Politics


In an interview given to the editor of the Italian Jesuit publication “La Civilta Cattolica,” and released September 19, Pope Francis said that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay rights and contraception. The church should not be “distracted” into promulgating a multitude of doctrines “insistently”. He said of complaints reaching him about “lack of orthodoxy” that they “are better dealt with locally.” Otherwise Vatican offices will risk becoming “institutions of censorship.” In coming out against insistence on orthodoxy on sexual matters the Pope used the metaphor of treating the wounded on a battlefield “you don’t ask a seriously injured person if he has high levels of cholesterol.” He says that God looks on the gay person as an individual.

Here in America, one gasps at the importance of the Pope’s message in the light of the very recent impact of Catholic dogmatism on American politics and culture. It is not so long ago that we had a prominent Republican candidate for the Presidency, Rick Santorum, a Catholic, make the banning of contraception a core campaign plank, or that in the last Iowa presidential primary season all of the Republican candidates, except for Mitt Romney, took a pledge to appoint only anti abortion officials to key justice and health departments. And who could forget the appointment of a Vatican “inquisitor” to put the nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in their place, not for violating Catholic dogma on abortion, but for not speaking out against it in their work.

Pope Francis thus has repudiated much of his predecessor’s authoritarian mischief on religion and public policy. In the debate over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act absolutists in the Catholic Conference of Bishops opposed even non-religiously affiliated organization from paying for insurance for their employees that covered abortion. No individuals were forced to participate against their choice in health insurance decisions that went against their personal beliefs on issues such as abortion. Nevertheless the ACA was supposed to be forcing the institution, seen as a person, to go against “his/her” beliefs.

The negative impact of deference to dogmas went even deeper. To argue against a national health program, Santorum and a number of legislators made clear that having a health care plan in Massachusetts was different from having the same health plan at the federal level because government health care at the federal level violated the principle of “subsidiarity”, meaning that what is ok at a lower – subsidiary – level is not ok at a general level. Government health care programs were only ok if they were at the right, i.e. lower level. Needless to say, whatever he really thought, Mitt Romney bought into this dogma, which he could say saved him from the “stigma” of Obamacare. Romney, after all, had introduced comprehensive health care in Massachusetts during his governorship.

It is clear that Pope Francis rejects all of this. Beyond specific doctrines he thinks the church is obsessed with, he is attacking the authoritarianism the Republican Party is wallowing in. Republicans do not want to compromise. They want to enforce their will and doctrinal purity on all matters. One can only hope the sound of the Pope’s message carries far over the land.

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Now that the tsunami of punditry on the President’s inaugural address has washed over us, the main conclusion of both his fans and detractors is left standing. He was aggressive in laying out his vision and did not so much as tip his hat to finding common ground with Republicans.

The Kansas Methodist, Rev. Adam Hamilton, chosen to preach at the National Cathedral Inaugural service, lauded the president for “a gift unlike any other President we have ever had” to cast a vision. However, Hamilton’s real message to Obama seemed to be when he told PBS news hour audiences that working across the partisan aisle should be Obama’s vision. Find issues, he counseled him, where you can work together and then build on that step by step to overcome the bitter partisan divide.

What does Hamilton’s vision mean in practice? All say Republicans and Democrats may be able to come together on an immigration policy. But then, why would anyone think they could move on to cure America’s partisan divide, or even reach agreement on any other issue. Is immigration reform the vision we are looking for? Do we just drop climate change, investing in education, gun control, equal opportunity economy, among other elements of Obama’s vision?

Finding common ground with Republicans should not be the centerpiece of Obama’s vision. As Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein told us a year ago in “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. Those who are pushing to find consensus at all costs are elevating partisan rancor to the vision level and dignifying and validating extremism. To comment on the President’s Inaugural address, as Speaker Boehner did, that the President’s goal is to “annihilate” Republicans was a completely commonplace Republican statement―but extreme nonetheless.

Obama should not see his goal as finding common ground with extremists. Obama’s aggressive promotion of his vision is just that. If Republicans want to take it as aggression against them, they are wrong. He cares about his vision―not about annihilating Republicans. Republicans hate big government; they must hate politicians whose profession is mastering the art of governing. They are the last to say Obama should care more about placating partisan enemies than he does about succeeding in implementing his vision. He is prepared to leave all calls for nonpartisanship aside and go talk to the American people and get their direct support for his vision. What could be more American, more democratic?

Obama’s vision, in its whole and in its parts, should be what we are all talking about and not debating whether he has crossed some red line of the Republicans, who are so leaderless they don’t even have anyone to draw the red lines.

We must clearly separate America’s political dysfunction from a vision for America. Political dysfunction will get cured when the debate is on the vision. Honest disagreements on elements in a vision are welcomed. However, we should reject those who tell us that the President is aggressive and partisan and that his vision should placate the most extremely disaffected among us. That is not a recipe for success. Moving only where there is common ground is a recipe for disaster.
— 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”.

President Obama talks of his vision of change for America.  Many commentators put down his talk in vague criticisms that seemed to call for him to hit back at the hyper-individualism/small government ideology of the Republicans in a more “ideological” way.  The President is not ideological, but he does represent a philosophy that America invented: pragmatism. He wants to find solutions that will work; he has found some and will find more.  The Affordable Care Act isn’t the ideology of “socialism,” as Republicans would have it, it is what will work to reduce health care costs, make Americans healthier and contribute to economic growth.

As Obama said in his victory speech last night:   “I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight.

I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”   — President Obama, Victory Speech

November 7, 2012

 

The Sunday before the elections, readers of the New York Times and the Washington Post got the strong message that the election was a “tossup”.   This was explicit in the case of the Post, which listed Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida and Ohio as tossup states.  Meanwhile in the New York Times, Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog was absent from the Sunday edition, which led with an “equally tight” theme for the Presidential race (“competitive states that right to the end are producing equal shares of hope and fear among conflicting signals about the outcome.”)

If you go online to FiveThirtyEight, the most detailed and authoritative analysis of election polling, you would have to ask what equal “shares of hope and fear” are they talking about? Of the argument the election is “too close to call,” Silver says:  “It isn’t. If the state polls are right, then Mr. Obama will win the Electoral College. If you can’t acknowledge that after a day when Mr. Obama leads 19 out of 20 swing-state polls, then you should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public.”

Of the Post’s seven “tossup” states, Silver lists only one – Florida – as a “tossup”.  In addition, Silver has Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Wisconsin as not just “leaning” Obama, but  as “likely” Obama (i.e. 80-90%).  Silver gives Obama an 85.1% of winning the Electoral vote.

The Post rather gives away its game with a chart where Obama needs from the “tossup” column only Ohio plus either Wisconsin or Colorado (or Ohio plus “likelies” Iowa and NH). The Post ignored its own giveaway sentence – buried in the text on ‘tossup” Ohio – that “virtually every public poll in the last 10 days shows Obama with an advantage.” But then, the Post needs its “tossup” states to make its story “entertainment”.

Is there a reason why the Post and the Times took this “dead heat” approach? Suspense  sells, but is it also that an entrenched “balanced reporting” imperative  trumps any objective analysis, just when objective reporting counts the most? (Note: to see what objective analysis means go to http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/03/nov-2-for-romney-to-win-state-polls-must-be-statistically-biased/#more-37099).

In what was called an “accommodation” Obama made it clear in a February 10 press conference that all women would have access to free contraceptives but offered through their insurance companies and not through the institutions that employ them which may be affiliated with the Catholic Church that opposes contraception. It would be a shame if this explanation is interpreted as Obama on the defensive, having stepped back from “making a mistake.” 

Defensiveness in this case is entirely inappropriate. It is no shame to work to expand the availability of contraception. On the contrary it’s a goal to be proud of. An Institute of Medicine report recommended a major expansion of birth control services to women. Women with unintended pregnancies account for almost half of pregnancies in the U.S., and those women are more likely to smoke, consume alcohol, be depressed and experience domestic violence. The IOM also said that expanding birth control services to women will cut down on the number of abortions and make women healthier. To be for contraception is to be pro life. 

There was an outcry from the Catholic hierarchy against Obama’s plan to make cost-free contraception available to all.  If contraception is good for women and children there ought to be an outcry from the other side, those who want to attack global poverty, decrease infant and maternal mortality, and strengthen families and women’s self determination.  

Jill Warren, executive director, Methodist Federation for Social Action said it best, when interviewed on the PBS Newshour February 9: “Contraception, controlling whether you can plan your family, whether you can space your children, whether you want to have children, is a basic health issue. It’s a biological fact that women can be impregnated, and against our will, I might add. So it absolutely is a health issue…for me, the policy is just good public policy for the common good.” Warren also said “barriers to education, barriers to the work force all center around whether you can control your own reproductive health.”  In other words working against the availability of contraception is also an issue of discrimination.

The original Obama plan was not a violation of religious liberty.   No one was being urged, let alone compelled, to violate their beliefs and purchase contraceptives.  On the contrary, it is the (heavily government subsidized) private sector religious institutions that seek to impose their will. When the Catholic hierarchy talks about the suppression of religious liberty it is talking about institutions, not individuals, claiming that their religious freedom is being violated (is this like the personhood of corporations as funders?). 

These institutions are powerful. The fifth national survey of American Catholics appeared in National Catholic Reporter on October 28, 2011; a major finding was that Catholics of all generations, and both sexes, have consistently said in five surveys during the past 25 years that they do not see the bishops as the proper locus of moral authority on the matter of the use of contraception.  Rather they believe that their conscience should be the proper locus.  Only 11% look to the bishops.  One Catholic theologian Daniel Mcguire cautions however not to underestimate that 11%: “the bishops have a terrific amount of scare power for politicians.” They have found an issue for their battle in Obama’s birth control decision. Non-Catholics are being told to stay away from the issue. Michael Sean Winters, also in National Catholic Reporter (NYT, 2/10/12), said, “no matter what people think about contraception, that’s an internal Catholic debate. Catholics do not like interlopers.”

To say that non-Catholics should leave the issue alone is not an acceptable position. The Catholic Church cannot arrogate to itself the right to decide this issue “internally” while in the meantime urging on politicians to come down hard on the anti-contraception side. The community as a whole (America) should not facilitate a particular hierarchy imposing its views, even on its own members, especially when those views offend the moral convictions of large numbers of other Americans.

Media coverage of the South Carolina primary made it seem as if we were all ringside at a boxing match. What passed for reporting on “substance” was how much money was getting thrown in the ring. It’s impossible to get out of the box of media coverage. Gingrich’s aggressive slapping down of John King’s legitimate question about his second wife’s “open Marriage” interview and the resulting storm of applause seemed to do the trick for undecided voters. Gingrich identified himself with President Andrew Jackson, as a man who knew that what you do with your enemies: “you kill them.” The candidate said that he didn’t just want to bloody Obama’s nose, “I want to knock him out.” (Note: We guess Gingrich was speaking figuratively. The athletic Obama clearly wouldn’t have much trouble taking care of Gingrich.)

All primary reports commented on the Republicans’ deep dislike for Obama (why we are never told) and the desire for someone to “fight” him, no holds barred. That seemed to translate for many into an actual qualification for the presidency. “You have to be tenacious… and be very aggressive to get things done as president and I think he showed all of that,” one primary voter was quoted as saying (WP,1/22).

Is there something we should be seeing beyond “I like the aggressive guy on reality TV who is willing to eat live snakes to kill off a rival?” For voters who want to knock Obama out, aggressiveness is an obvious qualification, but what about the 63 percent who listed the economy as its top issue? Are they thinking their candidate is going to “aggressively” tell CEOs he has just released them from taxes and regulatory burdens and now they must create jobs in the US?!

In their rage-filled heart of hearts, Republicans do seem passionately convinced that if freed from taxes and regulatory restraints the rich will create jobs in the US, so that prosperity tickles down from the 1 percent to the rest. Not likely. Recent Commerce Department data show that “as a whole US multinational firms reduced their workforce here by 2.9 million between 1999 and 2009,” while at the same time they added 2.4 million jobs overseas.

Many Republican voters say the size of the deficit is a big issue for them. Reducing the deficit is indeed important. Reducing healthcare costs is important to that end. Just rolling back the Bush tax cuts would help reduce the deficit and also free up money for government to spend on education and infrastructure, bolstering the economy and creating new jobs and new revenue to further reduce the deficit. However, the Republican voters don’t want government doing anything, so it is unclear where they see economic improvement coming from and how that translates into their voter preferences.

This suggests we should look to some deeper underlying reason for voter rage. Gingrich’s hugely applauded racist comments were in no sense “thinly veiled.” It is tempting to say that hatred of the “Other” was the unifying factor for the Gingrich voters. Perhaps, though, the unifying factor is broader. The hollowing out of the American middle class is an enormous change in America. It is creating fear and a deep sense of insecurity. Obama’s promise was change. The voter may be demanding, paradoxically, that their leaders fix our economic problems with a return to the status quo and not with “change.” They feel the status quo is what has been taken away from them. They wrongly blame Obama and will back anyone who can take him out.

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