Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Real Psychobabble: Obama Is A Socialist!

This blogger cannot erase the voice of the True Republican Woman he overheard less than a fortnight ago. She was holding forth to members of her family and proclaimed, "That Obama, why he's a socialist!" Yada yada yada, This True Republican Woman sports window stickers on her vehicle proclaiming the former governor of Alaska to be The One in 2012. Neither of these True Republican Women would know a socialist even if one walked up and kicked them in their matronly posteriors. If this is (fair & balanced) ignorance written on the palm of your hand, so be it.

[x Salon]
Mythological Politics
By Michael Lind

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The tea party movement may have been started by Washington lobbyists, but it has tapped into a powerful strain of American political culture — a strain that has always presented an obstacle to reform in the United States.

American political culture was British before it was American. During the English civil war of the 17th century, two themes crystallized — and have influenced American public discourse to this day. One was the idea of the Ancient Constitution. The other was the idea of the True Religion.

Many British opponents of the Stuart monarchs claimed that they were defending an ancient, unwritten English constitution against corruption in the service of tyranny. Sometimes this ancient constitution was identified with the laws of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred, and contrasted with the "Norman yoke" imposed on freedom-loving English people by William the Conqueror and his despotic successors after the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. As history, this was nonsense, but as political mythology this narrative had enormous appeal. History was viewed as a gradual decline into tyranny, a long fall following a golden age of English liberty in the distant past.

This myth of primordial English liberty rhymed neatly with radical Protestantism. According to dissenting Protestants, the true church was the earliest church. Christianity had been corrupted over time, and Reformation required a restoration of the early, pure practices and beliefs of the apostles.

Put the myths of the ancient constitution and the early church together, and you have a view of history as decline from an original state of perfection, in politics and also in religion. Innovation is equated with tyranny in politics and heresy in religion. Virtue consists of defending what is left of the old, more perfect system and, if possible, restoring the original government or church. Progress is redefined as regress — movement away from the wicked present toward the pure and uncorrupted past.

This way of thinking is more or less extinct in Britain, its original home, but it became an important part of the political culture of the British North American colonies that won their independence from the mother country. Having become Americans, the former British colonists found it easy to replace the ancient constitution of the virtuous Anglo-Saxons with the 1787 constitution of the virtuous Founding Fathers, who were quickly elevated to the status of demigods like the legendary King Alfred.

Anglo-American Protestants viewed Catholicism as the chief enemy of the "true religion" of Protestant Christianity well into the 20th century, and some still do. But in the mythology of the reactionary right, the United Nations has long since replaced the Vatican as the center of global conspiracies, and the alleged Catholic threat to Protestantism has been replaced by the alleged "secular humanist" threat to the "Judeo-Christian tradition."

This is the key to understanding the otherwise inexplicable accusations by the populist right that Barack Obama is a socialist or fascist or whatever, as well as fantasies about a global secular humanist conspiracy. We are dealing with a mythological mentality, based on simple and powerful archetypes. Contemporary figures and current events are plugged into a framework that never changes. "King Charles (or King George) is threatening the rights of Englishmen" becomes "Barack Obama is promoting socialism" — or fascism, or monarchism, or daylight saving time.

As in other cases of mythological politics, like messianic Marxism, this kind of thinking is resistant to argument. If you disagree, then that simply proves that you are part of the conspiracy. Inconvenient facts can be explained away by the true believers. It's hard to come up with arguments that would persuade people who think that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are totalitarians to change their mind.

Nevertheless, progressives cannot cede the high ground of debate over first principles to this kind of reactionary, paranoid populism and fight instead in the swampy terrain of utilitarian social science. In a debate for the hearts and minds of the American people, Ron Paul will defeat Peter Orszag every time.

Against this backward-looking version of Americanism, rooted in early modern British fantasies about the ancient constitution and true religion, progressives must deploy a counter-narrative that is equally rooted in American values. The ideas of natural rights and popular sovereignty are, if anything, more fundamental to American political culture than the idea of political or religious golden ages in an idealized past. But natural rights and popular sovereignty can be invoked on behalf of reform. The history of basing civil rights on natural rights is one of improvement over time, not one of decline. The abolition of slavery by the 13th Amendment and the nationalization of civil rights by the 14th improved the U.S. Constitution, and Franklin Roosevelt's notion of economic rights marks a further advance.

Likewise, the idea of popular sovereignty, though it dates back to John Locke in the 17th century, need not inspire reactionary reverence for existing institutions, much less a desire to restore an alleged golden age. On the contrary, the sovereign people have the right to remake their political and social order every generation or two, in order to achieve their perennial goals in changing conditions.

This was the view of Abraham Lincoln, who said in his Second Annual Message to Congress: "As our case is new, we must think anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country." And it was the view of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 in his Commonwealth Club Address: "Faith in America, faith in our tradition of personal responsibility, faith in our institutions, faith in ourselves demand that we recognize the new terms of the old social contract."

At the high level of public philosophy, the debate between the tea party right and progressives boils down to this: Do we think that fidelity to our predecessors means mindlessly doing what they did in their own time, even though times have changed? Or do we think that we should act as they would act, if they lived in the 21st century and had learned from everything that has happened in America and the world in the past 200 years?

To put it another way: The American Revolution was a beginning, not an end. The real equivalents today of the American revolutionaries are those who view the republic, not as an 18th-century utopia to be restored with archaeological exactitude, but as a work in progress to which every generation of Americans can contribute.

Let the debate begin. Ω

[Michael Lind is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life (2006). Lind holds a B.A. from the University of Texas-Austin, an M.A. from Yale University, and a J.D. from University of Texas-Austin.]

Copyright © 2010 Salon Media Group, Inc.

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"Your 'Tea Party', Sir, Is Nothing But A Great Beast!"

Ol' Alexander Hamilton would have sneered at the former governor of Alaska who presumes to be POTUS. Ol' Alex may have been a bastard (illegitimate), but he was a smart bastard. The True Republican Woman who would be POTUS is just a dumb _____ (rhymes with witch). If this is the (fair & balanced) truth, make the most of it.

[x NY Magazine]
Is Democracy Killing Democracy?
By Kurt Andersen

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The tea-party movement takes its name from the mob of angry people in Boston who, in 1773, committed a zany criminal stunt as a protest against taxes and the distant, out-of-touch government that imposed them. Two years later, the revolution was under way and—voilà!—democracy was born out of a wild moment of populist insurrection.

Except not, because in 1787 several dozen coolheaded members of the American Establishment had to meet and debate and horse-trade for four months to do the real work of creating an apparatus to make self-government practicable—that is, to write the Constitution. And what those thoughtful, educated, well-off, well-regarded gentlemen did was invent a democracy sufficiently undemocratic to function and endure. They wanted a government run by an American elite like themselves, as James Madison wrote, “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” They wanted to make sure the mass of ordinary citizens, too easily “stimulated by some irregular passion... or misled by the artful misrepresentations” and thus prone to hysteria—like, say, the rabble who’d run amok in Boston Harbor—be kept in check. That’s why they created a Senate and a Supreme Court and didn’t allow voters to elect senators or presidents directly. By the people and for the people, definitely; of the people, not so much.

So now we have a country absolutely teeming with irregular passions and artful misrepresentations, whipped up to an unprecedented pitch and volume by the fundamentally new means of 24/7 cable and the hyperdemocratic web. And instead of a calm club of like-minded wise men (and women) in Washington compromising and legislating, we have a Republican Establishment almost entirely unwilling to defy or at least gracefully ignore its angriest, most intemperate and frenzied faction—the way Reagan did with his right wing in the eighties and the way Obama is doing with his unhappy left wing now. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and their compatriots are ideologues who default to uncivil, unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance, as Keith Olbermann does on the left. Fine; in free-speech America, that’s the way we roll. But the tea-party citizens are under the misapprehension that democratic governing is supposed to be the same as democratic discourse, that elected officials are virtuous to the extent that they too default to unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance and refusal. And the elected officials, as never before, are indulging that populist fantasy.

Just as the founders feared, American democracy has gotten way too democratic.

This new la-la-la-la-la-la refusenik approach to politics is especially wrong in the Senate, which was created to be the “temperate and respectable body of citizens” that could, owing to its more gentlemanly size and longer terms, ride above populist political hysteria. And it’s ironic that the most effective tool on behalf of tea-party purity, the cloture-proof filibuster, is a crudely undemocratic maneuver, permitting a minority of 41 to defeat a majority of 59. (How fitting that “filibuster” and “tea party” both derive from maritime criminality—to filibuster is to freeboot, or hijack debate like a pirate.) Senate filibusters used to be rare, a monkey wrench used only in cases of emergency, meant to allow debate to continue unimpeded and to protect minority opinion from being ignored. In the sixties, the decade of civil rights and the Great Society and Vietnam, there were never more than seven filibusters during one Senate term; in 2007–2008, scores of Republican filibuster threats resulted in cloture motions. The Democrats aren’t innocent in this downward spiral of truculence: Under Bush, they regularly filibustered to stop the confirmation of judicial nominees.

On health care, even though the Senate bill isn’t remotely radical, the Republicans’ refusal to play along at least follows the contours of principle. But on the issue supposedly animating the post-Bush GOP and the tea-partiers, the massive deficit, a bi-partisan Senate bill to establish a bi-partisan commission to rein in future budgets was just defeated with 23 of 40 Republicans voting no—including a half-dozen of the bill’s original co-sponsors.

The framers worried about democratic government working in a country as large as this one, and it’s possible that we’ve finally reached the unmanageable tipping point they feared: Maybe our republic’s constitutional operating system simply can’t scale up to deal satisfactorily with a heterogeneous population of 310 million. When the Constitution was written and the Senate created, there were around 4 million people in America, or about one senator for every 150,000 people. For Congress to be as representative as it was in 1789, we’d need to elect 2,000 senators and 5,000 House members. And so I wonder, as I watch Senate leaders irresponsibly playing to the noisiest, angriest parts of the peanut gallery, if the current, possibly suicidal spectacle of anti-government “populism” in Washington isn’t connected to our bloated people-to-Congresspeople ratios. As the institution grows ever more unrepresentative, more numerically elite, members of Congress may feel irresistible pressure to act like wild and crazy small-d democrats.

Decadent, powerful elites have been the bogeyman for two centuries of American populists. The Jeffersonians’ elite antagonists were the merchant class. (Never mind that Jefferson was America’s first great free-spending, radicchio-growing, cheese-and-wine-importing, European-architecture-loving liberal.) The elite loathed by Jacksonians was the same one the populist right loves to hate 180 years later: the federal bank, urban cosmopolites, wimpy intellectuals.

The populist impulse isn’t always or altogether bad. Two decades after the 1890s People’s Party proposed a progressive income tax and the direct election of senators, the Constitution was amended accordingly.

But the powerful fuels of populism are the sorts of violent passions the framers sought to contain. In the sixties, the Republicans, sensing the resentments of post-civil-rights whites, saw their opening to supplant the Democrats as America’s populist party. Yet as the conservative social historian Christopher Lasch wrote in 1991, in order to achieve its oxymoronic modern form—the populist pro-big-business party—the GOP “needed to stir up resentment of elites without stirring up the old populist resentment of capitalists.” And so for nearly half a century, the Republicans have depended on populist pandering to the resentments of put-upon working-class whites—to fear and loathing of liberals’ lah-de-dah attitudes about crime and abortion, of gays, of science, of immigrants. To make their national comeback, the Democrats had to do their own oxymoronic reinvention, becoming less populist economically (balanced federal budgets, less welfare, free trade) but more populist superficially (Elvis-loving, Big Mac–gobbling, horn-dogging, Sister Souljah–disapproving Bill Clinton).

While the tea-party movement is not populist in a coherent economic sense, it has all of populism’s worst historical features—not just the conspiracist paranoia about malign elites but also the desperately nostalgic sense of dispossession, the anti-immigrant anger, the anti-intellectualism. Notwithstanding the racist signs at tea-party rallies, let’s stipulate that most tea-partiers aren’t racist. Yet according to a new poll by Research 2000 commissioned by Daily Kos, 36 percent of Republicans think President Obama wasn’t born here and another 22 percent aren’t sure. If Obama were white and his father had been, say, Norwegian, there wouldn’t be much of a “birther” movement. As an unabashedly elitist African-American, Obama has an unprecedentedly synergistic super-badness in the right-wing populist demonology.

In only one economic realm do modern populism and Republicanism neatly coincide: The less taxes, the better. But the Republicans would be unelectable if they also pushed for cuts in Social Security and Medicare, the populist-socialist benefit programs everyone loves. So 30 years ago they abandoned their core principle of prudent budgets, becoming the don’t-tax-but-do-spend party of fiscal cynics and/or magical thinkers.

California is a big canary in this mine. Because the state makes it so easy to put policy initiatives on the ballot—a legacy of turn-of-the-century populism—the passage of the property-tax-limiting Proposition 13 in 1978 put the state on the road to fiscal ruin. And the fact that passing budgets in the California Legislature requires a two-thirds supermajority means the state has become almost ungovernable, especially since the recession. Reactionary, monomaniacally anti-tax populism—that is, too much democracy and too little elite wisdom—has crippled California.

One certainly understands why populist anger is roiling America. But the crazy contradictions at the heart of today’s Bizarro World populism—TV millionaires calling for insurrection, capitalists slagging the underprivileged—was evident at the moment of the tea-party movement’s genesis a year ago. That was the morning when CNBC’s Rick Santelli, a former trader, got a mob of financial-industry guys at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to loudly revile, on live TV, those poor suckers who took on too much of the financial industry’s too-easy debt.

“How about this, president and new administration?” said Santelli. “Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?”

Traders around him cheered.

“You know,” Santelli continued, “Cuba used to have mansions and a relatively decent economy. They moved from the individual to the collective … We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July. All you capitalists... I’m gonna start organizing.”

It was just amazing, like a scene from some 21st-century remake of "A Face in the Crowd," the 1957 Elia Kazan film about a charismatic populist hayseed who gets his own hugely successful TV show, then becomes a pawn of corporate tycoons and an adviser to a conservative presidential candidate. “Hey, Rick?” one CNBC anchor said, “can you do that one more time, just get the mob behind you again?

What Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics” isn’t limited to the right, of course. But true left-wing populism is a fringe whose political stars—Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader—have next to no national traction. Then there’s Michael Moore, of whom only 31 percent of Democrats have a “favorable opinion,” according to a Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll last year. One reason populism has become a much more potently right-wing tendency during the last 60 years, I think, is that the left is no longer capable of signaling that it mistrusts racial or ethnic (or now sexual) minorities. Populism without contempt for definably exotic groups lacks a certain political oomph, it turns out.

Still, Obama is now making gentle swerves in the populist direction. He called the Supreme Court decision unleashing corporate political expenditures “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health-insurance companies, and the other powerful interests.” About the fees he wants to impose on banks, he said, “We want our money back.” Like Franklin Roosevelt, after saving the capitalist system, he has to do political battle with the capitalists he saved.

“We all hated the bank bailout,” Obama said in his State of the Union speech, which the Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley called a “populist message delivered with patrician restraint.” But in fact, the message and certainly his proposals aren’t really very populist—which is fine by me. What I wonder is whether paying lip service to anti–Wall Street, anti-corporate sentiment, Obama style, can really work in a time when populism has become so much about cultural resentment and lumpenprole style.

“Powerful influences,” FDR said in a speech at (James) Madison Square Garden just before his first reelection, “strive today to restore that kind of [Republican] government with its doctrine that government is best which is most indifferent.” His first term had been a “struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking … They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” Because Franklin Roosevelt was an actual patrician, with lots of socialists to his left and unabashed capitalists to his right, he could deliver a populist message with full-throated populist fervor. Candidate Obama was thrilling to we non-populists because he didn’t resort to the standard populist bag of tricks—no vitriol or demagoguery, no blame-mongering, no pseudo-simple solutions to staggeringly complex problems. And so now he is caught in a Catch-22: As a black man, he got elected by proving to white voters that he was not angry or resentful or hotheaded, that he utterly lacked the populist temperament—yet as president he’s faulted for lacking a populist’s passion and rhetorical oversimplifications.

If his opponents are hysterically overreacting to Obama policies—such as the comparatively reasonable GOP congressman Paul Ryan’s warning of “early signs of Hugo Chávez economics”—others may be hysterically overinterpreting his political decline. The polling data doesn’t look so terrible except in comparison with the (hysterically) positive numbers he racked up in the giddy weeks around his election and inauguration. For the year before that, according to nine straight Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls, about half the country had positive feelings toward Obama, and about a third felt negatively—the same level to which both numbers returned by last summer, and where they remain today.

To the degree that fiscal discipline really is a major tea-party issue and a source of general anxiety—that seems to be what got Scott Brown elected—Obama can lead the charge to make the hard choices the way Clinton did, by governing like an old-fashioned balanced-budget Republican. With the discretionary-budget freeze and his announcement of a presidential commission that would constrain entitlements, he’s taken a modest first step.

But are there enough sober designated drivers willing to ignore the tea-party frenzy and seriously engage? “That’s pandering populism,” GOP senator Judd Gregg said about colleagues to his right and left trying to stop Ben Bernanke’s reappointment as Fed chairman, “There’s a lot of populism going on in this country today, and I’m getting a little tired of it myself. What it’s going to do is burn down some of the institutions which are critical to us as a nation.” Okay: That’s one Republican, maybe, sort of.

Of course, in a democracy, the people, even the unreasonable and crazy people, have to be made to feel they’ve been heard. But the job of serious Washington grown-ups with big populist constituencies—both presidents Roosevelt, Reagan, even Richard Nixon—is to respond to the rage with the minimum necessary demagoguery, throw them a few bones to calm them down, and then make deals with your fellow members of the elected elite. Civility and sanity and prudence prevail, as the founders intended. Obama’s plainspoken human-to-human give-and-take with the House GOP caucus the other week was a perfect model for how the Washington elite could walk together back from the brink.

But it’s possible that the populist impulse is now too powerful for the elite to reassert control. In the old days, the elite media really did control the national political discourse; there were no partisan, splenetic cable news or ubiquitous talk-radio channels and no blogosphere to keep the populists riled up and make them feel the excitement of a mob. Until fifteen years ago, presidents and congressional leaders could pretty well manage the policy conversations, keep them on reasonable simmer. But the new technologies have, maybe permanently, turned up the political heat to boil.

When George Bush and John McCain tried to pass immigration reform, they were defeated by their own populist right. And in this election year, the appeal of nay-saying and politics-by-tantrum will be strong. For the Republicans, the tea-party movement is an irresistible opportunity to double down on the crackpot emotionalism, an edgy new little anti-Establishment brand extension nominally (but not ideologically) distinct from the tired, discredited old GOP, something like what pseudo-microbrews like Land Shark Lager and Red Dog are to Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. If the Republicans, as a result, stick to their just-say-no game, what’s at risk is not merely Democratic majorities and Obama’s reelection, but—not to get too hysterical—the future of the republic. Apart from practical paralysis on addressing the big issues like health care and entitlements and energy, this extreme and practically nihilistic divisiveness, refusal as virtue, could become the new normal. In a Times dispatch from the Davos conference, Tom Friedman wrote that our political emotionalism and congressional dysfunction are freaking out the global leaders who depend on the U.S. to be the grown-up. Of course, “the Davos elite” is one of Pat Buchanan’s contemptuous populist terms of derision.

Americans are rustic and bumptious, sure; that’s part of our charm. And every so often we endure a big populist outburst. But if the elite really goes native, then we’re in trouble. “It’s time that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice-presidency,” Sarah Palin said in 2008, and in 2012 I have little doubt she’ll be a normal Joe Six-Pack American seeking the presidency. Along with, perhaps, Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck. If an unknown, inexperienced African-American could do it, why not one of them? Fortunately, during the last half-century, large majorities of Americans have turned sensible every time populist push came to shove, declining to make George Wallace, George McGovern, Nader, John Edwards, Kucinich, Mike Huckabee, or Ron Paul president. When it comes to reenacting our patriotic founding story, we’d better keep choosing to play the deliberative gentlemen engaged in careful compromise more than the apoplectic vandals dressed up as Indians and throwing things overboard. Ω

[Kurt Andersen graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, where he was an editor of the Lampoon. He received an honorary doctorate from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2005, and in 2003, New York magazine named him one of the 100 People Who Changed New York. Andersen is the author of several books, the latest of which is Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America (2009).]

Copyright © 2010 New York Media

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Jonathan Swift Would Be Proud Of Tom Tomorrow Today!

In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal during a time of famine in Ireland. To shame the Brits for not lifting a finger to help the Irish, Swift proposed that Irish children be boiled, roasted, or fried to provide food for the starving population of the Emerald Isle. Today, Tom Tomorrow proposes that corporations be given full rights as citizens — following the reasoning of the Roberts Court in Citizens United v. FEC (2010). Wonder what Antonin Scalia would look like, roasted, with an apple in his mouth? If this is (fair & balanced) satire, so be it.

[x Salon]
"This Modern World — The Rise Of The Corporate-American"
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Click on image to enlarge. Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Salon and Working for Change. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2010 Salon Media Group

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.

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