machine is impossible to beat, that the left-wing media will protect their candidate, that the current voter demographics favor the opposition—and no matter what, Do not get optimistic. Do not allow yourself to hope.
“Ohio is neck and neck,” a Republican friend texted me the other day, “and O pulling out of North Carolina.”
It was true, but he nevertheless felt compelled to follow up with this deflationary text: “We’re still prob. gonna lose.”
But what if we don’t? “What haps then?” I texted my friend. The iPhone went silent for a moment. Then it chirped a reply: “That wd be awful! Romney as prez will raise taxes 4 sure. O vs. Rep. Congress won’t b able 2.”

The reasoning in either scenario is "Only Nixon can go to China," that only someone of proven principled opposition to a necessary thing can make the persuasive, pragmatic case for it. The implicit presumption is that whoever wins the election will have to at least propose tax increases to reduce the deficit. Rob Long's correspondent fears that Republicans would be unable to say no to one of their own should President Romney insist on it, while resistance would remain unyielding to President Obama. Meanwhile, even Rich Lowry, the writer designated by Time to make the "Case for Mitt Romney," concedes that, should Romney adopt his own running mate's budget plan, "taxes as a percentage of GDP would be slightly higher than their average over the past several decades."

The question for Republicans becomes whether they want executive power or would rather not have the responsibility that comes with it. Do they hate taxes or Obama more? Would they rather have a President they hate -- granting that Romney could play that role easily enough -- in order to keep themselves vigilant, or are there things they actually want the government to do that only a Republican President can get done? We probably all think we know what Republicans don't want. Tomorrow's election forces the question of what they do want -- and they may not know themselves.

Is God a Republican?

The November 2012 issue of the Seventh Day Adventist magazine Signs of the Times inquires after the party affiliation of the deity on its lurid red cover, but when anyone asks such a question so baldly, the answer is sure to be "No!" Inside, writer Loren Seibold doesn't take the question seriously enough to prove or disprove the point. The big question is just a hook to draw readers into Seibold's discussion of the relationship of religion and partisanship. The writer notes that "It has become virtually impossible to get elected as a Republican without leaning in some way toward conservative Christian values and promising governmental advocacy for the ideas that conservative Christians hold dear." But while noting that "many of these Christian values are also mine," Seibold maintains a skeptical stance toward partisan religiosity. That's not because he doesn't trust any party to perform "governmental advocacy" for his values, but because he doesn't really think that's government's business.

Going against some revisionist historians and theologians who portray Jesus himself as a kind of political radical advocating against the Romans or the rich, Seibold finds his savior "startlingly apolitical." His literal reading of the famous "Render unto Caesar" quote renders Jesus's agenda "hardly the revolution [anyone was] hoping for!" While Seibold insists that "God expects good rulers to make and enforce rules that protect people and property," he generally takes a "my kingdom is not of this world" stance, stressing that since Jesus's time, God has authorized no one, as far as the writer can tell, to rule in his name.

Writing in a publication perhaps self-consciously outside the Christian mainstream, Seibold appreciates that "Even in a country where most of us use the same Bible, we certainly don't all understand it the same way." That raises the "uncomfortable" prospect of favoring one denomination over another. For Adventists, a practical example of undesirable legislation would be a law, long proposed, requiring Christian services to take place on Sundays. In such a scenario, "the politicians who give one religious group what they want may be taking freedom from another." Denominational bias threatens to get in the way of more sensible appraisals of politicians. Pointedly, Seibold claims that "if Abraham Lincoln were running for president today, it's unlikely he could ever be nominated by his own Republican party." While many might agree with that premise because they see Lincoln as a champion of centralized government and some degree of racial equality, Seibold suggests that Abe would be disqualified by the fact that "he was a member of no church, never publicly confessed a creed, and never publicly used religious beliefs to justify his policies." He was also far from telegenic and, as Daniel Day-Lewis intends to demonstrate, had a high-pitched reedy point likely to provoke mockery in our time. In any event, Seibold's observation is valid; Old Abe's reticence toward overt religion would probably hurt him now.

If Seibold meant to argue that Christians have no obligation to vote Republican, his argument is self-evident yet also irrelevant to his potential target audience of believers. After all, even the most dogmatic GOP ideologue would agree with Seibold that "God has no party affiliation." But many will still believe that Christians have obvious and imperative reasons to prefer Republicans over Democrats, while a perhaps smaller number will believe the opposite. There's really little point to proving that God isn't a partisan unless it follows from that that his worshipers shouldn't vote. As long as they can vote, they'll find reasons of faith to vote one way or another -- but at least they'll have Seibold's assurance that they aren't going to Hell.

04 November 2012

In defense of Chris Christie

Maybe it takes a big man to have two thoughts simultaneously, but the governor of storm-ravaged New Jersey seems like such a person this weekend. Gov. Christie is a Republican, but he judged party lines irrelevant while cooperating with President Obama on storm relief efforts. It seems that some of his fellow Republicans took offense when the governor gave the President the praise Christie considered Obama's due, and now Democrats are freshly angry that Christie, in spite of the storm, has reiterated his preference for Mitt Romney in Tuesday's election. In doing so, however, Christie rebuked those Republicans who resent any good word for a President of another party. Without agreeing with his appraisal of either candidate, it should be possible for someone to believe that the incumbent has done a good job in a crisis, but the challenger would still make a better President. If only we really did have a choice between Good and Better this year.

02 November 2012

Civility vs. straight talk in politics

Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri was scandalized by the President's use of the word "bullshitter" in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, both by his claim that children can recognize and call out such a being and the inferred implication that Mitt Romney is such a one. Obama's outburst, for Petri, typifies a Democratic disrespect for Republicans that also found expression in both Obama and Vice President Biden's body language and facial expressions during their debates with their respective challengers. Specifically, she feels that Obama crossed a line by not censoring himself in the interview. She isn't saying that he mustn't think that way of his opponent, only that he shouldn't express the thought in public as brazenly as he did. Petri perceives a failure of civility in the Democrats' rudeness. She explains the value of civility this way: "It's not just respecting the person in the room with you. It's trusting that the audience is intelligent enough to notice who is right without having to strain over the clamor."

That's a clever bit of rhetoric. Petri means that you can't insult your political enemies without insulting the intelligence of the immediate audience or the electorate in general. Out of respect for the electorate, she claims, you should respect your opponents. But this goes too far toward making a classical debate the template for a political campaign, with voters as informed or at least reasoning judges of conflicting arguments rather than as potential tabulae rasae whom candidates compete to educate. Ideally, Petri could argue, we can trust ourselves to know who's right and who's wrong without one candidate claiming that another is a bullshitter or, in Ann Coulter's word, a retard. But can we? Do dedicated Democrats or Republicans really believe that? Each may claim to when it's in their interest to portray the other as patronizing, arrogant elitists. But if each party were compelled to be honest, its adherents would confess to seeing nearly one-half of the American people as dangerously stupid. If so, each should feel an even stronger imperative to change minds as aggressively as possible, at least as far as rhetoric is concerned. Do you find it desperately problematic that nearly one-half the electorate takes hopelessly, destructively stupid positions on important issues? Is respect the answer? Whatever my own bias, I think I can get bipartisan agreement, albeit well short of unanimity, that it is not the answer. There are times when respect only enables complacency, and when what might be needed is a secular equivalent to evangelical invective, when politicians see a duty to warn people that their choices or preferences will damn them and their nation.

On a simpler level, Petri appeals to conventional liberal tolerance, which presumes that all opinions, if not objectively equal, are at least equally entitled to respectful hearings. Not to believe this, it is feared, is to claim a right to suppress dissent. The liberal tendency, depending on context, is to go beyond tolerating dissent to giving it the benefit of the doubt. But tolerance and respect need not be rigidly synonymous. You can concede an idiot's prerogative to run for office while retaining your prerogative to call him an idiot. There may be times when it would be imperative to call him an idiot, as long as you can prove that he is one. If you can prove it, you should be able to affirm the claim in no uncertain terms. Petri's civility would seem not to allow for the possibility that a political candidate is an idiot, or a bullshitter. In our time, such idealism may be regrettably irresponsible. There are worse fates than having our feelings hurt or our intelligence insulted. That may be the difference between civility and civilization.