Monday, May 24, 2010

Simple Diagnosis

Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: an excessively simple diagnosis of the world's ills, and a conviction that there are identifiable villains back of it all. 
-- John W. Gardner
In this week's Sift:
  • Crazy is Too Easy. It's easy to write stories about how crazy and stupid the Tea-Party types are. But working-class whites really do have reason to be angry, and progressives haven't done much to focus that anger where it really belongs.
  • What About November? Why I've been ignoring the fall elections, and why I think panic is unwarranted.
  • How the EPA Can Punish BP. BP was already in trouble before Deepwater Horizon. If it gets serious, the EPA can make big trouble for the oil giant.
  • The Sift Bookshelf: Democracy, Inc. An insightful but annoying book that I read so you don't have to.
  • Short Notes. That Obama joke is a real killer. A congressman makes an abstinence video with his mistress. Texas rejects the common good. Leave your chicken suit at home when you go to the polls. Drawing Muhammad Ali. Arizona tourism commercials. And you'll never watch Star Wars again without thinking of this video.

Crazy is Too Easy
To hear the Bush administration tell it, all of America's foreign enemies were insane. Bin Laden was insane. Saddam was insane. Ahmadinejad was insane. Kim Jong-il was insane. (OK, maybe I'll give them that one.) The administration's domestic opponents weren't quite in that class, but they weren't rational either: They were Bush-haters; blind irrational hatred, naturally, being the only reason someone would fail to see the brilliance of President W.

The Progressive's Chip Berlet wonders if we on the Left might be making the same mistake with the Tea Partiers. His analysis is also psychological, but not so binary as sane/crazy.
It helps to recognize that much of what steams the tea bag contingent is legitimate. They see their jobs vanish in front of their eyes as Wall Street gets trillions. They see their wages stagnate. They worry that their children will be even less well off than they are. They sense that Washington doesn’t really care about them. On top of that, many are distraught about seeing their sons and daughters coming home in wheelchairs or body bags.
Mixed in with the legitimate fear and rage are darker forces: racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and a predisposition to believe in conspiracy theories. Those influences could rise to dominance and the whole thing could turn into a theocratic white-supremacist movement. But it doesn't have to go that way.

The problem (as Berlet sees it) is that no one else is channeling the legitimate part of the tea-party anger. The Obama administration has not embraced any radical rhetoric, and the Democrats in Congress are almost as far in the pocket of corporate lobbyists as Republicans are. Criticism from the Left has been muted, barely audible in the rural working-class areas where the Tea Party finds its audience. 

As a result, either potential tea-partiers have no explanation for their situation (it "just happened" or maybe it's due to unstoppable abstract forces like globalization) or they embrace destructive right-wing explanations (illegal aliens stole our jobs; Obama is part of a socialist plot to wreck America intentionally; all our tax money gets spent on illegal aliens or blacks who don't want to work; God has turned his back on our country because of abortion and gay marriage).

Calling these explanations "crazy" isn't going to stop them as long as they are the only explanations out there.
We need to be wary of the way centrists in both the Republican and Democratic Parties distort and confine the political dialogue. In their model, they are a noble and heroic center defending society from the “extremists” of the left and right. ... The application of “centrist-extremist” theory reinforces an elitist view of democracy and suggests that only certain people are capable of participation in “serious” policy debates. It also implies that policy debates confined only to ideas validated by the political “center” should be taken seriously in civil society.
Berlet wants to "rebuild militant progressive movements and raise a ruckus." (He's not very specific, but I picture the trust-busters and union-organizers of the early 20th century.) There's a story to be told about corporate profiteering and the corruption of our government by big-business money. A lot of people currently attracted to the Tea Party might find that story persuasive.

What About November?
For months we've been hearing about how the Democrats are going to get massacred in the November elections. The Scott Brown election was supposedly a harbinger of Democratic doom. (But the Democrats' special-election victory in the solidly Republican 23rd congressional district of New York is rarely mentioned.) The Tea Party rallies made good photo opportunities for the story that the voters are mad as hell at the Democrats and are going to turn them out of office at the first opportunity.

I've been ignoring that story for several reasons. First, I think the horse-race aspect of American politics gets too much coverage already. We have elections for the sake of issues, not issues for the sake of elections. So during the health care debate I wanted to talk about the proposals and what they would do, not about how the issue would affect elections a year or more away.

Second, a lot can change in a year. After Desert Storm the first President Bush looked invincible, but he lost anyway. The Brown election came at a low point for Democrats: The economy was still losing jobs, and you could say anything about health care reform because it wasn't done yet. By November we'll have seen a lot more health care stories like this one. ("Now he's finding out just how critical the new law will be to his family.") Democrats will point to accomplishments like financial reform, and voters may feel more optimistic about the economy. Plus, Republican energy policy -- and the larger Republican point that corporations don't need to be regulated -- is going to be a hard sell after the BP oil spill.

Third, most of the predictions of Republican gains are based on the "generic Congressional ballot" polls rather than on specific candidates running on specific issues in specific districts. And I think such polls paper over very important splits in the Republican/conservative electorate. Rand Paul's tough week points out the difficult transition from a Republican primary -- where everyone gets their facts from Fox News and candidates compete to see who can be the most radically conservative -- to the general election. Come fall, Democratic candidates will have an easier time capturing all the "generic Democrat" votes in their districts than Republicans will capturing "generic Republican" votes. 

Finally, voter dissatisfaction with Democrats and the Democratic congressional leadership hasn't created any corresponding surge of positive feeling for Republicans. (Every now and then a conservative suggests that the public is going to start missing President Bush, but so far there's no sign of it.) The number of Americans identifying themselves as Republicans is virtually unchanged since the 2008 election, when they lost handily.

The first serious evidence of how the fall elections will go was Tuesday's special election to replace the late Congressman Murtha of Pennsylvania. The district had been held by a Democrat for years, but President Obama has a low approval rating there. Pre-election polling made the race look close, but it wasn't. Democrat Mark Critz won 53-45.

Putting that all together, I'll make these predictions:
  • Democrats will lose seats in both the House and Senate, but will keep control of both houses. This is not uncommon for a mid-term election when one party controls both Congress and the presidency. The Democrats won some pretty unlikely districts in 2006 and 2008. They're due to lose a few of them back.
  • While there is an anti-incumbent feeling that will hurt the Democrats, the damage will be limited. Voters may be wishing for an ideal alternative to their Democratic congressman. But when they get into the voting booth, the only actual alternative will be a Republican far to the right of the Republicans they remember.
  • Unlike 1994, Republicans have not come up with any clear message beyond "no". (How's that "drill, baby, drill" thing working out for you?) If that's still true in November, even Republicans who win new seats this year will be vulnerable in 2012.

Rand Paul's opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, looks pretty good in this interview. A blind blogger answers Paul's objections to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A side issue in generic Congressional ballot polls is that one organization -- Rasmussen -- gets results that bear no resemblance to anyone else's. Open Left has the graphs, which it annotates like this:
Rasmussen shows a clear, simple narrative of Democrats going from popular to unpopular, with a very modest reversal of late, with Republicans in virtual mirror image, while other pollsters show a much more nuanced picture, sometimes even showing both parties moving together, and with Democrats only briefly falling below Republicans in March and April.
Historically, Rasmussen has been a reliable polling outfit, and we can't be sure they're wrong until we can check against real elections. (So far that hasn't happened, which Kos thinks is suspicious.) But even Nate Silver can't figure out what is different about Rasmussen, and if you ignore the Rasmussen polls, the Democrats look to be doing much better.

How the EPA Can Punish BP
If you're wondering what can be done to BP in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten has the answer: debarment. The EPA can bar BP from receiving any U. S. government contracts or doing any drilling on public lands or waters, "a move that would ultimately cost the company billions in revenue".

Debarment is a possible response to a pattern of corporate misconduct and "an attitude of non-compliance". The EPA was already negotiating with BP about changing its ways in response to past incidents, including a refinery explosion in Texas and a pipeline spill in Alaska -- both of which seem to have been caused by BP's attempts to save money by cutting corners on safety. Whole or partial debarment was the EPA's stick in these talks.
According to e-mails obtained by ProPublica and several people close to the government's investigation, the company rejected some of the basic settlement conditions proposed by the EPA -- including who would police the progress -- and took a confrontational approach with debarment officials.
The article claims that the EPA has now broken off talks with BP pending an investigation of Deepwater Horizon.
as more information emerges about the causes of the accident there -- about faulty blowout preventers and hasty orders to skip key steps and tests that could have prevented a blowout -- the more the emerging story begins to echo the narrative of BP's other disasters. That, Meunier said, could leave the EPA with little choice as it considers how "a corporate attitude of non-compliance" should affect the prospect of the company's debarment going forward.

ProPublica's Gulf Oil Spill site is a good way to stay on top of the story. This is true of a lot of stories that play out over time, like, say, the financial bailout or the stimulus.

ProPublica describes itself as "an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest." A 2010 Pulitzer winner, it is supported by the Sandler Foundation and accepts donations online.

The Sift Bookshelf: Democracy, Inc. by Sheldon Wolin
Usually my book reviews are meant to tempt you into reading the book. But even though this book is very insightful and I agree with most of its conclusions, it's written in a style I find annoying. (Wolin does too much preaching to the choir and loves the sound of his own rhetoric. I would have appreciated more step-by-step arguments, simply stated and tied to supporting examples.) So I'm going to tell you the most worthwhile things I learned from this book, with the idea that you don't have to read it now. 

Democracy, Inc. is about "managed democracy" -- a system in which the people don't really rule, but instead legitimize their leaders' decisions through elections.
[T]he citizenry ... has been replaced by the "electorate," that is, by voters who acquire a political life at election time. During the intervals between elections the political existence of the citizenry is relegated to a shadow-citizenship of virtual participation. Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have "opinions": measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them.
This is an important distinction, and I think the best way to understand it is to think about the role of secrecy and lying. In an actual democracy, secrecy and lying should be steadfastly avoided: How can the people rule well unless they understand what's going on? But in managed democracy an elite class decides what the government should do and then "sells" that program to the public. As in any kind of selling, omission and deception are two of the best tools.

Think about how the Iraq War was sold back in 2002-2003. There were at least five independent justifications for the war, each specious in its own way. (They attacked us first on 9-11. Saddam's WMDs were a threat to us. Saddam was an ally of Bin Laden. Saddam oppressed his own people*. Iraq could be a showcase democracy for the region.) If a customer voter wasn't buying one argument, the salesman public official would just switch to the next one. [*Saddam did oppress his own people, but that's not why we invaded. Other dictators were equally oppressive without provoking American intervention.]

The other important idea in this book is the contradiction between Empire and Democracy. I think a lot of us have an intuition about that, but Wolin nails it down very clearly.

We hear a lot about the moral justification for democracy. (As the Declaration of Independence puts it, "Governments ... [derive] their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.") But democracy has a practical justification as well: The people who use and pay for government services are in the best position to judge how well the government is working. The best judges and overseers of a city's transit system, for example, are the people who have to get to work every morning.

Democracy makes sense because it asks the people about their own business: their communities, their roads, their jobs, their kids' educations, their food, their health care, their safety, their retirement security, and so on. Of course We the People should be making those decisions -- we know that stuff.

Now think about the Iraq War again. The American people were asked to decide how Iraq should be governed. We voted for candidates who said things that sounded good, but what did any of us really know about governing Iraq? It wasn't our business. 

The more a nation is focused on Empire -- on shaping the lives of people who aren't its citizens -- the less sense democracy makes. This senselessness weakens democracy top-to-bottom: Deep down, the people know that they're voting on things they don't understand, so they start to lose faith in themselves as decision-makers. Similarly, leaders and opinion-makers come to look at the people as an ignorant rabble to be manipulated. 

Once those attitudes get started, they spread. Soon, the same techniques that manipulated the people into invading Iraq are being used to bail out Wall Street or to drill, baby, drill. During the long health care debate, most of the pro-reform effort was spent not advocating policy, but simply beating back falsehoods like death panels.

The best reason that America should disentangle itself from an imperial agenda is that it will destroy democracy here just as it did in Athens and Rome. To survive through the centuries, government of the People needs to stay humble and restrain itself to the People's business.

Short Notes
Just a joke: A bar in West Allis, Wisconsin burned President Obama in effigy. An Alabama geometry teacher used a fantasized Obama assassination as a lesson in angles and parallel lines. And a former Washington Times bureau chief being interviewed on Fox said "Osama" when she meant "Obama" -- and then, catching herself, joked about bumping off "both, if we could."

Not a joke: Prior to his scandal-driven resignation, Indiana Republican Congressman Mark Souder used to keep his constituents informed by recording a series of "Congressional Update" videos in which he was interviewed by staffer Tracy Jackson. In this video, Souder promotes abstinence sex education programs. The punch line: Jackson turns out to have been Souder's mistress. Yep, his mistress was interviewing him about abstinence.

Personal responsibility is a standard conservative theme, but when something happens to one of their own it's never really anyone's fault. The CEO of Concerned Women for America had this to say about Souder: "If Mark Souder is capable of sexual misconduct, it could happen to anyone."

The Texas Board of Education passed its controversial new social-studies curriculum standards. Among other changes, they removed the phrase "responsibility for the common good" from the first-grade definition of good citizenship . The Wall Street Journal explains:
Board member Don McLeroy, who leads the most conservative bloc on the board, said that "responsibility for the common good" does not belong in the standards because it is "a liberal notion" that edges toward communist philosophy.

Election officials in Nevada rule that wearing a chicken suit into a polling place is illegal electioneering.

More from Texas: If you have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, you can take it right into the Capitol with you. The metal detectors are only there to catch the people without permits.

Greg Epstein reports an uplifting ending to an otherwise depressing story: In response to the threats Comedy Central got for the South Park episode that included the prophet Muhammad, May 20 somehow got designated as "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day". The idea, apparently, was to draw stick figures of the prophet (which Muslims consider offensive) on sidewalks all over the country.

It's hard to pick a side in a conflict like this. It would be like protesting the Catholic Church's child-abuse scandal with an "Everybody Urinate on a Crucifix Day". In other words, it's a legal, attention-grabbing affront to many people who probably agreed with the protestors on the original issue. 

Well, at the University of Wisconsin the Muslim Students Association decided not to fight or censor the drawings, but to use their own freedom of expression to embellish them. So stick figures labeled "Muhammad" had stick-figure boxing gloves drawn around their hands, turning them into "Muhammad Ali".

Mother Jones lays out the corrupt relationship between right-wing talk-radio hosts like Glenn Beck and Goldline, the hard-sell high-markup marketer of gold coins that supports their shows and pays them to be spokesmen.
Video humor from The Partisans: A fake commercial for TLC's "Sarah Palin's Alaska". And not just one, but two fake commercials for the Arizona Tourism Office.

Too cool not to mention: Jeff Hays wanted friends to know that he's going to be a Dad. So he announced it by re-making the climax of Star Wars. The twins will not be named Luke and Leia.

I review three books about death and the afterlife in the current issue of UU World.

1 comment:

DavidWinSF said...

Tristero on Digby's "Hullabaloo" had a number of legitimate and worthwhile critiques of Chip Berlet's article.

And yes, the paucity of allowable spectrum of discourse except in a very narrow range of the current definition of "centrism" is ultimately poisonous to the free exchange of ideas and a healthy democracy.