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


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.

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”.

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.

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


Richard Mourdock is the Republican candidate for Senate in Indiana, following his defeat of veteran Senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. He is a man whose avowed mantra is never to compromise, meet in the middle, practice bi-partisanship but rather, as he said of his approach to office holding, “the highlight of politics is to inflict my opinion on someone else.” These are the words of a man with an authoritarian mindset. Mourdock is not alone. This is a clear propensity towards authoritarianism that characterizes today’s Republican party. It imbues every aspect of Republican culture and understanding of power, and it is playing out in battlegrounds of the 2012 election campaign through issues surrounding the role of Super PACS, the role of the church in politics and the role of business as a model for political leadership.

One way to look at the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited political donations by corporations, defined as “persons” with rights of free speech, is to see it as a license for corporations to “inflict” their views on others. Freedom of speech as defined in the Republican lexicon is the freedom to win and then inflict an absence of freedom on others. When Republicans use the word “freedom” think of them as saying “freedom to inflict.” Certainly that is a fair read on what another powerful institution, the current Catholic Bishops hierarchy wants to do to Obama’s Health Care Act. Its position is that religiously-affiliated hospitals or universities are legal persons whose religious freedom would be denied if they were forced to offer contraception in their health care plans. The Bishops continued their war against Obama (and women) even when Obama, seeking a principled compromise, shifted the mandate for contraception coverage to insurance companies. If the hierarchy eventually wins against Obama its “institution as person” can effectively “inflict” its views on non-Catholics, denying them contraception coverage.

In the Citizens United view of corporate personhood Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities are defined as persons whose freedom to insist on adherence to doctrinal purity must be guaranteed, whether or not they serve non-Catholics. In the debate over contraception coverage, no real individual Catholic is being denied any freedom of choice or speech. An editorial in the New York Times (5/27/12) says it best: “The First Amendment is not a license for religious entities to impose their dogma on society through the law… The First Amendment also does not exempt religious entities or individuals claiming a sincere religious objection from neutral laws of general applicability, a category the new contraception rule plainly fits… This is a clear partisan play. The real threat to religious liberty comes from the effort to impose one church’s doctrine on everyone.”

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