30 October 2013

Good faith and bad

The current New Republic features an interview with bestselling atheist author and genetic theorist Richard Dawkins. Early, Dawkins tells the interviewer that faith is "the lack of evidence." In context, Dawkins is talking about religious faith, although he concedes that ideology can be described the same way. There are, obviously, other kinds of faith, but I don't know if Dawkins's definition fits them. During the debt-ceiling crisis we heard a lot about the "full faith and credit" in the country's obligation to pay its debts. According to the 14th Amendment, that faith is not to be questioned. Could such a demand be made in the absence of evidence? That's just one example. As I've written before, once we take all contexts into account "faith" becomes synonymous with "trust." Creditors are supposed to trust that the country will pay its debts. Believers believe because they choose to trust the claims of prophets. A distinction can be made between faith subject to verification (recall Reagan's invocation of the Russian motto, "trust, but verify" in his dealings with Gorbachev) and faith that is unfalsifiable, e.g. on the assumption that God will fulfill prophecy whenever he pleases if not in your lifetime. It could be argued that we should reject appeals to unfalsifiable faith, but it can also be argued that an orderly society depends on some degree of trust or faith in order to function smoothly. That is, in an orderly society we should be able to take for granted that things will work a certain way without demanding proof at any given moment -- even though we should not be complacent about apparent breaches of trust. Some writers have described a secular loss of faith in our own time and country -- a loss of faith in hard work receiving a fair reward, for instance. Fewer people seem to trust "the system" today, whether the principal object of mistrust is the government or the corporation or the conspiracy. What we need isn't necessarily "blind" faith, but it is still a form of faith as opposed to the perpetual doubt and suspicion of insecure times. We seem to be in a faithless age right now, and while we may be better off with fewer people believing outlandish metaphysical claims, it's unclear whether we really benefit otherwise when the alternatives to secular faith are fear and paranoia. Our ideal should be a new age of secular faith -- but let's acknowledge one big difference between secular and religious faith. Secular faith may not require constant verification under ideal circumstances, but it definitely has to be earned in the first place. To restore faith, someone has to do more than say, "Believe me!" Unfortunately, saying "Believe me!" is how people get elected, so don't get your hopes up unless you can think of another way of earning people's faith.

29 October 2013

More Tea readings

The government shutdown crisis has inspired a new round of rumination about the origins and essence of the Tea Party movement. Americans and outsiders alike may be tempted to see it as a peculiar national phenomenon, but the Nation columnist Gary Younge claims that the U.S. Tea Party has Europeans counterparts or "doppelgaengers." He sees the American phenomenon as part of a right-wing anti-globalization movement. Such movements "are generally pro-market populists who find their support primarily among lower-middle-class whites anxious about neoliberal globalization in all its forms and consequences -- outsourcing, immigration, war, terror -- and are retrenching into their nationalistic and racial laagers." The Tea Party's Euro (or Euroskeptic) counterparts differ from the American movement by sporting "a lot less guns and a little less God." Younge would rather we didn't set the Americans apart because of the gun issue, since he seems to reject an "exceptionalist" view of American reaction in favor of the global (or at least Euro) backlash he perceives. In each country the reaction takes a particular form, emphasizing particular threats, but Younge sees a common cultural anxiety at their heart.

In The New Republic, John B. Judis sees economics as more decisive than culture, identifying the Tea Party with a class of small business owners who see themselves "under siege by regulations or taxes or unions or cheap immigrant labor." Judis notes that the TPs have been able to punch above their weight because of the support of a small number of very wealthy backers, but emphasizes how those backers "come from privately-owned companies and investor groups and so are invulnerable to shareholder pressure, union retaliation or public opinion" and are "far more hard-line than the typical corporate executive." He also notes, however, that even the Koch brothers backed away from the TPs' shutdown strategy and their default dare. Judis speculates that the Tea Party as we know it could fade quickly after its perceived defeat in the recent crisis. But he warns that the U.S. could see more movements like the Tea Party so long as economic recovery remains slow and unequal. Judis is a Keynesian, convinced that only massive stimulus spending by the government can restore the economy. He worries that a tepid stimulus will look like not enough and too much simultaneously. That is, the government may fail to spend enough money to actually stimulate the economy, but will be accused of holding back recovery by having spent too much as long as many believe that any increase in government spending takes money away from the "productive" private sector. It's convenient reasoning for a liberal to argue that your spending didn't work because you didn't spend enough, but Judis presumably has economists to back him up. In any event, so long as Republicans in general inhibit government spending, they may perpetuate the conditions that (in Judis's view) generated the Tea Party. The GOP might expect to benefit, but could ultimately find themselves the target of revolt. The dangerous constant, as he sees it, is an enduring rejection of "the attempt ... to smooth the rough edges of a capitalism that, left to its own devices, leads to monopoly, inequality and poverty." Whether the same spirit of rejection prevails in those European movements Gary Younge sees as Tea Party doppelgaengers is unclear. I suspect not -- Younge might have observed that there's also a little less "free market" in those groups -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that Judis has a better grasp than Younge of the movement's essence. Americans may be impatient for instant explanations, but we probably need more distance from the TP phenomenon before we can say much more about them than that they want to see other people suffer.

28 October 2013

Bullying and competition

You may have heard the story out of Texas about a parent filing a complaint against the high school football team that beat his kid's team by a 91-0 score. I imagine that most coverage and commentary on the story finds the complaint absurd. The most many observers might concede is that there should have been a "mercy rule" that would have allowed officials to cut the game short once it had proved uncompetitive. That conceded, I suppose most people see the complaining parent as a sore loser for treating a team game, however unequal the result, as a case of bullying. For what it's worth, the parent is not saying that the opposing players bullied his boy or his teammates; he doesn't accuse the winners of rough play or taunting from what I've read. The complaint seems to boil down to an assertion that "running up the score" as the winning team did is self-evident bullying. Again, most people, or at least most sports fans, will reject that idea. To the contrary, I've seen at least one suggestion that the defeat could prove a character-building experience for the losers, if it will help them deal with the disappointments that must come inevitably in adult life. There's no reason to reject that argument altogether, but apologists for the winning team will go too far if they draw a line categorically separating bullying from athletic competition. I don't intend to suggest that the winners did bully the losers on the gridiron, but I also don't want to concede that competition and bullying are mutually exclusive phenomena. It may be popular now to think of bullying as some thoughtless form of cruelty that's an end unto itself, but there's also something essentially (or perhaps vestigially) competitive about it. As the most notorious recent cases -- those that have resulted in suicides -- suggest, bullying isn't simply about humiliating someone, but is also a way of driving out the weak or unwanted from some social circle, rooted in an instinctual impulse to reduce the number of mouths to be fed, competitors for mates, etc. Few bullies may consciously desire the demise or even the disappearance of their victims -- many probably enjoy bullying too much -- but just as sports themselves arguably re-enact rituals undertaken for long-forgotten purposes, so it could be argued that bullies are playing for higher stakes than they realize consciously. If bullying is competitive in nature, we should acknowledge a continuum of competition in which bullying and sports are distantly related forms of the same thing. At their best, sports are a highly refined form of competition celebrating individual achievement (stronger, higher, faster) rather than the humiliation of losers, but sports have backslid in some ways from their peak of refinement. The overblown celebrations of every small success on the football field, for instance, have been compared unfavorably with the stoicism with which the old timers handed the ball back to the ref after scoring. Many sports seem to be more egotistical than before as players try to establish their brands for product endorsements. All of this makes the games less fun to watch in many ways; everything looks a lot more like professional wrestling than it should. In this sports culture, it shouldn't surprise us if someone sees his child's defeat as something far worse than the loss of a game, though one wonders whether the father feels more humiliated than the son does.  His probably is an overreaction, but it's an occasion to note that while bullying is deplored, competition is still revered as a source of character, prosperity, and so on. As long as there is competition, there will be bullying. The real question may be whether "bullying" is always the cry of the sore loser, or it may be whether competition is the proper ideal for a culture where all lives flourish.

25 October 2013

Alan Grayson: the hate that hate produced?

If they can't stand the heat they should get out of the kitchen, but who would brew their tea? Republicans are up in arms over a campaign flier issued by Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida that uses a burning Ku Klux Klan cross as the capital T in Tea. Despite rebukes from some party leaders, Grayson is unrepentant, comparing himself to Harry Truman in the giving-them-hell department. His supporters want to lob the ball back to the TP side of the court, challenging them to prove the negative by publicly denouncing or renouncing the racists in their midst. You know, the way Muslims have to prove that they're not terrorist sympathizers by denouncing terrorism every time they open their mouths in public. Republicans should understand the concept.

Naturally, by accusing the Tea Party of hate, Grayson has opened himself to the charge of hate speech. That's the way politics works here. The fact is, criticism of President Obama from the right is no more intrinsically racist than criticism of Zionism is intrinsically anti-semitic. But I wonder whether that's sufficient to take the TP off the hook. Republicans may assume that Obama is the only subject here -- that Democrats are trying to exploit the President's race to suppress criticism of his policies. I'm not sure, however, that critics of the Tea Party are concerned only with its opinion of Obama. Accurately or not, they perceive a larger hostility to minorities or Others on the part of a group identifying itself with traditional American values. Speaking personally, I'm inclined to split the difference. The particular object of contempt for the American right, broadly defined, is the "loser," the person who supposedly prefers dependency to honest toil and is too lazy or stupid to make himself useful in a 21st century economy. While many on the right may be tempted to relegate entire races or other demographic groups into the loser category -- always making individual exceptions like Herman Cain or Ben Carson -- most will readily admit that whites make up a large number if not the majority of losers in this country. Their contempt toward losers comes through most strongly on the internet, where their vitriol on comment threads is usually directed at correspondents who aren't presumed to be black, Hispanic, etc. If TPs hate you -- and most, of course, will dispute the verb -- it's for what you do (or don't do), not for what you are. So it's unfair to reflexively label them as bigots, but no more unfair than it is for them to label anyone with a more expansive vision of government than theirs, or anyone less worshipful than they toward the private sector -- as socialists, communists, etc. If we really want to be fair in the game of politics, then Democrats ought to be entitled to cry "racism" as often as Republicans cry "socialism," if not a little more often. After all, they probably have a better idea of what racism is than Republicans have of what socialism is, and that should count for something.

24 October 2013

Who are today's Jacksonian democrats?

Ever since the Tea Party emerged as a political phenomenon a few years ago, pundits have tried to fit it into one historical tradition or another. In an attempt to explain a supposedly increasing divide separating Tea Partiers and the Republican party's usual corporate patrons, William Galston recently revived the notion that the TPs are the latest expression of "Jacksonian democracy." Named for Andrew Jackson, one of the founders of the Democratic party as we know it, Jacksonian democracy is characterized above all by an antipathy toward elites, as expressed by Jackson's crusade against the Bank of the United States. Being against elites is one thing, but what your opposition really means depends on what the elites stand for, either in their own mind or in the imagination of their enemies. What Jacksonian democracy means to each generation depends on whom each generation perceives as an elite and what those elites are thought to stand for. For a long time, the best-selling interpretation of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. prevailed. Writing in the 1940s, he saw Jackson and his movement as precursors of the New Deal, defined by their defense of the working class against elites represented by the Bank and the Whig party. But as the Democratic coalition had to take more viewpoints into account, Andrew Jackson became a more politically incorrect figure (slaveholder, Indian killer, duelist, etc.) and his status as an icon for modern Democrats became less tenable. At the same time, a reactionary cultural populism emerged that identified an academic-bureaucratic intelligentsia as the nation's oppressive elite. Is this populism Jacksonian, or is Jacksonianism simply one form of populism? What really distinguishes Jacksonianism to make it a useful alternative to "populist" or "reactionary" for defining movements like the Tea Party? Andrew Jackson's legacy is contradictory.  He was a small-government man opposed to federal spending on many "internal improvements," but he also defended the tariff against the criticism that it benefited one part of the nation only, at the expense of others. When people rush to identify the Tea Party with Jackson, they're probably forgetting his role in the Nullification crisis of 1832-3. His own Vice President (a lame duck following that year's election) had turned against him to support South Carolina's assertion of a right to nullify the federal tariff. While the crisis ultimately was resolved through a compromise, Jackson made it clear that he believed himself to have the power to force the state to bow to the tariff. He declared himself willing to send the military into South Carolina to enforce the import tax, and to hang John C. Calhoun, the renegade veep, as a traitor for preaching nullification. That's the sort of attitude that got him labeled "King Andrew" by his critics. Notions of limited government weren't inconsistent with his firm belief in federal supremacy. Like Lincoln, he believed that the Union was greater than the states. Considering what he thought of nullifiers, one can easily imagine what Jackson would have done with secessionists, even if he didn't share Lincoln's antipathy toward slavery or his opposition to its spread westward. I can't say whether today's Tea Partiers share that reverence for Union, or whether they equate it with "big government." They certainly seem to reject the idea, shared by Jackson and Lincoln, that the Union has a life of its own and is an end unto itself and doesn't merely exist at the sufferance and for the convenience of the states. On a personality level I can see why people want to identify the TPs with Andrew Jackson, since he was known to be quick to anger and driven by personal hatred. Beyond that, however, I wonder what he would think of legislators, whatever their actual rights are, refusing to fund "settled law," whether he personally agreed with the law or not. Transported to the present, Jackson almost certainly would not take President Obama's side in many things, for reasons good or more likely bad, but that doesn't mean he would take the Tea Party's side. Like many of our political ancestors, he would probably survey today's politics and despair -- or take up arms.

23 October 2013

The elusive RINO and the Maoism of Tea Partiers

Jonah Goldberg is a reliably right-wing Republican columnist with just enough insight to make sensible observations occasionally. One such occasion was during the past week, when he noted that many Republicans, Tea Partiers particularly, remain obsessed with purging their party of "Rockefeller Republicans" long after the subspecies had gone virtually extinct. If there is conflict within the GOP -- and Goldberg takes seriously the possibility of a "civil war" in the party -- it's less about ideology than it is about disagreements over "efficacy and passion" or "tactics and power." The "establishment" Republicans -- those disparaged as RINOs or "Rockefeller Republicans" -- are hardly less "conservative" than the Tea Party fire eaters, in Goldberg's opinion. Yet the fire eaters inevitably see them that way. That's a symptom of radicalism. Radicals distrust establishments. In Red China, Chairman Mao worried that bureaucrats would take the "capitalist road" instead of taking the revolution to the next level. From the radical perspective, the establishment is always more concerned about stability than about the need for permanent revolution. Among Republicans, whoever was unwilling to follow Sen. Cruz in his scorched-earth approach had to be part of a hated establishment, a Rockefeller at heart. Your proof of revolutionary loyalty is how far you're willing to go to bring down big government. That standard will always be hard to satisfy, and for someone like Goldberg, who notes that veteran Republicans have opposed Obamacare from the beginning, the affected superiority of radical "latecomers" like Cruz is an insult to genuine conservatives.

For Goldberg, the real problem for Tea Partiers isn't that their fellow Republicans are inadequately conservative, as they define conservatism, but that however they fancy themselves a majority by virtue of their control of the House, they lack the power to enact the radical changes they desire. The reason for that, Goldberg writes, isn't obstruction from any "establishment" but obstruction from the electorate. To gain the power to advance their agenda, "the GOP needs to persuade voters to become a little more conservative, not to hector already-conservative politicians to become even more pure." How to persuade voters is a subject for another column, apparently, though by extension Goldberg would no more recommend "hectoring" them than we would hector veteran Republicans. Some TP sympathizers are eager to hector the public -- Cal Thomas wants politicians to tell voters to "eat your vegetables," no matter how "harsh" the message may seem -- but most Americans find TPs to be a rather hectoring sort already. The Republican who can persuade millions of people that they should make do with less, for their own good, would be a real miracle worker. I don't know if that's what Goldberg wants to tell voters, but that's what many voters hear whenever Tea Partiers speak. They might actually say something like, "Take responsibility for your own lives and see all that you can accomplish in a real free-enterprise system!" but most people recognize that "make do with less" is going to be part of that process. I don't mean to suggest that citizens of a republic can never be told that they should (or must) make do with less, but the real hurdle Republicans face is the assumption that they don't demand that of others out of necessity, but out of preference. It's the assumption Cruz noted when he claimed that the media would say that he wanted people to suffer. In his own mind, Cruz, not to mention other Republicans -- may not wish suffering on people. But as long as their policies are expected to cause suffering, even in the short term, "pure" Republicanism is going to remain a tough sell, and "pure" Republicans are going to grow more frustrated. It might then be a good thing that they still lack power, for revolutionaries have never looked too kindly on a lack of self-sacrificing revolutionary zeal among the masses. 

22 October 2013

Accountability for Obamacare

At this point, transparency is the only remedy for the bad impression created by website problems during the opening of the enrollment period for the health-insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act. There's no use trying to spin the problems away, and the President doesn't seem to be trying to do that. Still, Democrats ought to take the lead in demanding and conducting investigations to figure out what went wrong. The problems are all the more inexcusable for seeming to confirm the Republican stereotype of public-sector bureaucratic incompetence. If you want to prove that stereotype wrong, you have to prove it wrong by accomplishing something complicated in a competent way. The stereotype presumes that bureaucrats are not held as accountable for their failings as the market holds their private-sector counterparts. That can be proven wrong easily enough by having heads roll -- figuratively, that is. This opening fiasco was only slightly obscured by the debt-ceiling crisis, and now Republicans want to make the most of it. The best way to keep the GOP from exploiting the debacle is to be tougher than they are on the people responsible, while remaining vigilantly tough on the GOP itself. It's one thing to be critical of obvious shortcomings, another to be critical in bad faith, carping about the means when you've never agreed on the end. Who should Americans listen to: those who find fault with an intent to fix the problems, or those who find fault but really want the whole thing to fail? Democrats may think they know the answer, but they have to ask the question first.

21 October 2013

Killing the gerrymander

The latest government-shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis seemed to expose the existence of concurrent and contradictory majorities in the U.S. The Democrats and President Obama could claim to represent a majority in the Senate and White House respectively, while the Republicans could claim to represent a majority, though presumably not the same majority, in the House of Representatives. Many Democrats won't concede the point. Pointing to the numbers that show that more Americans voted for Democrats than for Republicans in House races, they argue that the GOP controls the House only by virtue of gerrymandering -- drawing the borders of congressional districts over every decade to create as many Republican-majority districts as possible while diluting Democratic voting strength in various ways. This is an old problem and has been discussed here before, though I'm not aware of any new solutions proposed by disgruntled Democrats and I'm not sure they can claim to be arguing in good faith. Gerrymandering is a fact, or at least has been perceived as one for the last 200 years, but it's also a sour-grapes excuse for a losing party. The problem is rooted in the House's identity as the "popular" house of Congress, designed to represent units of population rather than specific communities or units of geography. Since each state is assigned a shifting number of Representatives based on changes in population, the states are redivided into congressional districts after each federal census. Ideally this should be done without partisan distortion, and some reformers believe in the possibility of non-partisan redistricting, but it's unclear whether there can be an objective standard for drawing electoral districts based on population. For that reason, some reformers propose proportional representation, according to which a state's seats in the House would be divided among the parties based on a statewide vote for at-large Representatives. This is really the most sensible option, but the change would come as a radical shock to many Americans.

We've come to think of the House as the section of the federal government that's closest to the people, the Representatives as those members of the government most local in orientation, most rooted in actual communities. A Representative is easier to see as "one of us" than a Senator may be. Under proportional representation, Representatives would be no different from Senators, both groups representing the entire state in Congress. Blame that on the 17th Amendment, which changed the way Senators were elected. In any event, it's likely that Republicans and conservatives wouldn't be the only ones to feel slightly disenfranchised by the adoption of proportional representation. Racial minorities have benefited from gerrymandering, though often in a way that supposedly benefits the Republican party more. If proportional representation were to mean fewer black or Hispanic Representatives, someone would certainly cry foul, though one could expect Democrats, at least, to adopt some sort of quota system when picking their slates of at-large candidates. In the bigger picture, many self-styled communities across the country would feel that they were no longer being represented in the manner to which they had become accustomed. Many of those would see proportional representation as a further takeover by a "political class" and a suppression of "local" voices. Those on the right would see it as a bald Democratic ploy to change the rules of a game they've been losing, and the more hysterical or paranoid in that group might see it as another step toward the end of democracy. They might be justified in their suspicion of Democratic motives, but they'd be wrong as far as democracy is concerned. It has always been a fallacy, although it was long a harmless one, that cities or counties as such were entitled to representation in Congress. There may be no comfortable way to disabuse people of that fallacy, but if the redrawing of district borders is always going to draw criticism, and if there's no way to redraw those borders on a rational and consistent basis, change may be necessary in order for the House to live up to the democratic function the Founders intended for it.

18 October 2013

Selling disintermediation

How's this for a word of the day? Disintermediation is the word used by conservative activist Matt Kibbe to describe the threat facing the Republican party over the next three years. In fact, Kibbe claims that the process is already under way, and has been under way in the Democratic party as well.

Look in your online dictionaries and you'll see that disintermediation basically means "doing away with the middleman." In Kibbe's context, the middleman is the party committee, the entity that customarily decides who a party's candidates will be, or who gets to run in a primary for a nomination. Disintermediation will occur if grass-roots groups find ways to recruit and fund candidates who reflect their views without support or interference from party committees. Kibbe warns that the disintermediation process could send the GOP "the way of the Whigs" should the party fail to win the 2016 presidential election. Kibbe assumes that such a defeat would prove one last time that moderate and conservative Republicans are incompatible, that the moderates will always manage to force upon the party a national candidate incapable of rallying the invisible majority which since 2004 if not earlier, in the Tea Party imagination, hasn't found a sufficiently conservative candidate to vote for despite the persistent existential threat of Democratic liberalism. The failures of McCain and Romney have been blamed on their failure, as relative moderates within the right-wing universe, to inspire sufficient numbers of the invisible majority to vote. A prediction of disintermediation depends on. It follows, once you've drunk enough tea, that once the right wing cuts itself loose from the moderates and presents the people with a "real" conservative candidate, the invisible majority will carry that person irresistibly to victory, though presumably without many of the moderate votes the failed Republican candidates received in recent elections.

Disintermediation doesn't sound like a bad thing in the abstract. Americans were always expected to nominate candidates in a grass-roots fashion, albeit with the local notables manipulating things with more or less subtlety.  In ideal democratic circumstances, we shouldn't need middlemen to give us candidates. Such circumstances might leave Kibbe in the cold, however. Readers may recall that he is the CEO of FreedomWorks, a "conservative advocacy group" in MSNBC's description. Kibbe may envision himself and his organization as part of the grass roots, but usually when someone is telling you to do away with the middleman, he really wants to take the middleman's place. 

Will the debate never end?

In reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling for limited times, the government has only kicked the can down the road. In a few months time we'll hear all the same talking points. It seems unlikely that the October crisis has changed many if any minds. While the debate was forced by presumably limited resources, it remains essentially a debate about priorities and core values. This is the sort of debate that isn't decided by elections. In this country, at least, we don't accept that elections oblige the losers to change their minds. As we've just seen, they don't even oblige the losers not to resist the majority carrying out its mandate. That's what separates us from those "authoritarian democracies" Americans love to criticize -- those countries on the slippery slope to tyranny. If we concede that no number of elections or votes will change minds, is there hope in deliberation or conversation. Are the positions of the two major parties, or their respective primary bases, as irreconcilable as they now seem? Is common ground unimaginable? Is the ideal of one dystopian to the other? Anger and fear seem to drive the debate today. The remedy may not be to deny these forces but to be honest and open about them as possible. Any given partisan may deny that he is angry or afraid, but those denials won't work anymore. Better that people admit that they are angry and afraid, so that we can find out what they're angry at or afraid of. My impression is that partisans refuse to listen to the other side's fears, or refuse to take them seriously. Fear and anger are boiled down to "hate," or else dismissed as lies. As long as one side can't destroy the other, or neither can separate, this won't do. One side needs to listen when people from the other worry that no one will care if they suffer or die. The other side needs to listen when people worry that everyone will suffer if we keep doing what we're doing. If neither side agrees with the other, let's hear why. If everyone puts their fears in the open, maybe we'll talk each other down. If not, at least we'll be able to say after whatever follows that we did all we could to prevent it.

15 October 2013

The false equivalence of party and government

You may not expect to see an attack on the so-called "false equivalence" of Republican and Democratic intransigence, as portrayed by the mainstream media, in a mainstream media organ like Time magazine. Yet that's where I read media critic James Poniewozik's piece, an attack on his peers for failing to describe the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis accurately. Poniewozik argues that "seeming fair becomes more important than being fair" at times like these. That is, a desire to appear nonpartisan only obscures the fact that the present crisis is not bipartisan in origin. I can agree with that to a point. But does Poniewozik pass his own test? Does he describe the crisis accurately? Here's his attempt:

One party (in fact, essentially one wing of the Republican party), seeking the elimination or delay of Obamacare precipitated a government shutdown and threatened to force a default on U.S. debt. Period. There was no corresponding threat or demand on the Democratic or White House side; having gotten the Affordable Care Act into law three years ago, they are not in the situation of saying, “Pass Obamacare or we shut ‘er down.”

That looks right at first glance, but it doesn't entirely explain why we have a crisis. Poniewozik's account needs a slight correction. The decisive fact is that the House of Representatives precipitated a government shutdown. That body happens to be controlled by the Republican party, but how you approach the crisis depends, to some extent, on whether you perceive your antagonist as merely a party or a branch of the government. As has been stated repeatedly by partisans and nonpartisans alike, the House has the power of the purse and has used it in the past to force government shutdowns while negotiating with the Senate or the President. The Republican argument for the past two weeks has been that the President has an obligation to negotiate with the House of Representatives. The President's view, and that of most Democrats, is that he doesn't have to negotiate with the Republican party. From that perspective, which Poniewozik ignores, the White House and the Democrats have made a "corresponding threat or demand:" fund Obamacare or we shut 'er down -- or default. That doesn't put Democrats less in the right on the issue of Obamacare itself, practical issues notwithstanding, but it does help account for the crisis without heaping 100% of the blame on the Republicans or the House as a body.

Poniewozik probably anticipated this argument. Here's the next paragraph of his article:

That’s the situation. To accurately describe it, as news coverage should, is not to endorse an ideology. It’s not to say that Obamacare is good or bad. It’s not to say that Republicans do or don’t have good reasons to oppose it. It’s not to say that Democrats have or haven’t sought political benefit in the aftermath. But it correctly places the impetus where it belongs.

In other words, the discussion begins and ends with "they started it." Poniewozik throws in a disclaimer, arguing that the "they started it" argument can be "used as a crowbar to leverage coverage in one direction or to obscure issues." Sometimes, however, "they started it" is an appropriate analysis  of an extraordinary situation, and Poniewozik contends that this is such a time because a win for the Republicans (as opposed to the House) would set a precedent for "renegotiating major pieces of law" by forcing a fiscal crisis. It's an arguable point. But as long as the House has the power to force this issue, can we really depend on Democrats' ability to break the opposite party's will? Poniewozik's party-based analysis suggests a test of wills as an appropriate response, but recognizing that the problem exists only because of the power of the House, regardless of who controls it, points to the necessity of more fundamental change as the only long-term solution. That may not be the story Poniewozik prefers to report, but it's the big picture for all of us.

14 October 2013

The irony of the debt ceiling

Rick Newman, a writer for Yahoo's financial blog, offers some historical perspective on the debt-ceiling crisis. Back in 1917, when Congress created the concept of a debt ceiling, their idea was to make it easier for the government to borrow money. Establishing a debt ceiling was like passing a general incorporation law. In this case, rather than hold a vote to approve each bond issue through which the government borrowed money, Congress authorized borrowing as often as necessary up to a certain point. This was a wartime measure: it allowed the government to sell Liberty Bonds to raise money for our intervention in World War I. The ceiling has been raised piecemeal ever since -- though post-World War II legislation actually lowered the debt ceiling. Congressional Democrats in the 1970s rendered the debt-ceiling concept virtually obsolete by enacting the so-called Gephardt Rule that raised the debt ceiling automatically each time Congress approved a budget. The "Contract With America" Congress of 1995 repealed this rule as part of the austerity campaign that resulted in the 1995-6 shutdown. Republicans might well argue that if the debt ceiling idea has become an impediment to government, Democrats and "big government" types in general have only themselves to blame for generations of profligacy on credit. The ceiling was raised in the first place, however, not just for convenience but out of perceived necessity: the government could not wage a war it had just declared without funds. True fiscal conservatives might question whether a country should wage a war it can't afford, but through history other imperatives have overridden frugality. If there's a congressman willing to say we as a nation should do nothing we can't afford, I'll give him credit even though he's actually not asking for any. But if no one's willing to say that nothing justifies borrowing or "living beyond our means," then we can ask why some are willing to borrow for some purposes and not others. Maybe Ron Paul (if not Rand) might say we should neither kill on credit or keep people alive, but I have my doubts about everyone else.  From another angle, the necessity of borrowing may simply reflect the fact that the nation doesn't really control its own resources, since they aren't simply at the government's disposal. Is it possible to ask, without jumping to ideological conclusions,whether this is really for the best?

11 October 2013

The populist mirage

No sooner do I finish another rant on the subject of populism than I get the latest Nation magazine in the mail with a headline touting "The New Populist Insurgency." The headline refers to an article by Robert L. Borosage entitled simply "The New Insurgents." In the article, Borosage uses the word "populist" or "populists" a grand total of two times. For him, most likely, "populist" is just an adjective, but to his editors it's a selling point. I can understand the feeling. "Populist" sounds like such a good word. Doesn't it mean "party of the people?" If so, why can't "populist" describe the sort of progressive, egalitarian movement Borosage is really touting? It's not as if I own the term. I use it a certain way to identify a certain kind of democratic politics, but if someone else can define the word another way and make it stick -- if a movement can make "populism" a meaningful brand name -- more power to them. But my gut feeling is that the sort of Occupy-inspired "99%" movement Borosage roots for is too inclusive to fit in the historical category of populism. No matter what Borosage feels about the "1%," I don't think he, as a progressive liberal, has it in him to say that they are somehow less authentically American than the 99%  Even if he dared, would he be justified? My hunch has always been that there's a greater concentration of sympathy with much of the progressive agenda among the 1% than there would be in, let's say, the 10%. The liberal obsession with the Koch brothers notwithstanding, I doubt anyone can prove that the richest Americans are the greatest enemies of the rest of us, unless you really believe that our country's problems are caused by these people hoarding money. Another of my hunches is that, in this country, the self-styled self-made man is more likely to despise the poor, to think of them as expendable losers, than the heirs to great fortunes are, if only because the heirs can't make the "I worked my butt off eighteen hours a day" argument the self-mades are so fond of. Those who aspire to join the 1% and are willing to do anything toward that end probably are a greater threat to the social order than those already in the elite. From the liberal or progressive perspective, the enemy should be defined not by what he's worth but by what he believes. Understanding the antagonist requires more critical analysis than you'll get taking a "We are the 99%" shortcut. If taking that route is "populist," we can do without populism.

10 October 2013

Republicans vs Big Business?

One of the worst consequences of the Occupy movement was its reinforcement in many minds of a paradigm for politics pitting the "1%" against everyone else. Occupy is partly to blame for the feeling of surprise in some reports this fall of a growing rift between the Republican party and its supposedly natural base in corporate America. The New York Times reports this week that some business groups are adopting Tea Party tactics against the Tea Party, threatening to finance primary challenges to the most intransigent or provocative GOP representatives. Why would that happen? Isn't the GOP the Party of Business? It is, I suppose, if you mistake the Koch Brothers tree, and a few others, for the forest. Most big businessmen, I suspect, prefer the sort of stability that Tea Party tactics jeopardize. You might characterize theirs as a conservative stance. It's been too easy, however, to point to the Kochs as if they embody Corporate America, as if to prove that their patronage of the Tea Party movement renders the TPs mere dupes of big business as a class. It's more likely that their affinity with TP sentiment renders the Kochs a minority in their class just as the TPs are a minority in the country as a whole. Identifying them with "big business" or "the rich" doesn't really define them adequately. Yet it should have been obviously since the outbreak in 2009 that the Tea Party is essentially a populist movement, and thus unlikely to show big business the deference some in that class may expect. One business lobbyist told the Times that the TPs are a more "anti-establishment" strain of conservatism -- which is another way of saying that they're populists. Some may be reluctant to apply that label to a group that doesn't identify exactly with the working class or the poor, but the essence of populism has less to do with relative wealth or poverty than it does with the conviction that your kind are the "real" citizens, the ones who embody a nation's core values -- as they define them. Populism as an attitude -- to distinguish it from the political movement of the 1890s -- doesn't really translate to "anti-establishment." Populists may resent people in the establishment, but to the extent that they believe themselves to embody a nation's traditional core values they're a kind of establishment in their own minds -- an establishment in unfair exile from its rightful place in power. Another key feature of populism is the populist's self-image, no matter how wealthy he may be, as "the little guy." They feel oppressed by those more powerful (or wealthy) than they and threatened by those who deviate from traditions. They see themselves stuck in the middle -- I suppose every Tea Partier would claim to represent the middle class -- and exploited from above and below. Remember that they grew out of resentment of the bailouts of 2008 and 2009, and that their objections were not just to supposed "government takeovers" of banks, auto companies, etc., but to the fundamental idea that those corporations or industries were "too big to fail." This objection is envious, although the envy is disguised (since envy is a great sin to them) as principled disgust over the dependency of the poor and the crony capitalism at the highest levels. In simplest terms, they see the poor getting breaks, the super-rich getting breaks, but don't seem themselves ever getting a break -- even though they claim to be too proud ever to ask for one. The point, they tell themselves, isn't that they should get a break -- though they'd certainly accept lower taxes as a big break -- but that no one should get or even ask for breaks, bailouts or handouts. Convinced that no one would ever bail them out, they believe that no one or nothing should be bailed out, and that the chips simply should fall where they may. So you see some Republicans this week scoffing at the prospect of a default of the national debt, despite warnings from Wall Street. These Republicans may feel that whoever suffers has it coming, while they'll survive whatever comes. Some may welcome the whole thing coming down. As the Times suggests, their ideology has become self-financing and pandering to specific corporate interests may no longer be a high priority for them. If this is true, than the Tea Party is less about interest-group politics and more about pure identity politics. If we hope to do something about them, we had better be clear about what their identity is. By cutting ties with the TPs, the big business lobbies may be doing us a greater public service than many could ever imagine.

08 October 2013

The blame game: Gingrich 'startled' that today's GOP is smarter, less hated

One of the reasons that I find myself leaning toward some kind of compromise to resolve the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling is that people in both major parties seem more interested in blaming each other should the worst happen than in preventing the worst from happening. I understand that brinkmanship is sometimes necessary in politics, particularly when dealing with bullies, and I understand the idea of preempting a precedent for "extorting" concessions from the majority party. Still, both parties seem more interested in spinning the crisis than ending it, and I think the Republicans are spinning it better. The problem, which may only grow worse as the deadline for raising the debt ceiling nears, is President Obama's repeated refusal to negotiate terms to end the shutdown and raise the ceiling. In Obama's mind, clearly, the point is that funding the government should not be subject to negotiation or "extortion." He remains convinced that the Republicans in the House of Representatives have no moral right, whatever their legal or constitutional rights are, to use their power of the purse to force changes to a "settled law," the Affordable Care Act.  Unfortunately, the issues of the shutdown, the debt ceiling and "Obamacare" are inextricably linked in the public mind, and while Obama may think he occupies the moral high ground by refusing to negotiate conditions for ending the shutdown and funding the government, he may not if the public thinks he's refusing to negotiate over Obamacare. However that plays, Republicans seem confident that Obama has painted himself into a corner again. Senators McConnell and Paul were overheard last week comparing notes on the effectiveness of Republicans' constant demand for negotiations and compromise compared to the Democrats' refusals. "I don't think they poll tested 'we won't negotiate,'" Paul reportedly said, "I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again." Some people see this conversation as a revelation of a cynical strategy, but why shouldn't Republicans strive to at least appear like the reasonable party in the dispute? The tactical wisdom of this course has even sunk into the thick skull of Newt Gingrich, the mastermind of the infamous 1995-96 government shutdown, who notes in his new capacity as a CNN commentator that Republicans now are receiving a smaller share of the blame for the shutdown than they did in his time. He credits that poll result to Obama's refusal to negotiate, though it should be noted that although the share of blame Republicans get now is less than it was in 1996, the public (or at least those polled) still blame Republicans for the current shutdown more than they blame the President or the Democrats as a whole. In fact, the same polls show that respondents blamed Obama, the person supposedly most unwilling to negotiate, less than they blamed his party. That may reflect a feeling that "Congress" in general is to blame for the crisis, but accounting for this shouldn't obscure the main point that respondents still blame Republicans more than anyone else. Gingrich doesn't deny that fact, but he argues that the narrower margin of blame now, compared with 1996, shows that something has changed in the country. He points to the difference in personality between Obama and President Clinton, who could never be accused of never wanting to negotiate with anybody. He also makes a kind of historic mea culpa, acknowledging that his own aggressive attitude while Speaker was to blame for the backlash against Republicans.

In retrospect I brought some of this on us because I was very firm and clear beforehand that we were prepared to close the government if that was what it took to get an agreement to balance the federal budget. In a sense, Americans were right to blame (or credit) us with the shutdowns because we were in fact on offense, seeking a decisive change in government. As the first House Republican majority in 40 years, we were feeling empowered, and we probably showed it too clearly.

Gingrich insists, however, that his shutdown had positive results, including the budget surpluses during Clinton's second term. He doesn't say whether the current shutdown is worth it; we can assume his opinion on Obamacare but he doesn't repeat it here. He ends with what has now become the standard Republican talking point: the crisis is sustained by Democrats' refusal to negotiate. If Democrats are going to stick to their guns, they're going to have to make clear exactly what is non-negotiable and why. Since to my knowledge they can't cite the law that requires Republicans to capitulate, they have a tough sell in store for them -- unless they really are more interested in blaming Republicans when the worst happens.

07 October 2013

Two theories of government, but only one country

The Republican stand against the Affordable Care Act is contemptible, but it also happens to be legal. Democrats can rail on about how Republicans should not do this or that, but they have no legal leg to stand on, that I can see, if they claim that Republicans can't do these things. Meanwhile, Republicans may feel confirmed in their suspicions that President Obama aspires to a more authoritarian Presidency, as long as Democrats keep arguing that the 2012 presidential election somehow strips Republicans of their rights or the House of Representatives of its powers. Here is where two starkly different theories of government distinguish themselves. Many Democrats seem convinced that Obama's re-election settles the question of "Obamacare" beyond dispute. At most, they argue that Republicans have no right to repeal, defund or otherwise mess with the ACA until the GOP retakes control of the Senate. At worst, they seem to claim that Obama's re-election puts a burden of deference upon the opposition. We've all seen or heard this argument by now. It fits a certain notion of democracy but it isn't consistent with the Constitution. That certain notion is that the President, by virtue of his election, has a mandate to have his way until the next election. It's the assumption implicit in the "authoritarian" tactics allegedly practiced in some of the other democracies around the world. But before we give Republicans too much credit, or any, for resisting this assumption, we should remember that they were firm believers in a mandate enjoyed by George W. Bush that was in no way compromised by the controversial circumstances of his first election. Then, they were just as convinced as Democrats are now that a President was entitled to have his way without taking into account the size and vehemence of the opposition. On the other hand, Republicans could argue that the law recognized Bush as President and did not require him to take the narrow margin of his victory or its disputed validity into account. Meanwhile, as Senator Cruz and others have pointed out this month, Democratic Congresses have shut the government down in the past -- sometimes in defiance of Democratic Presidents, and sometimes due to disputes between two Democratic-controlled houses of the legislature. What's novel now, it would seem, is the assumption that the ACA is non-negotiable. It's nice to think so, but merely thinking so doesn't guarantee that Speaker Boehner will crack before the October 17 deadline for raising the debt ceiling -- which is itself another arbitrary rather than Constitutional rule enacted less than a century ago. Ideally the ACA shouldn't be subject to negotiation because there shouldn't be such hysterical opposition to it. The opposition exists, however, and it controls the House of Representatives. The country is currently stuck with the sort of concurrent majority that wouldn't exist under a parliamentary system of government, in which you can't be the head of government unless your party controls the legislature. Of course, the Founders didn't think party would factor into government the way it has -- more correctly, none of them suspected that their own beliefs would turn "partisan" so soon after ratifying the Constitution. Moreover, because they distrusted political power, they designed a system to check democracy, and did it so well that politicians seem to keep finding new ways to check it. Today's Republicans consider it their duty to check democracy -- to the extent that they recognize Obama's elections as democracy in action -- whenever it threatens to damage the economy or limit individual liberty.  Democrats either deny the Republican assumptions about the consequences of Obamacare or argue that the ACA should be tried before it's rejected, letting democracy take its chances. A handful of Republicans have been arguing for some time that their party should let Obamacare happen, on the assumption that it will fail and that Democrats will suffer for the failure. The majority in their party apparently feel that the economic consequences will be too grave for them to let it happen in the expectation of political gain later. But isn't democracy on some level about letting the people's will happen -- not without safeguards for certain individual rights, of course, but without the knee-jerk bad-faith presumption prevalent among today's Republicans that the public sector can't do anything right. Conservatives in general are fond of reminding us that the U.S. is not a democracy, but the American people might take advantage of this crisis by asking whether it is democracy, whether they want more democracy -- and how they might do that.

06 October 2013

The opposite of clean

On one of the Sunday talk shows Speaker Boehner assured his interlocutors that the House of Representatives would not pass a "clean" bill to raise the debt ceiling. He meant that such a bill, which must pass before October 17, must include new spending cuts. You can expect nothing else from Republicans, but Boehner's choice of words show at least one way that Democrats are controlling the debate over the shutdown and the debt ceiling. The Speaker appears to have accepted the Democratic definition of a "clean" bill as one without concessions from the President or the Senate -- from the Democratic point of view, a bill not tainted by Republican extortion. Boehner obviously meant to say that there can be no end to the partial government shutdown, nor a raising of the debt ceiling, without "compromise" from the Democrats. But by using Democratic terminology Boehner begs a question: if the Republicans get that way, does that make these dirty bills? Draw your own conclusions.

03 October 2013

From Shutdown to Lockdown

This was inevitable: according to the latest reports, a crazy woman tried to drive her way onto the White House grounds this afternoon, then raced toward the Capitol building. Police claim that she started firing -- whether at her pursuers or at the building is unclear. She was "neutralized" and apparently taken alive despite earlier reports that she had been killed. At least one person was injured during the pursuit. Let the recriminations begin. I like to play these games as much as anyone. When the first reports stated simply that shots had been fired at "the Capitol," I speculated that the perp was an angry Democrat. After learning of her visit to the Executive Mansion, many will assume that she's a crazed Tea Partier -- so crazed (regardless of party) that she did all this, it is now reported, with a child in the back seat of her vehicle. This is fun of a sort, but I'd like to say that a broader, objective, nonpartisan conclusion might be drawn from this incident, yet the sad truth is that there are so many crazy people running loose in this country that the government shutdown and the debate over defunding Obamacare may have had nothing to do with her outburst. This may be a tale with no moral, or else its moral is so general that we can lose track of it amid the controversies of the moment. If this week's news did trigger today's violence -- and there is news that an angry someone physically confronted a Republican congressman last night -- everyone involved in the shutdown crisis should take a breath and think about the consequences of their words and actions. What you should think is up to you.

Update: The latest definite word is that the driver was killed and her identity is known. She reportedly had some mental issues in the past and lost her job not long after having the baby who did ride with her and did survive the incident.

02 October 2013

The Burden of Compromise

On the first day of the partial government shutdown it could be argued that the burden of compromise lay on President Obama and Majority Leader Reid. No matter how unjust the Republican stand against "Obamacare" is, so long as Republicans control the House they share the power of the purse and are under no constitutional obligation to fund any program, no matter how popular it may be. To my knowledge, there is no way to compel the Republican majority to pass the so-called "clean bill" to fund the government except the way the Democrats are currently doing so: by refusing to approve any bill from the House that does not fund the Affordable Care Act and daring the GOP to risk not just an extended shutdown but a default on the national debt. So if a burden of compromise does lay with the Democrats, it's really a matter of how soon you want the shutdown to end. It should also be remembered that the House can't compel the Senate or the President, either, except by the means Republicans are currently using: by refusing any legislation from the Senate that fully funds the ACA and daring Democrats etc. etc. It is just about literally a game of chicken in which both cars may go off the cliff but someone, presumably, will have the satisfaction of blaming someone else for what happens to the passengers. Fear of the cliff is expected to force someone to lose in time for both drivers to escape, but since the thing at stake is blame the normal incentives don't apply with their usual force. In any event, a case could be made for the necessity of compromise from the Democrats, but now the Huffington Post and  National Journal report that since yesterday a theoretical majority in favor of a "clean" bill exists in the House. That is, enough Republican representatives have expressed support for a funding bill that includes the ACA for the bill to pass, presuming unanimous Democratic support. In practical terms, presuming that the reporters are right about all the Republicans under discussion, whether the shutdown will end is entirely up to Speaker Boehner. It's up to the Speaker to allow votes on bills, but it is understood that on this occasion Boehner is abiding by the so-called Hastert Rule. The principle predates former Speaker Hastert, and the practice has been observed erratically by Speakers of both parties. The rule is that a bill will not be brought to the floor for a vote unless it has the support of the majority of the majority caucus. In this case, that means that unless a majority of Republican representatives supports a clean bill, the bill will not be voted upon, even if a majority of the entire House is known to support it. Whether the Hastert Rule is observed is entirely a matter of the Speaker's prerogative. Boehner can't be compelled to permit a vote on a clean bill, but when it becomes clear that one man (rather than a party) is preventing a resolution of the crisis, it should become more clear where the burden of compromise currently lies. However, a remedy for Boehner's obstinacy may exist in the form of a discharge petition. This option allows a simple majority of the House to force a vote on a bill without the consent of the Speaker or relevant committee chairman. Whether the wavering Republicans would go for this option is uncertain. It's one thing to say you support a measure you don't expect to come to a vote, and another to take a stand that exposes you to reprisal (in terms of committee assignments, etc.) from the Speaker and the inevitable primary challenge next year from the fire-eaters at home. These representatives reportedly have already expressed their readiness to compromise; for them the next step requires courage -- or perhaps just a choice between the public blaming Boehner or blaming them for a fiscal catastrophe.

01 October 2013

Stalingrad on the Potomac

Stalingrad was a trap for Hitler. He remained committed to taking the city long past any realistic hope in part because he felt it would be a great propaganda victory to conquer the city named for his Soviet enemy. Prestige was on the line for Stalin, too, and that gave the battle an intensity and a body count greater, perhaps, than the city's strategic significance justified. And here we are now: no one is dying from the partial government shutdown, and it's hard to believe that the fate of the nation rides on the success or failure of the Affordable Care Act, but because it is "Obamacare" passions have gone off the chain. Republicans simply must defeat it, while the President's prestige is at stake -- and supporters of both parties are out for blood, or at least that's how it looks on the Internet. Democrats are in check and they don't like it, and as a result I've seen people demand that Speaker Boehner, Senator Cruz, etc. be arrested, while the usual bile in favor of impeaching Obama (or doing who knows what to Majority Leader Reid) continues to flow through the usual channels. The sad fact is that the House of Representatives shares the power of the purse. They are under no constitutional obligation to fund what they don't want to fund. Neither the approval of the ACA by a previous Congress, the decision of the Supreme Court, nor the 2012 presidential election imposes the obligation on them. It seems unfair that they can block the operation of the government or even force it to default on its financial obligations, but your problem is as much with the Constitution as with the Republican (or Tea) Party. Our government is not designed to give the President what he wants, no matter who he represents or what mandate he claims. Instead, it allows for what the 19th century nullifier John C. Calhoun called concurrent majorities. There is a "majority" that re-elected Barack Obama, and a "majority" that kept the House under Republican control. The presidential majority does not outrank the congressional majority; the former can't pull rank and require the latter to defer to their mandate.  That's the structural problem. The practical problem is that while Republican arguments for delaying the ACA are disingenuous given the party's ideological opposition to the very idea the ACA enacts, the President and the Democrats have done a terrible job rallying public opinion behind the new program. People remain confused about what's happening, while the supposedly subservient "liberal media" reports on every glitch in the implementation process and each report undermines the always-shaky American confidence in bureaucracy to get anything right, not to mention the Democrats' otherwise-understandable insistence on the ACA being funded "as is."  Yet the Obama Administration really does seem to take it for granted that the public understands not only the essentials but the essential soundness of the whole process. Obama really seems to think that the public should just trust him on this. This is what he gets for going for something complex and compromised from the start instead of something simple and revolutionary. If you argue that he could do nothing better, that's probably another point against our political system rather than a point against Obama. My point isn't necessarily that we should have a more authoritarian president or a more authoritarian democracy, but really that our system of government should not make it as difficult as possible to enact measures to help keep people alive. On this point the problem is both structural and ideological, since many Americans really object to the idea that the state should help people stay alive. If they feel that way, why bother having a government?