October 2012

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Platform of Lies

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Unusual, non-mainstream and extreme ideologies, and dishonesty about them, are two different things. I have frequently commented that an ideological adversary, someone whose views are extremely different than your own, can be honorable so long as committed to saying what he believes. The world is full of people who think they are a higher life form than you are, but relatively few of them are ever willing to say so. That is why, when you witness someone having a "do you know who I am?" moment, it is actually rather refreshing. The other kind, the people who pretend to be sympathetic and friendly, while making secret decisions which harm you, are much more dangerous: you can work next to them for decades without knowing what is happening.

A powerful and important example of this, which is worthy of an essay of its own one day, or even an entire book, is the power of the democratic trope in places where there is not the least interest in actually implementing democracy. That is why very authoritarian and murderous countries tend to call themselves the "Democratic Republic of...." and nations like the U.S.S.R. and China stage-manage party congresses every few years. Right wing dictatorships like those in Latin America continued to have legislatures; once you have murdered or detained all the left wing members, you can have a homogenous imitation of democracy, dominated by the bankers and generals.

In the United States today, we are witnessing the spectacle of the last vestiges of democracy, in which the billionaires and wannabes have instituted a nearly complete oligarchical system, but still need the vote in the remnant of a fair electoral system to capture control of the government. How can an aggregation of rich old Caucasian men obtain fifty one percent of the vote when the population is getting poorer, is half female, increasingly Latino and black?

By lying, by tricking the voters they intend to harm and destroy into voting for them, while excluding voters who can't be tricked from the polls.

Political platforms of both parties for decades have been masterpieces of indirection, of not saying everything, of skirting important topics and on the ones which can't be entirely avoided, saying the opposite of what is meant, while containing enough meaningful code words, directed at the insiders, the perspicacious, to let them know what is really intended.

I am not aware that the "science" of semiotics ever concentrated on the idea of coded signs, intended to be interpreted in opposing ways by different audiences. A neofascist party like the one which exists today in Greece can, for example, have a symbol (enthusiastically worn and carried by its adherents) which is slightly different than a swastika. This permits the official story to the world that it is not, has nothing to do with, does not resemble a swastika, while organizing the mad and hateful around its resemblance to the banned symbol.

Similarly, much political language today seems simultaneously intended to reassure intended victims that their health and welfare will be protected, while signaling the predators that the feeding frenzy will begin shortly.

The ambiguity and strangeness of the phenomenon that is a modern political party platform has led to an interesting phenomenon of party adherents, fearful that the intended victims will read it too knowledgeably or carefully, deprecating its importance. House Speaker John Boehner: "Have you ever met anybody who has read the party platform? I’ve not ever met anybody." Remarkably, the only full text of the platform I could find was on third party websites, not on gop.com.

People like Boehner fear that the platform doesn't lie effectively enough, that it reveals too many truths to attract a majority of American voters.

Here are some selected highlights of the 2012 Republican Party platform, quoted at length and then unpacked for their real meaning. The first three are full of lies and lying omissions, but I will conclude with one surprising honest statement included in the platform, and then analyze how it got there, what it is doing in a platform of lies.

Housing and mortgages

A lot of historical events are insanely complex and involve decision-making at high levels which is kept secret for decades afterwards, or forever. I have read several histories of the origins of the First World War, and I still can't hold in my mind what caused it. But the recent history of capitalism is very open, partly because the billionaires and wannabes have become so confident in their power and self-righteousness they hardly feel the need any more to hide anything.

Here is the history of the housing bubble in broad strokes. In 1999, the Republican dominated Congress repealed the Glass Steagal Act, passed some years after the 1929 crash, which prevented banks from gambling depositor money in risky instruments. There was a lot of rhetoric about how the markets have matured, technology has made us wiser and safer, we don't need a firewall between commercial and investment banking any more. President Clinton, then masquerading as a moderate Republican so he would have some kind of legislative legacy, enthusiastically signed the repeal (and continued to defend it even after the 2008 crash).

Commercial banks immediately started issuing mortgage loans to more and more suspect borrowers, in larger amounts, for the purpose of bundling them into mortgage backed securities which they sold to greedy and unsuspecting customers, often hedging by betting against these securities themselves."Liar's loans" (a phrase invented by the bankers themselves) in which the borrower was instructed to make exaggerated projections of his own income, without any credit checking or verification, were common. Predictably, the ensuing crash has resulted in massive suffering, as millions of Americans lost their homes, jobs and health care.

It's a simple tale of colossal mindless greed, of traders actually tanking the world economy, and the future prospects of their own country, in order to make an extra buck, encouraged by politicians who deliberately removed the very regulatory framework intended to prevent it.

There are some otherwise intelligent people, crippled by ideology, who sincerely want to absolve Wall Street and blame government: the line is that Fannie Mae was encouraging banks to lend to "disadvantaged" borrowers. Government does take a share of the blame here. Historically, people with jobs in poor neighborhoods such as the Bronx and Harlem, though they would have been considered good credit risks if they were white and lived in Queens or Brooklyn, were "redlined" and couldn't get mortgages. A government initiative which originally was meant to make sure that those people received loans got twisted way out of shape. The government did not order anyone to commit fraud, but it certainly invited fraud by creating an environment in which the temptations were paramount and the consequences of fraud nonexistent.

Now that I've acknowledged that, what "government" are we talking about? Republican led government, circa the late 1990's (both houses, weak Democratic president) and early 2000's (Republican president and Congressional majority). The Republican party is therefore attacking its own choices, but pretending, like a schizophrenic, that they were the actions of someone else.

The 2012 Republican platform says:

Homeownership expands personal liberty, builds communities, and helps Americans create wealth. “The American Dream” is not a stale slogan. It is the lived reality that expresses the aspirations of all our people. It means a decent place to live, a safe place to raise kids, a welcoming place to retire. It bespeaks the quiet pride of those who work hard to shelter their family and, in the process, create caring neighborhoods. Homeownership is best fostered by a growing economy with low interest rates, as well as prudent regulation, financial education, and targeted assistance to responsible borrowers.

This is an insanely hypocritical message to people whose lives were destroyed by Wall Street in an enthusiastic atmosphere of Republican deregulation. But the Republican party undoubtedly needs the votes of many millions of the people it crushed, in order to prevail in the election. Here is the language blaming "government":

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were a primary cause of the housing crisis because their implicit government guarantee allowed them to avoid market discipline and make risky investments. Their favored political status enriched their politically-connected executives and their shareholders at the expense of the nation. Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be wound down in size and scope, and their officials should be held to account.

This is a remarkable recommendation, that government officials be "held to account" (fired? jailed?) without any corresponding suggestion that anyone on Wall Street bears any responsibility.

We must establish a mortgage finance system based on competition and free enterprise that is transparent, encourages the private sector to return to housing, and promotes personal responsibility on the part of borrowers.

Each of the statements made in that sentence is individually outrageous. The destruction of millions of households was the direct consequence of unfettered "competition and free enterprise". Encourage the private sector to return to housing? The banks aren't interested right now because they have squeezed every available drop of blood out of homeowners and plan to wait for a "recovery" (which may never occur) before beginning their predation again. (Think in terms of resting lions waiting for fresh meat.) Finally, the phrase "personal responsibility" is a code word, thrown in for recognition by libertarians and the far right generally. It means in this context, caveat emptor, social Darwinism, the tenet that if you get screwed by the big guys, its your own damn fault.

The punchline:

Making matters worse, the Congress, under Democrat control, enacted the Dodd-Frank Act, a massive labyrinth of costly new regulations that deter lenders from lending to creditworthy homebuyers and that disproportionately harms small and community banks.

Dodd-Frank is an attempt to restore some of the Glass-Steagal protections. Remarkably, the Republicans are telling you that the solution to avoid a repetition of the bloodshed from 2008 is not more regulation, but less. Keep the lions unfettered, and next time somehow they will be more merciful.

Voter ID

When politicians are honest about what they believe, and utter truths which are shocking to mainstream Americans, they tend to lose their jobs, billionaire financial support, and party backing (not for believing something bad, but for being stupid enough to say it). Missouri Senate candidate Akins, with his reference a couple weeks back to "legitimate rape", was a fascinating case study. Here is another one, an incautious but honest statement by Pennsylvania GOP House Majority Leader Mike Turzai: the recently enacted law requiring state voters to show a picture ID would "allow Gov. [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." The underlying rationale appears to be that 700,000 Pennsylvania voters lack drivers' licenses, a number greater than President Obama's margin in the state four years ago and which consists almost exclusively of poor people, African Americans and Latinos, people far likelier to vote for Obama than Romney.

The evil which voter ID laws purport to prevent is a human being showing up at the polls pretending to be someone he or she is not. This is an event which happens so rarely that Pennyslvania, trying to defend the law in court, can't come up with examples; the state submitted a signed statement in court that "There have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states....” While elections have been stolen by the stuffing of ballot boxes, miscounting, failure to count, or the exclusion of valid ballots, there is not one recorded case of an election ever stolen by hundreds or thousands of people showing up pretending to be someone else. It just doesn't happen. It is a false issue. The real reason for voter ID laws is what Turzai admitted. If your party represents aging wealthy Caucasian men, and the demographic is changing rapidly among the electorate, one way to fight a rear guard action is to try to make sure that only aging, wealthy Caucasian men vote.

The voter ID initiatives in many rural states require poor people without cars to travel a score of miles or more to a department of motor vehicles (not every rural county has one) to stand in line for hours or an entire day. Poor working people can't take the time and poor unemployed frequently can't get the transportation.

Other tactics in the battle against a growing population of potential Democrats: fighting against initiatives such as the Dream Act which may one day lead to Latino immigrants becoming citizens and voting; gerrymandering,which slices and dices black and Latino populations so that they constitute the minority in several white conservative districts instead of the majority in a district of their own; ending extended and late voting hours which accomodate poorer working voters; and private poll police of the kind Bloomberg has used in all three of his elections, who scare legitimate voters away from the polls in poor neighborhoods.

Here is what appears to be a coded reference in the 2012 platform justifying gerrymandering:

As a matter of principle, we oppose the creation of any new race-based governments within the United States.

Huh? What is a "race-based government", and who has ever proposed one? The message seems to be that a majority black city or county, a pre-existing political reality, should never be permitted to inhabit a single congressional district. Why? So aging Caucasian wealthy males may continue to rule.

Which leads to the ultimate truth here, that all of today's shenanigans to make sure poor and dark-skinned people don't vote are a continuation of the poll taxes, literacy tests and KKK intimidation still very current into the 1960's. The bigots in charge have learned you can get away with a lot of de jure discrimination as long as you call it something else: you attack affirmative action with talk about the unfairness of "quota based" solutions, or claim that stop and frisk is color blind, for example.

Here is what the 2012 platform has to say about voter ID:

[W]e applaud legislation to require photo identification for voting and to prevent election fraud, particularly with regard to registration and absentee ballots. We support State laws that require proof of citizenship at the time of voter registration to protect our electoral system against a significant and growing form of voter fraud. Every time that a fraudulent vote is cast, it effectively cancels out a vote of a legitimate voter.

Voter fraud is political poison. It strikes at the heart of representative government. We call on every citizen, elected official, and member of the judiciary to preserve the integrity of the vote. We call for vigorous prosecution of voter fraud at the State and federal level. To do less disenfranchises present and future generations.

Shameful. But if you want to perpetuate a party of wealthy Caucasian old men in a population which increasingly is made up of young Latinos, you have to make sure the new people don't vote.


The platform:

[W]e assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.

While the platform never mentions incest, nor does it mention rape except in an unrelated context, an unborn child's "right to life" embodied in a constitutional amendment would obviously trump any concerns about its origins or any possible reason the mother would not want to bear it. Nobody can be heard disputing the proposition that today's Republican party stands for ending abortion under any circumstances. These were never Mitt Romney's beliefs, but they were always Paul Ryan's.

The fascinating and undiscussed backdrop to an abortion ban--something which apparently non-masochistic anti-abortion women never talk about--is that there is not another legal context in which any of us is required (except in the military in times of draft) to risk our lives for anyone else. You can legally let your own dad die of kidney failure without offering to donate a kidney. A parent who fails to run into a burning house to save her child may suffer from remorse the rest of her life, but will not be charged with a crime. Note that neither of these examples turn on whether the person desperately in need of aid is indeed a "person"; obviously they are. But you are still not legally required to subordinate your own survival to theirs.

A baby is a potentiality, a person-in-waiting, but is also an eight pound entity which severely drains your physical resources and may cause all kinds of health problems even before it bursts explosively from your loins, potentially severing an artery and causing you to bleed out in the process. By legislating uniquely that a person-within-the-womb has rights, the Republicans (here follows the part which is never admitted) will simultaneously do something which American law has not countenanced since Jim Crow: hold that someone else's rights, those of the womb-owner, are less important. Womb owners must take a back seat to womb inhabitants; in other words, the rights of women are subjugated to the rights of unborn babies, even to the point of requiring women to risk death having them.

Again, an aging Caucasian male party, laying down the law for women as they do for dark-skinned people.


And finally the flash of honesty I promised:

We oppose legislation that is intended to restrict our Second Amendment rights by limiting the capacity of clips or magazines....

Huh? In the wake of many incidents, including the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and Judge John Roll last year, and the Aurora movie theater shooting a couple weeks ago, in which the gunmen had extended magazines permitting them to fire scores of rounds without reloading, the Republicans take a public stand on behalf of mass murder accessories.

What is most interesting about this one is what it is doing there. It certainly is not present to pick up votes; the two shooters in the incidents mentioned will not be voting in November, and the rest of the committed NRA membership was voting Republican anyway. Imagine the discussion at which the decision was made to include this language. There is only one believable scenario: that the NRA (whom I prefer to call the "Mass Murder Lobby") insisted that it be included, as a sign of good faith by the party.

Since the earliest democracies, even at the very beginning in Athens, lobbyists learned to exercise power secretly, and politicians to practice corruption and show favoritism secretly. In a real and functional democracy, if you bought a politician, you would want that fact to remain secret, even unproveable; you wouldn't require him to stick a placard saying "I am bought" in his hat.

But that is exactly what is happening here. It is not enough that a Republican majority would never pass a ban on extended magazines (even Democrats wouldn't; they are too afraid of the lobby's finances and clout). The Mass Murder Lobby has somehow required a public demonstration of fealty, like Vito Corleone ordering nervous politicians to attend his birthday party. While this is not objectively a definitive statement on the present vitality of American democracy, it certainly shows that the Mass Murder Lobby believes its dominance is so complete that it does not matter if the rest of an ostensibly democratic nation knows that an entire party has been bought.