Democracy


On October 21 the Washington Post carried two side by side front page headlines: “A quiet effort to move GOP to the middle on gay rights” and “How would McAuliffe or Cuccinelli govern? Both candidates must overcome reputations, legislative partisanship.” Clunky English but comfortable ideas: “partisanship” indeed political parties, are dirty things; the middle is whatever the middle is between equal Republican and Democratic party extremes.

As scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein from the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute told us a year ago in their book “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks,” America’s problem isn’t political polarization, it is the takeover of one party, the Republicans, by extremists. Noted journalists have weighed in. Eric Alterman has denounced false objectivity as driven by a false ideology of “balanced” reporting and equivalence of extremes, in what Paul Krugman has called “post–truth politics”. The shut down/debt limit crisis took the Ornstein and Mann conclusion to high decibel levels. That conclusion has been conveyed, however, almost exclusively though endless reporting on opinion polls, grass roots interviews and analysis of party leaders’ calculations and tactics (equal time to both sides).

The media is washing its hands of any responsibility to look at the messages they convey, and not just on the op-ed pages. They need to come out of their safety mode and whack this “balanced polarization” mole back underground. Just describing the positions of Republican’s and Democrat’s supposedly balanced “extremes” gives the game away. Some or all Republican politicians want to get rid of Social Security, abolish the Federal Reserve and Environmental Protection Agency, renege on the US sovereign debt, deny the legitimacy of laws passed by Congress and declared constitutional by the Supreme Court, suppress the vote and rig electoral districts, require an anti abortion pledge from appointed officials in the federal Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, ban not only abortion but contraception in the United States. This side – the Republican side – has demonstrated indifference to hunger in America by rejecting reauthorization of food stamp programs and urging states to reject federal financing for Medicaid. The other side – hold on! – wants to let tax rates return to pre Bush 43 levels and, along with the rest of the industrialized world, prefers a single payer system of healthcare. No Balanced polarization of extremes exists.

The idea that all reporting must be balanced goes back a long ways. I remember that after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing the PBS news hour “balanced” a report on extremist groups by offering equal time to a man who described his conviction that the UN was sending out “black helicopters” to attack America. No factual statement rejecting his “take” on the situation was offered. In 2013, of course, Washington is the black helicopter.

The balance mantra distorts everything. The brainwashed and fed up public demands that Washington compromise and work together. Finding the “center” between the two parties is said to be the solution. Even better is pushing bipartisanship and nonpartisanship. But what exactly is the “center” on gay rights; what exactly is legislative bipartisanship in the Virginia legislature? A flip of the coin to decide which Virginia women are forced to have ultrasound if they are seeking abortions?

Flowing from the balance distortion is the idea that political parties are dirty. A pejorative slush flows over not just political parties but all democratic institutions. At the same time, politicians are rock stars, especially those who want to destroy government and with it, presumably, the politicians who have a calling to respond to citizens with actions that improve their lives.

The extremist Republicans win unless we change the story line.

— Elizabeth Spiro Clark

Whether in Eastern Europe on the collapse of the Soviet Union, or South Africa on the collapse of apartheid, it was clear people wanted their voice to be heard. They wanted the respect and dignity they had been denied for so long. If they thought elections were fair and their vote counted as the equal of others, they lined up for hours to exercise their democratic rights.

Not all first elections in democratic transitions are good elections. Most are not. Voters can be voting for a parliament where a bloc of seats is reserved for the military (Indonesia) or where the eventual winner of elections wields an independent militia (Hamas in West Bank 2006 elections). Categorizing countries politically is almost to guarantee oversimplification. Is the United States a liberal democracy, given the role money plays in our elections? Certainly Egypt’s 2011 elections had many deeply controversial – and undemocratic – features.

It is simplistic to call what is happening in Egypt a coup against a democratically elected leader, if for no other reason than that democratically elected leaders can turn authoritarian once in office. Not that setting elections are not of prime importance as the first task of the post-Morsy government.

One lesson that can be drawn, both from the turmoil in Egypt and the recent elections in Iran, is that political participation is now what people are going to do. There was talk – and action- to boycott Egyptian 2011 elections. In Iran, boycotting elections has been a way to prove your political integrity. No more. Opposition Iranians did not boycott but participated in June’s elections, although they certainly weren’t democratic, with clerics picking who could and who could not run for office. As a result, Iranians elected as President the most liberal candidate available. Whether in Iran or Egypt democracy is coming to mean keeping at it. There is no rest for the weary.

We live in political times of extreme intolerance for the views of others. The media increasingly negotiate the resulting political minefields and dodge the  sniper fire by framing what they are doing as reporting on “the debate” or “conversation” or on calls for “having a conversation”, “having a debate”.  The implication is always clear that “having a conversation” is a practical way to reach a middle ground, solve problems, find a compromise that both sides can agree on.

But is it? Is there any middle ground between the NRA and advocates for the regulation of firearms, for example? Where is the conversation when, following the Newtown massacre,  NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre stated that getting more guns in the hands of individuals was the solution to gun violence.

Where is the middle ground when Larry Pratt, head of Gun Owners of America, says that the main reason for owning guns is to defend ourselves against the government.  In this thinking, the American government is not America. For Representative Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) the US doesn’t  have a gun problem, it has a people problem.  Anyone who disagrees (in this “debate”) is pushing a political agenda. Huelskamp says he doesn’t exactly approve of children playing video games, but “I am not saying to pass a  single law about that because it would be politicizing the issue.”

It is unacceptable to say that passing laws is “politicizing” an issue.  “Passing laws” is why our founding fathers created an elected legislative body. That is democracy.  At its heart Republican extremism is an authoritarian movement. It is no accident that neither Wayne LaPierre nor the NRA President David Keene would take  questions at their press conferences. Accountability is a core value of democracy, not authoritarianism. A debate shouldn’t be about whether we want to be a democracy.

For the media endless talk about “debate” it is a way to cover themselves. They don’t have to expose that one side, and one side only, is incapable of moving off an extreme agenda.  We shouldn’t, however, avert our eyes from the clear meaning of what is being said just because it exposes the limits of “conversation” and “debate”.

“Having the debate” also means getting out of calling the facts.  The Violence Policy Center conducts research that finds “states with low gun ownership rates and strong gun laws have the lowest rates of gun deaths”: The NRA says that “gun free zones” have higher gun death rates. For the NRA, gun free zones are the problem.  It’s presented as a debate, except it isn’t.

It is important to follow other stories that just follow the facts. For example, the profit gun manufacturers (and hedge fund mangers) make off weapons sales.  LaPierre, in effect, opened a new business opportunity when he said the NRA would finance and fund a program called the “National Model School Shield Program” to train school guards.  This at a time when the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has no workable data base of gun owners and registered guns because NRA will not let Congress pass the necessary appropriations.  The NRA doesn’t want to make Americans safer, it wants to make them less safe – for profit.

We don’t need a “conversation” with far right extremists, we need to talk about what they are saying.  What does it mean to say you need guns to defend yourself against (your) government? What is sedition? What constitutes incitement to violence? What is treason? And finally, what about exposing a right wing conspiracy to change America through cover organizations, funded by right wing billionaires, that push anti democracy laws in state legislatures and gett them passed. The American Legislative Exchange Council may drop pushing “Stand Your Ground” legislation after the killing of Trayyvon Martin last year and Stephen Feinberg of Cerberus hedge fund may drop Freedom Group Inc. gun manufacturers after Newtown.  But how many more are still out there pulling strings? We need information, not “debate”.

Helen Dragas, Chair of the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, came to her position from a career as CEO of Dragas Companies, a real estate and construction firm. She brought to her position a reputation for resolve and decisiveness, which she demonstrated when she fired University President Teresa Sullivan with, initially at least, the support of 15 members of the 16 member Board. The Board was comprised almost entirely of individuals who, like Dragas, are heads of businesses or have business backgrounds. No reasons were given for Sullivan’s firing; the consensus opinion was that Dragas and some major donors wanted better cooperation from the President in bringing the University closer to a business model in its operations.

Dragas was appointed by a Democrat and has given money to Democratic politicians, so her action cannot be ascribed to a Republican Party agenda. However, it is hard not to see in this university leadership crisis the same downsides of a business background and culture at play that would be at play if Mitt Romney, touting his business credentials for the job, became President. It is hard to translate the goal of making money off of building and selling houses to nurturing the values of a great institution of higher learning. It is hard to translate buying up distressed companies, making money, often, off of their destruction rather than their improved operations, to guiding a nation to greater security and well-being for its citizens.

Autocratic decision-making style is not appropriate in either case. The Sullivan firing followed a secretive and abbreviated process that might be termed “model” CEO decision making. The firing immediately led to the resignation of one of UVA’s star academics, who clearly did not see his role as a division chief in a construction firm following orders. Romney has been noted for his secretive style as governor of Massachusetts.

Accountability for the Dragas decision and the swift reinstatement of President Sullivan came partly as a result of outraged student demonstrations in support of Sullivan. The chief mechanism for keeping a President of the United States democratically accountable are elections. If Romney is elected and doesn’t do well, then he can be “fired” at the next election. However, that scenario assumes that after four years of a Romney presidency, the lines of accountability will remain clear after outsourcing of government functions to corporate supporters and unlimited political money channeled from the top 1 percent to political campaigns. The chorus of students, professors, and graduates cannot turn around a national election. The answer is clear: we must work to re-elect President Obama.

Mitt Romney speaks

Winning five more Republicans primaries on Tuesday, Mitt Romney declared in Manchester, New Hampshire, that “tonight is the start of a new campaign.” He might have used the occasion to give a substantive speech. But the best adjective the New York Times reporters could come up with to describe what he said was “succinct.” “Succinct” was indeed a generous gloss for a stringing together of nice sentiments. “Inane” would have been a better choice. In this speech Romney did remember not to praise the “perfect height of the trees” as he had in Michigan, but he did praise Americans for having “always been a nation of big steppers.” Something to remember.

Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers notes (WP, 4/27) that while President Obama’s budget plan has been scored by the independent Congressional Budget Office, candidate Romney has gotten away in his speeches with saying that he will pay for the $5 trillion in tax cuts he has promised (on top of extending the Bush tax cuts) partly through closing tax shelters that Summers says cannot even approach offsetting the loss in revenue. Romney seems to promise to continue to avoid the substance of how his plans will work, saying of his tax plan, “frankly, it can’t be scored.”

Despite the deliberate vagueness of Romney’s speeches, Romney’s rhetoric on freedom in his address Tuesday deserves serious attention. His vision, he says, is for an America not run by bureaucrats, but where “free people in their own unique ways, create free enterprises that employ more and more Americans.”

How much freedom do Americans have when Wall Street figures out how to package subprime mortgages in “its own unique ways” so that the same Wall Street banks could bet against what they sold to unwitting customers, making huge profits for themselves while failing to create employment for real, not Romney, Americans?

The political philosopher Michael Sandel in his Harvard College course “Justice” gives his students the correct way to think about the role of “freedom” in a just society. “A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably come. ”

AND:

Americans Elect: a third “party” hopefully going nowhere

Just when you were breathing a sigh of relief that the Republican primaries would no longer be eating up your brain cells, along comes a third party “movement” complete with plausible leaders like former governor Christy Todd Whitman, former Senator David Boren and columnist super star Tom Friedman to entice you into trying to make sense of what they are doing.

Americans Elect, the movement in question, states its only goal is to put a directly nominated ticket on the ballot in every state in 2012 and to provide a secure online counting process, culminating in an online convention. “At” the convention the presidential nominee must choose a vice president from another party, to underline a rigorous nonpartisanship. “The goal of Americans Elect is to nominate a presidential ticket that answers directly to voters ― not the political system.”

For some incomprehensible reason ― how can running for President be detached from “the political system”? ― columnist Tom Friedman has bought on to Americans Elect and wants NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for President on its ticket. Neither party, according to Friedman, offers an “inspired vision of America renewal” and that’s why the country needs a third party candidate.

Leaving aside a debate on the relative merits of Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama as inspired visionaries, it is important to nail two major defects in the framework of Americans Elect, defects which are, alas, embedded in the terms of the broader political debate this campaign year.

First, in positioning itself in the nonpartisan “center,” Americans Elect claims to be attacking gridlock in Washington. In fact, it is perpetuating the false idea of our parties as equally extreme. There is no extremity equality between today’s Republican and Democratic parties. One side wants to get rid of Social Security, abolish the Federal Reserve and Environmental Protection Agency, end federal guarantee to Medicare Health insurance, cut funding for education, shred the federal regulatory system, and bomb Iran, and the other side ― hold on! ― wants to let tax rates return to pre-Bush 43 levels.

Gridlock in Washington is not the fault of both parties in equal measure. In attacking Americans Elect, Columnist Michael Cohen in The Guardian (3/17/12) said, “Since 2009, the Congress has seen a greater level of procedural obstructionism that ever before in American history ― and it’s all come from Republicans” (italics added). He adds, “If you don’t like gridlock in Washington, vote for Democrats.”

Second, multiparty competitive elections are essential elements of democracy. By running away from the “political system” Americans Elect feeds the current celebrity political culture where all that counts is the candidates’ personal qualities (or those of his wife). But to be an individual on the Republican side in the US Congress means next to nothing. With a few exceptions, Republicans vote in lock step along party lines. Almost all have taken the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge. We are electing members of congress to represent us in taking actions to solve problems and plan for a future that is good for all Americans. How can a Republican in congress make any decisions for the national good if they have pre-decided through pledging what they will do?

Americans Elect is not a solution for the dysfunction of the American political system. It is part of the problem.

There has been a gratifying deluge of shocked commentary on the killing of Trayvon Martin by the Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman. The picture that is emerging is getting scarier and scarier, and we don’t seem to be at the end of the stream of revelations and explanations.

Columnist Paul Krugman filled in some pieces of the puzzle in his March 26 opinion piece in the Washington Post. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is not unique but is from templates of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Krugman explained. ALEC’s billionaire backers have the same familiar names that support right wing Republican causes and candidates. “ALEC isn’t so much about promoting free markets as it is about expanding crony capitalism.” ALEC doesn’t want small government but privatized government where taxpayers support, among other things, the outsourcing of criminal justice. Corporations such as the American Bail Coalition, for example, profit from a larger prison population.

The National Rifle Association works closely with ALEC. This is not surprising given NRA interests in keeping its millions in donations coming, even when, to the objective eye, all its extreme goals have not only been achieved but dangerously exceeded. Chris Tutko, Director of the Neighborhood Watch Programs in the National Sheriff’s Association, has been asked about the guidelines for Neighborhood Watch organizations and has responded that the guidelines prohibit the carrying of weapons. But what do the guidelines matter when a Neighborhood Watch volunteer has a legal permit to carry a concealed weapon? (Note: in Florida the body charged with overseeing the concealed weapons law is the Agriculture Commission!)

Connecting laws on concealed weapons and Stand Your Ground provisions, which require only that the individual taking action believes he is being threatened, creates a perfect storm. Under Stand Your Ground it would not be possible to prove that Trayvon Martin did not threaten George Zimmerman because there were no witnesses and one of the two protagonists is dead. One can make inferences from Zimmerman’s 911 call, when he was told not to follow the “suspicious” person, but enough to convict him? The conclusion is stark. Homicide is no longer prosecutable. States with Stand Your Ground laws have “legally” sanctioned lawlessness.

Rule of law is an essential element of democracy. How many individual states have to grind away the core of democracy before America succumbs.

Newly invested Cardinal Timothy Dolan has called on Catholics to be very active in the political sphere, condemning President Obama for daring to tell Catholics they should listen to enlightened voices of accommodation within the church. “No,” said Dolan, “if you want to go to an authoritative voice go to the bishops.”

Dolan gets no disagreement from Presidential candidate Rick Santorum on who is the authority in this matter. It is clear how far Santorum will go in defending that authority when he blames the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church on “the liberal culture.” “When the culture is sick, every element in it is infected,” he said (NYT, 3/4).

It is not just a figure of speech when Santorum says John F. Kennedy’s speech on the separation of church and faith makes him “want to throw up.” Santorum doesn’t want a separation. In 1960 Kennedy reassured America that he would not be taking orders from the Pope. In 2012 Santorum is not making the same vow. The fears that Kennedy laid to rest in 1960 that Americans might come under religious control seem a wholly reasonable threat to democracy in 2012. Santorum offers obedience to religious authority as the future he is fighting for.

It is the clear meaning of Santorum’s words and back action that he intends, if President, to bring a theocracy to America, with laws and, perhaps, constitutional amendments passed to take away individual liberty from Americans in their human relationships, and to criminalize behavior that doesn’t conform with the new regime. It is also clear that, as in other theocracies around the world, actions that would guarantee the continuation of a regime would be planned, whether democratic or not.

The Authentic Romney?
Santorum may exit the Republican primaries but he is not the sole embodiment of these ideas. It is not only Santorum we need to fear.

The conventional wisdom of the media on Romney seems to be that his flip-flopping is covering the real―moderate―Romney who will be revealed when elected President. However, Romney’s religious convictions are very likely as extreme and authoritarian as Santorum’s. Romney has certainly never expressed doubts about his choice to be a missionary for his Mormon faith in France in 1966-67.

In a New York Times op-ed (1/29), a lapsed Mormon, Carrie Sheffield, told a chilling story about the ostracism by her family and community she suffered when she could no longer accept her religion. “Yes,” she said, “Mormons love families. But the family-values facade applies only if you stay in the fold. Former Mormons know the family estrangement and bigotry that often come with questioning or leaving the church. The church I was raised in values unquestioning obedience over critical thinking.”

The Church of the Latter Day Saints does not have the local doctrinal flexibility that exists in Judaism and many Christian churches: it stifles efforts to openly question church pronouncements and labels such behavior as “satanic.” A high-ranking Mormon leader told her “to quit reading historical and scientific materials because they were ‘worse than pornography.’ I had no place to live a moderated, reformed existence.”

“Religion in America”
Trying to put to rest questions about his religion in the last Presidential campaign, Romney gave a speech titled “Religion in America” in 2006. Underneath a moderate patina, the speech opens a door on a religious ideology that arguably unites a large swath of Republican leadership, including then-President George W. Bush.

“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” he said. In Romney’s view government must be smaller (except in defense), but religion bigger. This, he says, is because despite differences in theology among churches “we share a common creed of moral convictions.” “We acknowledge the Creator,” including, as Romney enumerates, “with religious displays in public places.” “I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from “the God who gave us liberty.” “Freedom requires religion” means an absolute opposition to the religion of secularism. Romney says, in so many words, that all faiths are ok; the only thing that is unacceptable is no faith.

Morality
Romney’s “common creed of moral convictions” does not cover what Democrats generally mean when they use the word “moral” to describe public policy or action. Romney is far from saying that, for example, extending health care coverage to all children is a moral imperative―an action that would reflect our common values as Americans.

It is possible Romney and Santorum would not understand those who use the word “immoral” to describe the vicious attacks by Republican icon Rush Limbaugh on Georgetown Law Student Sandra Flukes for daring to support contraception. Their notions of morality are centered on the nature of human sexuality and obedience to religious authorities. Any means may be used to defeat an enemy. No slur against President Obama is too rancid. Any excuse to impeach President Clinton is fine, however much the office of President is degraded and the reputation of the United States corroded is acceptable in this fight to the death. They are the patriots.

Romney and Santorum are not champions of liberty. They have challenged core American institutions and values. Those who value freedom and democracy must defeat this challenge.

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