December 2010

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The Elections

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The Republican sweep of the House and governor elections and the pick-up of Senate seats as well was disheartening even though expected. I struggled this month with a sense of weariness; if I say nothing, stop thinking about it, the bad guys win; but the opposite tack is to write a 300 page opus few will read. I just re-read a piece I wrote a little more than a year ago, Language, Lies and Power, in which I painstakingly analyzed the Republican use of Nazi tactics including the Big Lie (Obama is a socialist, a foreigner, a Muslim) and the shouting down of Democratic Congressfolk at public meetings (carried out by the Rollkommando then, Tea Party operatives now). In the thirteen months since, the Republicans (with some unexpected internal bloodshed) have ridden these horrendous tactics to a large victory. The result will be government by gridlock, the prevention of a Democratic president from doing even those very things the Republicans themselves would do if in power. The reason will be to bring about the end of the Democratic party as a major force, the election of a Republican president, and the beginning of a one party state, with the Democrats kept around for show, as a small, tame "opposition" in name only.

I am so angry that I couldn't figure out for a few weeks how to write this essay. Blurt out everything I feel? Concentrate on one issue at a a time, telling you what I think in stages for the next five or six months? I compromised by deciding to give a quick summary, identify some topic headers to which I can return to write more complete articles in the coming months.

Faction

As I have said here repeatedly, including in "Language, Lies and Power": what we are seeing today is the very violence of "faction" which was most horrifying to the Framers of our Constitution, the grossest evil they tried to prevent. Federalist No. 63:

[T]here are particular moments in public affairs, when the people stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful interpretations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.

Federalist no. 10:

[A] pure Democracy, by which I mean, a Society, consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Can anyone rationally argue this is not what we are seeing today? Note the words about sacrificing the weaker party (via accusations of foreigness,political illegitimacy, "wrong" religion, socialism). I think the Framers would be horrified by the Republican tactics which won the last election. It is grossly ironic that the Tea Party types who routinely spread lies and shout down the opposition claim to be the defenders of a Constitution they have not read and do not understand.

Democratic weakness

I have now lived long enough to see a pattern. The Democrats have never quite recovered from the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the abdication of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960's. The two murders robbed the party (and the country) of the last strong Democratic president and his putative replacement. Johnson's timid decision not to run for a second term in 1968 handed the election to Nixon (who himself did major damage to democracy). In the more than 40 years since, we have had just one two term Democrat (Bill Clinton, re-elected, impeached, ineffective) and one very weak one term Democrat (Jimmy Carter). We have had three Republicans elected to two terms (Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush) and only one defeated after one (George Bush sr.). Whether Obama is a one term president like Carter, or a two termer like Clinton (ineffective, perhaps even impeached like him), the pendulum has swung away from the Democrats for approaching a half century.

Shakespeare knew that kings can't be weak and give power away, like Richard II or Henry VI, because such weakness creates vacuums which bad people will fill. Across the decades, I see Johnson's decision to retire as a Henry VI-like act. The results have been a party which hangs on largely in name only, without morale or pride. Democratic Congresscritters who didn't like Jimmy Carter were instrumental in seeing he couldn't have a second term, though that gave us eight years of Ronald Reagan. In the 2010 election, the spectacle of Democrats who tried to win re-election by "differentiating" themselves from the President, attacking Nancy Pelosi, boasting of voting against the stimulus or health care, was horrifying. A party should stand and fight as a party, counter when attacked, get its message out; the Democrats have no party spirit, no consistency, and no message. The President himself, likely the smartest person to hold the office since Roosevelt, has behaved weakly, ignoring the rising tide of lies he should have countered, maintaining a public invisibility when the Tea Party has been everywhere. I said to my wife half seriously, "We shouldn't have been able to spend an afternoon in Manhattan, Amagansett or Woodstock this summer without running into President Obama" but he's been nowhere to be seen.

Republican viciousness and lies haven't been resisted by any kind of Democratic courage or assertiveness. Democrats have either tried to establish they are really Republicans, or have stood there immobile and slumped like the gazelle when it stops running from the lion. From this point of view, the Democrats deserve everything which is about to happen: they may vanish from the scene as thoroughly as the Federalist party did after the one term John Adams administration.

It is truly stunning that the Democrats have gone in just two years to ignominious failure from a victorious 2008 "mandate", when they replaced an administration that failed to avert September 11, invaded the wrong country in revenge, was completely inept on the domestic front (Katrina), and then fucked the economy as its farewell. Now the party of economic, security, domestic and war-fighting failure is back in charge. I blame Republican lies and manipulations, but also the Democratic failure, and Obama's in particular, to oppose them.

The Supreme Court

One of the major ways in which the Constitution's checks and balances against faction are breaking down, is the increasing politicization of the Supreme Court, epitomized by the 2000 decision handing the election to George Bush (and legitimizing the never redressed violence which ended the recount in parts of Florida). This is a natural by-product of most presidents over time being Republicans, and making most appointments to the Court. During the first two terms of the Roosevelt administration, he was checked by a highly Republican court appointed by his predecessors; The liberal Warren court survived long enough to annoy President Nixon. Today, when we again face the spectre (in just two years) of the Court, Congress and the executive all being controlled by the same party, we will not have balance, but only victorious faction.

Narratives

As I keep saying, I foresee a real possibility of one party domination of the system, lasting for decades. By the way, some Tea Party types advocate reverting to a system in which the governor of a state appoints the two Senators, rather than elections. This would help build in one party domination, divorced from demographic changes in party registrations. The other, slightly more optimistic possibility is that we will keep thrashing like a headless snake: the Republicans (whether they capture the presidency in 2012 or 2016) will spectacularly fail to cure our economic ills, and much of the electorate who voted for them will at last become acutely aware that the Republicans are rolling back our social safety net while failing to create jobs. So we will have a Republican president and a divided congress.... then a Republican with a Democratic majority in both houses...then we will elect a Democrat again and hand the House to the Republicans two years later...and on and on, world without end, amen. Democracy as permanent gridlock.

Where are the gray eminences?

The Republicans stay loyal to the discredited. Newt Gingrich, who fell hard in the 1990's, facing a House ethics inquiry among other things, is still in his party's counsels today. Democrats flee from the fallen, refusing to leverage their rueful common sense based on experience. One of the saddest spectacles of modern times was Al Gore walking away from politics and the party after winning the popular vote in 2000. I would like to know exactly what was in his mind at that moment: was it something like, "Fuck it, let the billionaires have it"? If Gore had stayed at the head of his party--and the party had been loyal to him-- could he not have spent the first Bush years criticizing the President's ridiculously poor choices and building some momentum for the 2004 elections? Why did he bow out?

Also sad, funny and reprehensible is the spectacle of some Democrats trying to treat Nancy Pelosi as if she had suddenly become radioactive, after failing to circle wagons to defend themselves and the party. It is analogous to soldiers deserting, then calling for the censure of their general.

Billionaires

I just read Rush Limbaugh has become a billionaire via his bloviation. I had no idea he was that rich.

Richard Mellon Scaife is the right wing billionaire who used a small newspaper he bought, near Pittsburgh, as America's major proponent of the conspiracy theory that the Clintons murdered Vince Foster. He also helped finance the Arkansas Project of American Prospect magazine, which fomented the vengeful impeachment of the President. I thought he had also been involved with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which successfully publiicized numerous lies about John Kerry's military career, decorations and heroism. I was wrong about that one; here is the line up:

[M]ore than half of the group's reported contributions came from just three sources, all prominent Texas Republican donors: Houston builder Bob J. Perry, a longtime supporter of George W. Bush, donated $4.45 million, Harold Simmons' Contrans donated $3 million, and T. Boone Pickens, Jr. donated $2 million.

Last January, in the devastating Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, the Supreme Court threw out limits on this kind of corporate spending, saying that companies are "persons" and have First Amendment rights. In a parallel development, certain of the committees which have sprung up to accept these kinds of donations do not legally have to disclose their contributors. So we now have the spectacle of anonymous billionaires spending staggering amounts of money, in secret, to defeat people, mainly Democrats, they do not like, and telling vicious lies about them, with dire consequences for the targets and no negative ones whatever for the billionaires.

Here's a case study. "Americans for Job Security" is a 501(c)(6) "business league" membership organization, which keeps its members anonymous. You negotiate a dues payment in the millions; the group then spends a similar amount, magically, without your requesting it, on some issue dear to your heart.

For example, in Alaska, "the group spent $1.6 million two years ago to promote a referendum to curb development of a gold and copper mine."

In response to a complaint filed by the mineís supporters, it was revealed that most of the financing for the Americans for Job Security drive came from a local businessman, Robert Gillam, who was worried that a fishing lodge he owned would suffer financially, as first reported by The New York Times.

Last year, the staff of the Alaska Public Offices Commission wrote that ďAmericans for Job Security has no purpose other than to cover various money trails all over the country.Ē http://www.publicintegrity.org/articles/entry/2575/

What this all adds up to: We are becoming a republic of, by and for the billionaires. We always had oligarchic tendencies in this country, but this is the worst its been in my lifetime.

When Nicholas Kristof wrote in the Times recently that we are a banana republic, he received tons of virulent email. He wrote in a follow up that he believed he had been unfair--to the actual former banana republics of Latin America, who have promoted the leveling of economic inequality as the gap between rich and poor gets much worse in this country.

The Constitution

The Tea Party types, libertarians and others of the far right wing claim to be defenders of the Constitution, which they say has been wrung out of shape, even ended, by the Left. These are the same people many of whom claim that America is a Christian nation, support warrantless wiretapping and waterboarding, want military commissions instead of civil trials for terrorists, and the beat goes on.

It is really clear that most of these people have never read the Constitution and have no understanding of it whatever. Their claim to defend the Constitution reminds me of Goebbel's New Years' Eve speech in 1940:

No power in the world will make us deny our duty, or forget even for a moment our historical task of maintaining the freedom of our people.

Eliminating the center

The conservative "blue dog" Democrats largely got defeated by Republicans. The moderate Republicans frequently got defeated by Tea Party types in the primaries. The result is that the actual difference between the two parties may be the greatest ever. This would be the opportunity for a new, smaller, more aggressive Democratic party to fall back to its progressive roots and do battle--somethimg which the remaining troops are probably too beaten and cowed to do.

What Republicans would and will do

Conduct a thought experiment. Imagine a Republican president winning the 2008 elections--not even John McCain, but an alternate universe in which Rand Paul or Rush Limbaugh was president when the economy fell into the crapper. Of course the stimulus and the bank bail-out, so much reviled by the Republicans, would still have happened. Their current move to ensure that those with incomes over $250,000 receive an extension oif the Bush tax cuts is morally and pragmatically indistinguishable from their own characterization of the 2008-2009 stimulus, and will create a profound bump in the deficit. Handing large amounts of money to billionaires is what Republicans have always been good at. The only reason that they revile Obama for behaving like a Republican is that they will do anything, say anything, to attain power.

The Republicans in power will not cut the deficit. They will not raise taxes, nor cut military spending. They will bail out the banks again as needed. The only significant difference between Republican rule and the Obama administration will be a new and energetic assault on the social safety net, including Medicare and Social Security.

Fraud and intimidation

Postulate a 38 year old out of work construction worker named Joe Sixpack. His unemployment benefits are running out, he is six months behind in his mortgage, and he let his health insurance go because the COBRA payments were too expensive. He voted Republican in November after hearing "failed stimulus" and "deficit" and "raise taxes" and "cut Medicare" and "socialism". Most pervasively, he had a strong feeling that his life has not improved in two years. He failed to hear his Congressional candidate talking out of the other side of her mouth, on issues like Social Security (which he is years away from getting anyway) or unemployment insurance. So in effect, out of panic and his vulnerability to strong rhetoric that he failed to investigate and judge independently, he voted against himself: against his getting another job, against an extension of his benefits (which the Republicans have already rejected as their first act), against his mortgage, against access to health care.

The sheepishness of the electorate was particularly obvious on the health care issue. Not one Republican addressed, and few voters asked, the most important question: in Republican-world, what happens when you have no insurance and the ambulance delivers you to the emergency room with severe head trauma or in mid-heart attack? If the answer is the status quo, "They are required to treat you anyway, at their own expense or public expense," that is big government intervention in free markets (socialism). If the answer, the only honest one, is "they leave you on the sidewalk to die," Joe Sixpack just voted for his own death.

I am very disturbed, however, by the thought that there are other people, stronger and better educated than Joe, who know exactly what the Republicans are doing, and are going along to get along, because they recognize the power in this country and don't want to fight it. (Cue the famous Pastor Niemoller quote which ends, "Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.")

In the research I did for this article, I was reminded that Bill Clinton had a private lunch with Richard Mellon Scaife in 2007, brokered by Ed Koch: he broke bread with the man who had attempted to take his head off a decade before, and who now praised Clinton's global foundation work--and then endorsed Hillary for President. Bill, a pragmatist without much of a moral compass, may have shown us all how to suck up to the forces you can't fight.

Religion and bigotry

Richard Nixon was a secular president. Reagan had been a Catholic and a Protestant himself and had some idea of diversity. Bush Jr. was modest about his faith and seemed to bond with the faithful of every religion.

If, as I fully expect, we elect Haley Barbour, Sarah Palin or some other Tea Party type in 2012, be prepared for the intense ugliness of bigotry that up until now has been barely concealed. The right wing postulate that, despite the First Amendment's prohibition of establishment of religion, this is really a Christian nation does NOT imply tolerance or a big tent. The incredible attacks on mosque building everywhere, and the recent postulate advanced in a Tennessee court that Islam is not even a religion (http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2010/11/12/this-is-a-circus-tennessee-mosque-trial-takes-strange-turns/), are just a mild foretaste of what is to come. Since, historically, everyone on his way to a fight punches a Jew on the way, the prospects are not good that this would continue to be a safe nation for Jews under decades of Tea Party rule.

Apropos of that, many pro-Israel Jews in this country are supporting the Republicans against Obama, on the theory that they will be better for Israel. Its a good time to remember that fundamentalist Christian support for Israel has always been based on the crazy theory that the Book of Revelations and the prophet Zechariah predict that the Rapture and Second Coming can't happen until Jerusalem has been restored to the Jews in some kind of final war. Uri Avnery, head of an Israeli peace movement, has written:

According to [these] theological beliefs, the Jews must congregate in Palestine and establish a Jewish state on all its territory so as to make the Second Coming of Jesus Christ possible...the evangelists don't like to dwell openly on what comes next: before the coming [of the Messiah], the Jews must convert to Christianity. Those who don't will perish in a gigantic holocaust in the battle of Armageddon. This is basically an anti-Semitic teaching...http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_isra.htm

Israeli willingness to make common cause with this kind of insanity has always been a blot on the nation of Israel and on Jews worldwide who go along with it. (Imagine the military decisions which would be made by a President who sincerely believed that the end times are desirable and will be hastened by war in Israel. Then see the quotes below from the web site of the Church of Wasilla to which Sarah Palin belongs.)

By the way, "support" of Israel and harassment of Jews are not inconsistent. Even Hitler briefly considered deporting the Jews of Europe to a "homeland" in Madagascar. Himmler wrote in 1940: "I hope that the concept of Jews will be completely extinguished through the possibility of a large emigration of all Jews to Africa or some other colony." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madagascar_Plan

The virtues of the parliamentary system

In a two party system, if you are angry at the governing party, you have no choice for expressing it except to vote for the other party, regardless of what they stand for. In a parliamentary system, you could instead vote for a third, fourth or fifth party, or create a new one, and see quite nuanced coalition governments result from it, which included people who believed exactly as you did. In America we have never had that much representation, that much choice, that much democracy.

Another deep flaw of two party systems is that they have a terrible tendency (given the applicability of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to politics as to everything else) to become one party states.

Where is resistance?

In the early 2000's, I attended two massive anti-war demonstrations in New York City, and had hope that a new, organized dissent movement was growing in the United States. Yet this wave vanished without explanation, within a year or two. Since the real estate bubble collapsed in 2008, I have been vainly waiting for armies of the disenfranchised to show up anywhere: outside hospitals, landlord tenants courts, banks, or in Washington. People instead are suffering in silence, playing the lottery, scheming to get on reality shows, doing a little quiet drinking, and perhaps obscurely feeling they somehow deserve everything which happens. Others have probably been co-opted to the Tea Party, and are now actively agitating against their own jobs, mortgages, unemployment benefits and health insurance.

Considering that a small, elite group of Wall Street gamblers threw all our money away--in most cases preserving their own--where is the rage? Someone effectively stole one third of my net worth in September 2008, even though I was invested in the safest possible stocks and mutual funds, had no debt, and carried no mortgage. I never knowingly would have bought a mortage backed security; how dared they invest my money in these instruments without my knowledge? Why has no-one been held responsible? Why is no-one else enraged about it?

The Tea Party Republicans will do everything they can to protect the people who took my money, and to give them the opportunity to do it again, on the theory that "big government" should not intercede in any way in free markets, including applying regulations to prevent or punish bubbles. I have finally realized that free markets are not occasionally punctuated by extraordinary events known as slumps and bubbles. "Free" markets are more properly a succession of slumps and bubbles. A perfectly libertarian free market means that certain protected individuals are free at any time they wish to steal my money.

There seems to be no professional dissenting class in this country. In Europe, some of the people who led the 1968 student demonstrations are left wing authors or politicians. I remember being within a few feet of Jerry Rubin twice, once in a George Washington University cafeteria in 1971 as he sat with Abbie Hoffman and others strategizing the week's huge anti-war demonstration; then sometime in the 1980's at Studio 54, where he was promoting a vapid business networking event. The people you read about who stay faithful to their youthful ideals in this country are heavily marginalized, treated as neurotic, disreputable fringe figures. Even Noam Chomsky, who has had a pretty good and consistent career, would be (probably is) a more respected figure in Europe. Why would anyone keep to poverty, obscurity and dissent, when you can get on a reality show or convert to the other side (as one of the founders of Ramparts magazine did) and get a lot of love from the Republicans?

The medieval mind

I have been on a medieval kick recently, reading all the books in my library on the middle ages, a period of history I had always veered away from while concentrating on times of human development such as ancient Athens, the Renaissance and the American revolution.

Why this sudden interest in a cruel, wilfully stupid, pious and extremely violent era? Because we are again living in one. President Bush lauded his "born again" religious experience and ordered the water-boarding of detainees. I was stunned (but shouldn't have been) recently to discover a major underpinning, previously unknown to me, of the right wing's ferocious opposition to global warming science: God would never permit us to harm the planet.

What Iím suggesting is we have a sort of an eco-evangelical hysteria going on and it leads me to almost wonder if we are becoming a nation of environmental hypochondriacs that are willing to use the power of the state to impose enormous restrictions on the rights and the comforts of, and incomes of individuals who serve essentially a paranoia, a phobia, that has very little fact evidence in fact. Now these are observations that are popular to make because right now its almost taken as an article of faith that this crisis is real. Let me say I take it as an article of faith if the lord God almighty made the heavens and the Earth, and he made them to his satisfaction and it is quite pretentious of we little weaklings here on earth to think that, that we are going to destroy Godís creation.
When I Googled the phrase "God would not permit global warming" I expected to find quotes from fringe religious evangelists, Jerry Falwell types who have always had a place of honor in the Republican party. What I found is even worse: that is Dick Armey testifying before Congress, http://thinkprogress.org/2009/07/31/armey-pollution-gospel/. Yes, the former House Republican majority leader and now a Tea Party proponent.

Or how about Sarah Palin's religious beliefs? In an article here during the campaign, I quoted from the web site of her church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, of the Pentecostal faith, and found the following, expressed as literal truth, not metaphor:

WE BELIEVE...in The Blessed Hope. When Jesus Raptures His Church Prior to His Return to Earth (the second coming). At this future moment in time all believers who have died will rise from their graves and will meet the Lord in the air, and Christians who are alive will be caught up with them, to be with the Lord forever.

WE BELIEVE...in The Millennial Reign of Christ when Jesus returns with His saints at His second coming and begins His benevolent rule over earth for 1,000 years. At that time many in the nation of Israel will recognize and accept Him as the Messiah, the Savior who died for them and all mankind.

WE BELIEVE...A Final Judgment Will Take Place for those who have rejected Christ. They will be judged for their sin and consigned to eternal punishment in a punishing lake of fire.

This is a good place to mention that the idea that the Tea Party is interested only in economics, and has no social agendas (like banning abortion, ending teaching of evolution, establishing the the Christianity of the country, and perpetuating bigotry against minorities) is a crock. Their publicists convinced most Tea Party candidates that the best way to dupe the swing voters was not to express their strongly held opinions on social matters. For those too stupid and vain to keep their mouths shut, like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, their retro social beliefs were completely clear.

You think the middle ages are that far away? Five hundred years is not really a long time in human history. As Faulkner said: "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

The real road to serfdom

We are returning to the middle ages not only in our beliefs, but in our economic relations.

It enrages me that Tea Party types are fond of quoting Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" but have never read it. Contrary to their use of Hayek, he actually endorsed a role for government in solving problems (like the environment) that free markets could not. (Hayek did NOT believe that God would save us from our own insanity.)

What interests me now, however, is the fact that his underlying metaphor was wrong. He thought, writing in 1944, that a continuation of big, encroaching government would make us all serfs. Absolutist governments may dominate us, take our liberties away, or kill us. But it really takes domination by the private sector to make us serfs in the true sense of the word.

In the Middle Ages, the power of kings was very limited, and they had to try to manage the feudal nobility, whom they often ended up fighting. Serfs were completely dependent on, and bound to, the local baron, not the king. And there was no real distinction, at the time, between the public and private sector; the barons were simultaneously absolute rulers of their fiefs, and businessmen, exploiting the peasantry and nascent middle class for rents, taxes, license fees, and other exactions and appropriations of all kinds.

The billionaire class, not faceless federal bureaucrats, are the barons in a newly developing feudal system.

In a perfectly libertarian, Tea Party system, with no government restrictions on "free markets" whatsoever, we will see the consolidation of what already exists in this country, where (per the November 18 Times) the top 1% owns more of America's private net worth than the bottom 90%, and where even well educated, upper middle class types like myself feel the relentless downward pressure as interest rates drop and health insurance premiums and costs sky-rocket. With the deliberate destruction of the social safety net in this country, the diminishment of unions, with the capture of the political system by Republican bullying and lies, we will all, over time, become more dependent on, live at the mercy of, the new barons.

The phenomenon of billionaires using their personal wealth to run for and attain office is becoming more common, and results in a middle ages-style merger of the public and private sphere, as modeled by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City and in a more extreme, medieval fashion by Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, who may represent the future in this country. But Richard Mellon Scaife and others like him also illustrate that you can stay outside the corridors of power and control what happens within them. Scaife vs. Clinton was an essentially medieval scenario, of a powerful baron vs. a weak king.

That is the real return to serfdom.

Conclusion

There is a moment as you watch children grow when you first see the face they are going to wear the rest of their lives. For some people it happens at thirteen, others not til thirty.

I think I can now see the face America will wear the rest of my life, and it is a very ugly sight.