Government


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

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”.

The Republicans have invented the idea that the election was bought by gifts from the government to “urban” voters― that 47 percent of the population who are “takers” as opposed to Republicans, who are the “makers” of jobs and goods, the wealth creators. For Republicans the reality that tax breaks for the rich don’t create trickle-down economic growth is just another deniable piece of objective evidence invented by the liberal press, just like the polls that said Obama was going to win the election.  But in “reality” it is the rich who are the real takers of gifts. By some alchemy they get to turn their income artificially into capital gains and thereby save fortunes from significantly lower taxes.

The “makers” obviously don’t see it this way. They may think they didn’t get a gift from the government, but rather as good businessmen incurred a business expense, buying this, that, or the other lawmaker. They paid for their tax gifts. They also paid for state legislators to redistrict their states or to pass voter suppression laws to artificially raise the number of Republicans in Congress.

Despite the dismal return on their money in November’s election, Republicans don’t appear to be giving these ideas up. So rather than turning our heads in embarrassment, we need to chase these ideas down every drain pipe until they are flushed out of our system.

We could start with the drains in Sea Gate, a gated community on Coney Island.  The community is asking for government help to rebuild after super storm Sandy.  Sea Gate started out as a retreat for Vanderbilts and Morgans in the 19th century. Current residents are described as middle class. According to a NYT report (11/27/12), whether middle class or super rich, they have chosen to live apart from their neighbor communities―with a vengeance.  They have ringed themselves with barbed wire and armed security check points. Sea Gate and other private communities can apply to get their streets taken off city maps (demapping), at which point such streets become privately owned, the communities assuming responsibilities for infrastructure, including roads, sewers, parks, and even policing.  This is the price for being left alone. Post-Sandy, however, Sea Gate has decided it cannot afford the infrastructure rebuilding costs, so it is asking for city, state, and federal assistance.

 

Sea Gate should get the help it is asking for. NYC’s deputy for operations is probably correct to say, “It’s in everyone’s interest to get these communities back.  If they’re successful, the city is successful.” Maybe some members of Sea Gate are embarrassed they are letting the Romney/Ryan team down by accepting government gifts.  If I were them, I would be more embarrassed by the barbed wire.

The Republican idea that cutting government at all levels and reducing taxes on business will free capitalism to work its mythical magic and create jobs, is also a back door to cutting back the empowerment of women. In the present political climate, who is even talking about the Lilly Ledbetter Act to ensure equal pay for equal work? Who in federal, state and local governments Republicans are working to emasculate is going to enforce it?

The New York Times published September 15 the results of a study that finds that government contracting out its services to the private sector is more expensive than performing the services with government employees. Although not a part of any study I am aware of it, is obvious that privatizing public sector jobs also would reduce pressure on fair employment practices and the availability of jobs for women.

When I lived in Norway in the early nineties, my colleague’s wife delivered triplets, one of whom had Downs Syndrome. They were visited almost immediately by a social worker whose responsibility was to work with health problems in the area where they lived. Even though they were not Norwegian they continued to enjoy valuable and intensive help. These health and welfare offices and departments were disproportionately staffed by women. This was directly connected with the fact that a very significant portion of Norwegian members of Parliament had had backgrounds in public service. While the US Congress is dominated by male lawyers, Norway’s Parliament had then almost 50% women, many with experience in the public welfare sector. Norway’s funding priorities reflected this gender composition.

If the Republicans succeed in reducing government it will reduce American democracy – the less government, the smaller the area for democratic accountability and the less pressure to build a fair and compassionate society. When we look at the impact various plans for job creation will have it is important to link the opportunities for women with the Republican drive to reduce public sector employment.
— Elizabeth Spiro Clark