Friday, December 16, 2016

Things I Wish I Had Known When I Was 25.

Knowing the following things could have saved me years of misery:

Hindsight is twenty-twenty, I suppose, but I very much wish that I had known these things when I was twenty-five.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Why the Snowden Leak Is Such a Big Deal (What the World Knows Now)

First off, the Constitution is important. Even President Obama said he "welcomed" this discussion, though one wonders how seriously the President meant it. The smears against Snowden have already begun, and the DOJ has already launched a criminal probe targeting Snowden. Ultimately, I think this is a great discussion to have, and it is well-timed to minimize the damage that it might do to either Obama or the Democratic Party (after Obama's re-election, after his expected honeymoon period, and yet 17 months before the mid-term elections). I think Snowden and Greenwald timed this release very carefully and prudently. That said, the 4th Amendment matters to many, many Americans, and it's good to have this discussion.

Second, and more importantly, I don't think we have grasped, yet, the implications of the information Snowden released. So far, most of the discussion I have seen centers on whether the NSA's data-collection activities violate the rights of Americans. But what about the rights of the rest of the people in the world? What's most embarrassing, here, is that Snowden and Greenwald have just announced, to the entire world, that the U.S. has the capability (and assumes it has the right) to capture and record not only meta-data from phone calls but all digital information (from any source) that passes through internet servers in the United States. What's more, 4th Amendment protections do not apply to non-citizens, so the world now knows that we are recording all data that comes into the country (via phone or internet) and we reserve the right to look at any or all of it, for any reason, at any time, without any real oversight. Even if there is some kind of judicial or Congressional oversight, certainly foreign governments have no oversight capability in regards to this data.

This, I think, is enormous. I suspect our allies already knew about the program. We probably told them, but just because allied governments were advised, that does not mean that their citizens knew anything about it. Now they do. I have no idea what will happen as a result, but I think this is a very, very delicate time for the United States and for the world.

Just food for thought.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Obama's Best Chance to Make History and Be Revered

June 9, 2013

President Barack Obama has already made history in multiple ways, but the recent revelations by The Guardian and the Washington Post (that since 2006 the NSA has been collecting what they call "meta-data" on every telephone call made to or from a caller in the United States) has given Obama a perfect opportunity to prove to the world that the United States stands for open, transparent, republican government and that we treasure, and are willing to defend, the 4th Amendment to our Constitution. As the head of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government of the United States, Obama could simply order the NSA to stand down. With the stroke of a pen, Obama could simply order the NSA to stop collecting this data, and I think he should.

Obama took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and I suspect he is appalled by the continued erosion of the civil liberties of his fellow Americans. Recent events have given him a chance to make a real difference in the historical trajectory of the nation. Doing so would deeply endear him to millions of Americans of all political stripes and even more people around the globe. Nobody wants to be spied upon by the NSA. Were Obama to vanquish the specter of TIA (total information awareness--the goal of the American cyber-security apparatus), he would go down with Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR as one of the greatest of all American Presidents, despite his lackluster performance over the past 4 1/2 years.

Most likely, Obama's advisers are telling him that he must defend the status quo, and that national security (presumably the object of the NSA's massive database) will be compromised if he refuses to allow the NSA to continue its secretive data-collection activities. Obama probably worries about accusations of being "soft" on terrorism. He probably worries about retaliation from powerful forces in the semi-autonomous American intelligence community. He worries that his political party, always paranoid about being called "soft" on anything, might be damaged in future elections. These concerns, and more, are certainly on the President's mind. Nevertheless, to quote LBJ, "Every once in a while, a politician needs to do something good for the people," and Obama now faces a rare opportunity to stand up for the Constitution and for the rights of the people. If he can muster the moral courage to do so, he will be remembered and revered by people around the globe.

Presidents who defend the Constitution are well-rewarded for it by history. One such President was Thomas Jefferson. The Federalist Party, Jefferson's adversaries, controlled the Presidency from the time of Washington's inauguration in 1789 until 1801. During that era, the Constitution was new and quite fragile. It had only been ratified in 1787, and it was still being tested. Nobody really knew how weak or strong it would prove to be. The ruling Federalists tested its limits on a number of occasions, passing, for example, laws against sedition in clear violation of the 1st Amendment's guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The Federalists used their new laws to shut down Republican newspapers and to silence Republican dissenters. (Note that the modern Democratic Party is the direct descendant of the Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison). Republicans were appalled, of course. They had insisted upon the Bill of Rights in order to prevent the exact abuses that the Federalists enshrined into law in the early days of the republic. At that time, the Supreme Court was too weak, and its role was too uncertain, for it to be an effective deterrent to the power of the Federalist Congress. For many years, there was nothing the Republicans could do to stop the tyrannical Federalists.

Then Jefferson beat John Adams in the historic election of 1800. Jefferson became President in 1801. At that time, he faced a choice of tremendous historical magnitude. His party had been the victim of serious abuse. Many Republicans wanted vengeance--to crush Federalist politicians, newspapers, and sympathizers, but Jefferson understood that if the Constitution were to ever mean anything, then it must be enforced and its protections must apply to all. He refused to persecute the Federalists; he worked to abolish their sedition laws, and he preserved the Constitution. The result? The Bill of Rights still has meaning and continues to secure the rights of American citizens. In addition, the Republican (Democratic) Party controlled the Presidency for the next forty years.

Consider another of Jefferson's principal contributions to American law. Usually the first case read by law school students in their required course on Constitutional Law is the seminal Marbury v. Madison. For those not familiar with the case, a little more history is in order. Marbury was a Federalist--appointed to a Federal Circuit Judge position by John Adams and confirmed by the Federalist Senate. By the time Marbury arrived in Washington, the government had changed hands. The Republicans were in charge. Jefferson was President and Madison was Secretary of State. It was Madison's duty to give Marbury his commission, but Madison refused. Marbury was a Federalist, after all, and the Republicans were eager to install their own judges whenever the opportunity arose. Marbury challenged Madison's refusal to deliver his judicial commission, and the case was heard by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that Madison had to give Marbury the commission.

Here, again, Jefferson faced a choice of great moment. Jefferson wasn't fond of Marbury, either, and he could have easily ordered Madison to defy the Supreme Court. After all, the Supreme Court didn't have an army at its disposal, nor did it have the popular support that Jefferson enjoyed. Jefferson could have just said no, and if he had, our republic would be quite different today. Instead, Jefferson commanded Madison to issue Marbury's commission. Once again, Jefferson understood that if the Constitution was to have any meaning, and if the Supreme Court was to function as an equal branch of government, then the Executive Branch had to follow its orders when the Court issued a constitutional ruling. Marbury became a judge, and the Supreme Court of the United States was thereby endowed (because Jefferson allowed it) to rule on the constitutionality of laws and acts of the Federal Government. By standing down and refusing to exercise the power he obviously had in abundance, Jefferson single-handedly preserved the checks and balances that form the backbone of our republic.

Today, Barack Obama faces a similar dilemma. He has the option (like Jefferson) of possibly taking a short-term political hit but, at the same time, defending the Constitution. There can be little doubt that the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendment have seriously damaged the 4th Amendment. Obama undoubtedly feels tremendous pressure to keep Americans safe from terrorist attacks, and he is certainly being told that the NSA's database is essential in our ongoing "war" against terror. He is, perhaps, concerned that his political party will suffer if he scuttles the NSA's data-collecting apparatus. He may feel that security is more important than liberty, despite Benjamin Franklin's timely warning to the contrary.

What history shows, however, is that the American people really, really like it when their leaders stand up for their rights and for the Constitution. The political goodwill that the President would generate by resisting creeping fascism and the machine of state surveillance is beyond calculation. Not only would it be the right thing to do, Obama might just initiate another forty-year period of Democratic control of government. The NSA can't prove that its enormous database has prevented a single act of terrorism. Even if it had, Obama should consider whether the modicum of security provided by the NSA's database justifies sacrificing the 4th Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and the right of the people to be secure in their papers. If he knows anything about Thomas Jefferson, he should know that standing up for the Constitution is always a safe bet. If he has the courage to sign an order commanding the NSA to stop collecting information on American citizens who are not suspected of any crime, he will go down in history as one of our greatest Presidents. History suggests that it wouldn't hurt the Democratic Party, either.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Golden Opportunity for the Right: Take the High Road and Condemn Violent Rhetoric

A Golden Opportunity for the Right: Take the High Road and Condemn Violent Rhetoric

January 10, 2011

The tragic shooting of Gabrielle Giffords provides conservative pundits and politicians a golden opportunity to take the high road and condemn the violent, hateful rhetoric that encourages political assassination attempts of the kind we recently witnessed in Arizona. It doesn’t matter whether the shooter was a left-wing nut or a right-wing nut, and make no mistake, Jared Loughner is a nut, as his YouTube videos demonstrate. The right thing to do under these circumstances is to condemn the reckless rhetoric that creates a climate in which it’s inevitable that a nut will eventually act out in a way that leads to the deaths of innocent people.

Because the intended victim was a Democrat, Democrats and left-leaning pundits can not lead on this subject in this environment. Any thing they say about the hateful, violent rhetoric that passes for political discourse in the United States these days will be automatically condemned as purely political posturing. These kinds of accusations have already been leveled. No. Right now, in this environment, only Republicans and right-leaning political commentators have the opportunity to do the right thing—and that would be to make every effort to reign in the rhetoric that leads nuts like Loughner to exercise their 2nd Amendment remedies. Seriously, how hard would it be for conservative politicians and pundits to admit that violent, hateful rhetoric creates a climate that invites tragedy? How hard would it be for the "adults" among us to universally condemn the rhetoric that leads to this kind of tragedy? Wouldn't that be the responsible thing to do?

To her credit, Sarah Palin quickly scrubbed her website and pulled down the graphic that had rifle-scope cross-hairs pointed directly at Gabrielle Giffords’ House district in Arizona. Her doing so constitutes an implicit admission of her own culpability in Giffords’ shooting. If she were entirely innocent, she wouldn’t have felt the need to pull down the image. Admirably, Palin recognized that her own rhetoric made her complicit in this tragedy, and she responded appropriately. She scrubbed the violent rhetoric. The question is whether other right-leaning politicians and pundits will do the same. Many people are complicit in this tragedy. How they respond will tell us a lot about their values and their commitment to our democratic republic.

No sane person is calling for Palin to be prosecuted for her cross-hairs graphic. While she may be complicit in Giffords’ shooting, she’s not criminally liable for it. Being complicit means being partially responsible, but that the level of involvement does not rise to a level that is criminally actionable. That could be said of a number of politicians and pundits in regards to a number of tragic events in American history, but the point here is that Palin did the right thing when there was even a remote possibility that she had made a tragic mistake. She scrubbed her website. She toned down her violent rhetoric. Will other conservative pundits and politicians do the same? That remains to be seen.

So far, the right has been mostly silent about the tragedy. What scant responses there have been are childishly defensive. And it’s not surprising that the right is being defensive right now. After all, there are very few left-wing militias (if any), and talk radio is dominated by people who push both a right-leaning agenda and who, on occasion, suggest violent remedies to political problems. If anything, right-wing pundits and politicians try to shut down discussion of this issue. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) told a CNN reporter in response to a question regarding Palin’s cross-hairs ad, “I think you’re responsible, by bringing this up, of doing the very thing you’re trying to condemn.” Alexander continued that, “I think the way to get away from it is for you not to be talking about it.”

How exactly, one wonders, is “not talking about this problem” going to help? The fact of the matter is that right-leaning politicians and pundits have subtly been pushing violent, hateful rhetoric for years, and it is entirely disingenuous of them to now claim no responsibility for the tragedy we recently witnessed. But it doesn’t really matter to the 9-year-old victim of this tragedy who, exactly, was pushing the violent rhetoric that inflamed Loughner, nor does it matter to the Federal Judge who was killed, nor to any of the other victims. It doesn’t even matter what Loughner’s “true motivations” were. What matters to all of us is the fact that words have consequences and that the nature of our political discourse has become more extreme and more violent in our recent history. This event provides Republicans and conservative pundits with an opportunity to tone down the rhetoric of hatred and anger that leads nuts like Loughner to kill innocent people. Democrats and liberals can’t lead this fight because the intended victim, this time, was one of their own. At this particular, historical moment, only conservatives can lead us to a more rational and civil national discourse, but will they?

The jury’s still out on that, but the point being made here is that it would be beneficial, both morally and politically, for the right to condemn violent and hateful rhetoric in the wake of this tragedy. Defensive responses are tantamount to an admission of guilt, and while some right-leaning politicians and pundits have every reason to be defensive, it would serve them better, politically, to do the right thing and condemn all rhetoric that incites violence, whether it be from the right or the left. Not only would that be a service to the nation and to the Republican Party, itself, it would be the right thing to do. It is entirely up to them whether or not they heed this call and seize this golden opportunity.


Originally published here: Old Elm Tree.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Turning the American Ship of State: Historical Reflections

Turning the American Ship of State: Historical Reflections

January 2, 2011

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Americans are displeased with their government. Gallup’s Congressional Approval Poll hit an all-time low of 13% in December of 2010. While Republicans might be expected to oppose a solidly-Democratic Congress, Congressional support from self-identified Democrats fell from 38% in October of 2010 to a paltry 16% in December. With numbers like that, it’s astounding that the Democrats didn’t lose the Senate as well as the House in the midterm elections, but, in all actuality, it matters little who’s running the ship of state these days. Americans are more aware than ever that the government does not represent the majority of the citizens of this nation. The “illusion” of democracy is slipping away.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans believe that our government is truly “representative,” and this feeling is reflected in Gallup’s most recent polling. Evidence supporting this deeply-held belief is abundant. Most Americans opposed the recent Federal bail-out of the financial industry, but our representatives ignored the people and did it anyway. Most Americans wanted a public option in Obama’s recently-enacted “health insurance reform” package, but our representatives ignored us and, instead, merely passed a law ordering us to buy insurance from private companies, further enriching the vampiric health insurance industry that is the principal driver of the skyrocketing costs of health care. Most Americans opposed extending Bush’s budget-busting tax cuts for wealthy Americans, but Congress ignored the people and extended them anyway. It strains credulity to argue that our government actually represents the American people when one honestly compares the expressed desires of the people to the actions of those we elect to represent us.

What’s important to realize, though, is that this is not a new phenomenon. Our government has never represented the American people, as a whole, nor was it designed to do so. Jonathan Trumbull’s famous painting of the signers of the Declaration of Independence is illustrative of this fact.

A cursory examination of this picture shows exactly whom our government serves—the nation’s “stakeholders,” all of whom are wealthy and powerful. Whereas all the signers in 1776 were wealthy white men, to our credit, we have extended our definition of “stakeholder” to include women and people who are not Caucasian, but wealth and power are still requirements for entry into the exclusive club of “movers and shakers” that I have called the American political caste. Originally, in many states, ownership of property was required to vote, and even then, the property owner was only entitled to vote for a member of the House of Representatives. In most states, Senators were originally chosen by their respective state legislatures, and the President, of course, was chosen by the electoral college. Our founders created a republic that was distinctly anti-democratic, vesting in the political caste the power to control who rose to power and, thereby, insuring that the government would serve the nation’s political caste exclusively. Ours is a nation of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. It was designed that way, and despite the fact that we have modified our Constitution to give voting rights to women and non-Caucasians, the result is the same. Our representatives serve the wealthy. Now they do so without regard to race or gender, and that is an improvement.

The idea that property owners should guide our political affairs is not new, nor is this idea waning. George W. Bush echoed this view in his ramblings on the ownership society that he wished upon America. From the simple point of view of Bush, America would be a better place if we were all rich. If we all had “ownership” in this society, none of us would be poor, none would be tempted to steal from the already-wealthy, none would require state assistance to live, and none would be a threat to the society that allowed a man who barely graduated college to become the President of the United States. Ignore the fact that if we were all members of Bush’s “ownership society,” there would be no one to wait tables, collect the garbage, build roads and bridges, or pick the crops that feed America. In Bush’s simplistic view, all the people need to do is become stakeholders, and then we all can have political power and a happy life. Membership in the nation’s political caste came so easily to Bush that he could not fathom the structural barriers that prevent the majority of Americans from having access to power and influence. Like Marie Antoinette inviting the people to eat cake, Bush’s solution to the incredible and growing disparity between the rich and the rest of us in America is to encourage “the rest of us” to be rich—owners, just like him. Voila! Problem solved.

Despite his obvious naiveté, Bush implicitly recognized that “ownership” remains a prerequisite to real political power in the United States, and while it is, perhaps, kind of him to wish that all Americans enjoyed the political and economic power into which he was born, the fact remains that his policies further enshrined the power of the already-rich at the expense of the majority of Americans. That is what our government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich does—by design. Marx and Engles called the modern state “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” and it’s amazing how effective our government is in that role. Nothing else explains the Federal bail-out of the financial sector while the majority of Americans were opposed to mortgaging our future to save the fortunes of the very crooks who created the problem in the first place. As usual, our government served its “stakeholders” without regard to the will of the majority of the nation’s citizens. This is not new, nor has it changed in the past 224 years.

But how, then, does one explain the great, liberal achievements of the 20th century? If our government serves only the rich, then how did we get the minimum wage law, the end of child labor, public education, the right to unionize, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a host of other laws designed to improve the lot of the many, sometimes at the expense of the rich? The simple answer is that our government moves left when the political caste believes, collectively, that it’s useful or necessary to do so. It is inaccurate to say that our government usually supports the political caste, but that it occasionally does something good for the people. It is far more accurate to say that our government always supports the political caste, but that, occasionally, the political caste decides that it’s necessary to do something good for the people. The purpose of this essay, then, is to define the conditions under which the political caste becomes “convinced” that a leftward move is appropriate and necessary. Armed with this knowledge, one hopes that ordinary Americans can work to create such conditions in order to improve their lot now and in the future.

Here, some historical reflection is necessary. Since Reconstruction, there have been three, distinct periods during which the Federal government undertook significant, liberal reforms. The first such period of reform occurred during what’s known as the Progressive Era, 1890-1920. Here is a partial list of that era’s liberal achievements: the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act and the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act (neither of which was regularly enforced until progressives, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, came to power); the Presidential primary system; establishment of the Federal regulatory system--including the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Reserve System; the 16th Amendment (1913), establishing the Federal Income Tax and progressive taxation; the 17th Amendment (1913), establishing the direct election of Senators; the 18th Amendment (1920), establishing prohibition—curbing the effects of alcohol abuse was a progressive goal; and the 19th Amendment (1920), establishing voting rights for women.

The American political caste, like all social groups, responds to stimuli. The stimulus that allowed progressives to modestly reform American capitalism during the Progressive Era was the rise of socialism in Europe and in the United States. Labor unrest, and the brutal use of government force to control that unrest, were hallmarks of the Gilded Age, as American industry expanded and great fortunes were made off of it, but there was little reason for the political caste to fear an outright revolution until the second decade of the 20th century. At that point, socialism became a serious cause for concern. The 1912 Presidential election is illustrative of the extent to which socialism affected the political landscape of the early 20th century in America. That election was a four-way race between Woodrow Wilson (the somewhat-progressive Democrat), Howard Taft (the conservative, laissez-faire Republican), Theodore Roosevelt (the progressive Republican), and Eugene V. Debs (the Socialist). Roosevelt, the most vocal and prominent progressive of the era, wrote the Progressive Party Platform of 1912 in which he said, “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day." Incidentally, Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, quoted this passage in an epigram to his 2006 Manifesto. For his efforts, Julian Assange has, with few notable exceptions, including Brazil, enraged the global political caste to the point that public figures are calling for his assassination. The situation was similar in 1912. Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt shortly before the election. For better or for worse, the somewhat-progressive Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, won the election with 41.8 % of the vote, but the progressive Republican pulled 27.4% of the vote compared to only 23.2% for the conservative, laissez-faire Republican, while the Socialist garnered 6.0% of the national vote. At the height of the progressive movement in 1912, the Progressive candidate, the Socialist candidate, and the somewhat-progressive Democratic candidate amassed a whopping 75.2% of the national vote, while the laissez-faire defender of wealthy interests captured only 23.2%.

During the Progressive Era, the American political caste demonstrated an interest in modifying our basic economic practices in order to create a more just society, and the ascendancy of socialism played a significant role in creating that desire for reform. In 1912, the Socialist Party “claimed more than a thousand locally elected officials in 33 states and 160 cities.” They were making inroads into the American political caste, and they could not be ignored. Neither could the American political caste ignore the Russian Revolution of 1917 that prompted the First American Red Scare and led Wilson, the good servant of the political caste he was, to brutally crack down on union activities, deport thousands of foreign-born people for alleged “anti-American” thought, and to outlaw such thought to the furthest extent possible in the 1918 Amendments to the Espionage Act, said amendments sometimes called “The Sedition Act of 1918.” Eugene V. Debs was arrested for allegedly violating the Sedition Act and spent three years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary after being convicted and having his appeal rejected by the Supreme Court. In 1920, Debs received 3.4% of the national Presidential vote, as a write in candidate, while he was imprisoned. In 1922, President Harding, though he would not issue a pardon, commuted Debs’ sentence to time served and then warmly greeted Debs at the White House. The First Red Scare was so real that A. Mitchell Palmer, who was running for the Democratic nomination for President, warned that there would be a national worker’s rebellion starting on May Day, 1920. Palmer had been fed this information by none other than J. Edgar Hoover, and even though Hoover knew quite well that the rhetoric of the workers he sought to control did not match their capabilities, Palmer was quite willing to exploit national fears of a revolution in service to his own political ambitions. His mistake was in naming a specific date, and when that date passed without the promised uprising, Palmer was roundly ridiculed and subsequently lost his party’s nomination. Demagogues these days are more careful, as shown by our “Homeland Security Department’s” nebulous “terror warnings” which never refer to a specific date.

Despite Palmer’s demagoguery, which served to fuel the fears of the political caste, the fact of the matter is that by 1920, progressivism and socialism in the United States were all but dead. WWI had put an end to Wilson’s ambitions to improve the lot of America’s citizens, and Wilson’s pro-American jingoism had led to the arrest and imprisonment of the leading lights of the Socialist Party and numerous labor leaders. In a pattern that has played out repeatedly since Wilson’s time, the war became an excuse to punish dissenters as calls for reform suddenly were interpreted as threats to national security. Ultimately, though, it may have been prohibition that put the final nail in the coffin of the Progressive Era. America enjoyed a booming economy throughout the 1920s as many poor people, for the first time ever, could make money in the illicit alcohol trade. Just as the manufacture, distribution, and sale of illegal drugs now constitute a significant portion of the economic activity of America’s urban poor, so prohibition created new, unimagined wealth for many members of the American working class. Fears of a socialist revolution in the United States abated in the 20s, and socialists came to be seen as radical extremists. Government went back to its ordinary business of enriching the already-rich, and America waited for twelve years before her political caste again made some effort to address the nation’s economic injustices.

The second significant period of liberal, American political reform occurred under the leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served from 1933 until his death in 1945. The actual policy-lurch to the left only lasted for five years, from 1933 to 1938, after which time Roosevelt, who was consumed with WWII, enacted no significant, liberal legislation. Again, the advent of war put an end to progressive reform, but during that brief period between 1933 and 1938, American capitalism was reformed, significantly, to make it more humane and more responsive to the needs of America’s citizenry. Among other measures, Roosevelt managed to pass the WPA which employed two million Americans; the Glass-Stegall Act which limited risk-taking by banks; the Social Security Act; The National Labor Relations Act which legalized unionization and collective bargaining; and the Fair Labor Standards Act which established the minimum wage and limited child labor.

While Roosevelt’s achievements were monumental given this nation’s conservative (i.e. pro-rich) political history, they are fewer than most people realize. Arguably, the NLRA (which allowed unionization) and the FLSA (which established the minimum wage and limited child labor) literally created the American middle class of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s and, thereby, allowed America’s citizens to enjoy the highest standard of living of any people in the history of the planet. It’s important to note that Roosevelt, despite overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, was unable to achieve as much as he had hoped. He was regularly stymied by conservative Democrats and the Supreme Court. If that sounds familiar, it should. The Democratic Party has never been liberal, as a whole, not even during the height of Roosevelt’s power. Roosevelt was unable to enact his Second Bill of Rights by which he sought to establish the right of every American to a home, a job, a good education, adequate recreation, adequate medical care, and economic security from the ravages of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment. Roosevelt, despite his power, could not persuade Congress to act upon the Second Bill of Rights. One would be laughed out of the halls of power, today, if one were to even suggest that every American is entitled to a home and a job. Nevertheless, Roosevelt, who is regularly ranked as one of the greatest Presidents in American History, deserves credit for the few things he was able to accomplish during this rare period when American politics lurched to the left.

Popular opinion holds that the Great Depression was the principal cause of Roosevelt’s election and the collective decision of the American political caste to address the crushing poverty of ordinary Americans, and while this is true, it assumes unwarranted benevolence. It’s not that the political caste particularly cared about the suffering of the masses. Rather, the political caste saw its own wealth devastated by the depression, and Herbert Hoover, who had three full years in office to address the problem, seemed unable to do anything about it. The political will to make a change in the government’s direction was widespread, and Hoover paid the price in 1932. One man from Illinois wrote in a letter to Hoover, “Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous.”

Post-Hoover, American politicians have been reticent to take any action that might threaten the wealth of the political caste. The 1932 election showed that the political caste is loyal to no party and to no politician. When their wealth is threatened, they can and will make significant changes at the expense of the party in power. The 1932 election ushered in a twenty-year period of Democratic control of the Presidency. In 1933, one of the first things Roosevelt did in office was to repeal the gold standard, thereby “floating” the dollar, and allowing the Federal Reserve to expand the money supply. The U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia had taken their currencies off the gold standard in 1931. This had the effect of halting the deflationary spiral that was the principal cause of the depression. The economy rebounded shortly thereafter, though the 1933 repeal of prohibition likely lengthened the depression as it crushed the underworld economy that had sustained many during the roaring 20s. Historians are sharply divided over the efficacy of Roosevelt’s reforms to combat the depression, but his efforts to relieve the poverty of ordinary Americans were numerous and expansive. It’s likely that the political caste was surprised by Roosevelt who was able to use his personal magnetism, his “fireside chats,” and his overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress to effect substantial change. In 1932 the political caste was looking for someone—anyone—to protect its wealth and to combat the depression, and they were willing to give Roosevelt a shot, but his reforms went farther than they had hoped, such that by 1938 the “Conservative Coalition” of Republicans and mostly-Southern, conservative Democrats effectively blocked any further reform. So effective was the Conservative Coalition that many of Roosevelt’s reforms were repealed after the outbreak of WWII when unemployment was virtually eliminated, and, once again, calls for reform were regarded as un-American and a threat to national security. Thus ended the second, great period of liberal reform in modern American politics.

The third, significant lurch to the left in modern American politics occurred during the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson who served as President from late 1963 to 1968. Among Johnson’s liberal achievements are Medicare; Medicaid; Legal Aid; federal funding for education including creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Public Broadcasting Act; the Revenue Act of 1964; the Economic Opportunity Act; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson enjoyed solid majorities in both the House and the Senate, but he too was stymied by conservative Democrats who opposed his plan to create “The Great Society.” It goes without saying that the vast majority of Republicans opposed Johnson’s reforms. Despite such opposition, Johnson was able, during a very short period, to enact significant legislation that actually served the interests of the majority of Americans and not just the nation’s political caste. By 1967, the “Conservative Coalition” had been re-invigorated and managed to block further reforms, but Johnson enjoyed three years during which the political will existed to move American politics to the left, and Johnson exploited that will for the benefit of working Americans.

Undoubtedly, John F. Kennedy’s assassination played a role in creating the necessary political will to enact liberal reforms, but, more likely, it was the ascent of the Soviet Union that caused America’s political caste to embrace reforms designed to improve the lot of ordinary Americans. After WWII, the Soviet Union emerged as a superpower, complete with nuclear weapons and a foreign policy dedicated to aiding the global revolution of the proletariat. Nikita Khrushchev famously pounded his shoe on the podium as he declared in 1956 that, “We will bury you,” an allusion to the Communist Manifesto in which Marx and Engles called the proletariat the “undertaker of capitalism,” destined to bury (in the grave) the bourgeoisie. The Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, reminding the American political caste that it had the technological savvy to deliver its nuclear weapons around the globe. Kennedy launched the “space race” in direct response to the achievements of the Soviet space program. Indeed, Kennedy’s 1960 campaign focused on the Republicans’ having allowed the nation to fall behind the Soviet Union, both militarily and economically. In his inaugural address, Kennedy challenged the American political caste by suggesting that America should join in a global effort to combat “the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” While Kennedy’s “New Frontier” promised “federal funding for education, medical care for the elderly, economic aid to rural regions, and government intervention to halt the recession,” Kennedy accomplished little on the domestic front. Lyndon Baines Johnson, on the other hand, enacted significant legislation to combat poverty and prejudice in America. The American political caste was forced to respond, not only to the Soviets who guaranteed food, housing, and medical care to all their country’s citizens, but to the economic misery of the poor in America as expressed in urban riots throughout Johnson’s administration, starting in Harlem in 1964 and Watts in 1965. Six days of rioting in Newark in 1967, left the inner city a “burnt our shell,” while rioting in Detroit left ruins in areas of the inner city that have yet to be rebuilt.

The Vietnam War precluded further reform as, once again, calls for reform were equated with treason. Those who advocated reform were seen as threats to national security--subject to Federal wiretapping, or worse. Urban rioting and massive protests against the war eroded the political caste’s will to support further reform, and, with the possible exception of Nixon’s passage of some notable environmental legislation, there have been no significant, liberal reforms of the American economic system since 1966. The question is why not? Or, more importantly, what was it about the three periods discussed here that created an environment in which progressive reform was possible?

First, let’s dismiss what’s not essential—and that’s the Democratic Party. What has become obvious to liberals who have watched two, successive, Democratic Presidents (Clinton and Obama) regularly betray the interests of ordinary Americans is that periods of progressive reform are anomalies and not the rule, and they are not exclusive to the Democratic Party. I have argued elsewhere that neither Democrats nor Republicans actually serve the interests of the American people who elect them. By and large, both parties serve the American political caste—almost exclusively. The Democratic Party is not now, nor has it ever been, as a whole, “liberal.” Instead, it appears that for brief periods during the past hundred years, the Democratic Party has sometimes served as a vehicle for the enactment of liberal legislation, but political will to enact reforms, on the part of the political caste, is an absolute prerequisite to governmental action for the general welfare, no matter which party controls Congress or the White House. Take, for example, the recent debate over reforming “health insurance.” Although Barack Obama proclaimed while campaigning that he considered health care “a right” of every American, the “health insurance reform” legislation he passed leaves millions uninsured and does not even guarantee health care to those who are actually insured. A single-payer system that would have guaranteed some level of health care to all Americans was “off the table” from the very beginning. But why? The answer is simple. Barack Obama, being the savvy politician that he is, determined that the political will did not exist within the American political caste to enact a law that would guarantee all American citizens the right to some level of health care. Who cares that 59% of physicians support a single-payer approach, according to one survey? If the political will does not exist within the political caste to enact such legislation, we get an expensive band-aid that further enriches those who are already profiting mightily from the status quo. Liberal legislation that actually benefits the majority of Americans is only possible when the necessary political will exists within the political caste. While campaigning, Obama proclaimed his desire to see health care enshrined as a right. The American people responded positively and gave him an overwhelming House majority and sixty votes in the Senate. Despite this, we are stuck with the status quo because the political will does not exist within the political caste to make dramatic changes.

Given this dynamic, it’s no wonder that so few Americans actually bother to vote. What’s the point? It’s obvious that our political caste controls the direction of our country—as it always has. If this is so, and the evidence suggests that it is, the question becomes this: how can Americans of ordinary means actually affect the group-think of the American political caste and force it to take action for the benefit of us all, and not just for itself? What can ordinary Americans do when it’s clear that voting does little or nothing to change the nation’s political direction? What are the conditions under which reform occurs? We did, after all, get FDR and LBJ. But how?

The three short periods during which America’s political caste allowed liberal reform each featured unique circumstances. In the first, deplorable working conditions for the masses and their children in the expanding industries and mines of the late nineteenth century created the social impetus and the necessary climate for the rise of socialism, such that real fears of a global revolution of the working class forced change in America, as it did in other industrialized nations. In 1917, Russian Bolsheviks actually revolted and created the first state inspired by socialist ideology. WWI effectively put an end to progressive reforms in America, and fears of a revolution here abated. The emerging Socialist Party in the United States was crushed, never again to match the power and prominence it enjoyed in 1912.

In the second, the global depression forced the American political caste to choose a reformer to lead the country, but only after it became clear that the Hoover Administration could not handle the economic catastrophe. Not that the political caste cared much about the suffering of the American people. It was the evaporation of their own wealth that forced their hand. They were willing to try just about anything to bring about a return of the conditions that had allowed them to become wealthy in the first place, even if that also meant relief for suffering Americans—a convenient side-effect, perhaps, but definitely not their principal concern. As prosperity returned under the policies of FDR, the political caste put a rapid halt to his tinkering with the economy, and WWII insured national prosperity without further reform as unemployment was virtually eliminated.

In the third, the United States made an effort to “catch-up” to the world’s other superpower, the U.S.S.R., which had vowed to support workers’ revolutions around the globe and which had guaranteed for its citizens housing, food, and medical care. Inner-city riots, numerous civil rights demonstrations (all of which, for the first time in history, were visible to most Americans through the medium of television), and external pressure from the Soviet Union forced the political caste to consent to some long-needed reforms, but voices calling for reform efforts were soon squelched by both bullets and the Vietnam War.

None of these three historical models gives much hope to people today who wonder why the American political caste refuses to address the growing disparity between the rich and the poor in the United States that is causing the erosion of the middle class. Due to regressive taxation and the obscene greed that characterizes this era (both of which are universally-embraced by the political caste), most Americans work harder than ever, for less money, and with less hope for a secure future. Why, we ask, are our politicians not doing something about this, and why haven’t they done anything about it since 1966?

To put it bluntly, the necessary conditions for progressive reform are absent, and they have been for forty-five years. There is no fear of a global revolution of the proletariat. Americans are well-sedated by both entertainment and prescription drugs. When they’re not sedated, they’re too busy working to spend time thinking about politics. Fear of appearing “un-patriotic” keeps un-sedated people from rocking the boat and expressing a strong desire to change course. Those who do not succumb to jingoistic peer-pressure are ridiculed and marginalized. As a result, the political caste has little fear that the people will revolt. This is not to say that we live in an era free from class warfare, it’s just that most Americans are unaware of it. To quote Warren Buffett, “There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning.” As Barack Obama’s confidantes said about single-payer health-care, any serious, liberal reform is “a non-starter” in this environment. In part, that’s because the conditions that prompted reform in the Progressive Era are absent today.

Also absent are the conditions that prompted reform in the 1960s. The slow decline of the Soviet Union paralleled the emergence of neo-liberalism in the Western democracies, particularly in the U.S. and the U.K., evidence that without a powerful, leftist, and global political force to serve as a counter-weight to the basic, selfish instincts of the already-wealthy, the political castes of Western industrial powers have no incentive to actually care about the living and working conditions of the masses. Liberalism within the American political caste has been thoroughly discredited. The Democratic President of the United States is afraid of even appearing to be a lefty, much less actually being one. Without a global super-power advocating for the interests of working people, the politics of the world’s industrial democracies are drifting ever-rightward, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. Socialism is waning around the globe. China is opening its economy to the free market, and the Communist Party of India is thoroughly corrupt and aiding dominant, neo-liberal ruling coalition. These days, only a few governments (Cuba’s, Brazil’s, and Venezuela’s, for example) openly oppose neo-liberalism, and it’s silly to think that the American political caste is afraid of any of those countries. Absent competition on the global stage from a strong, external government that promises to aid global workers and that guarantees its citizens basic necessities (i.e. the U.S.S.R.), the American political caste is free to be as greedy as it likes without regard to the effects of its policies on America’s citizens. The conditions that prompted liberal reforms in the 1960s are simply not present today.

On the other hand, what may soon be present are the conditions that prompted the American political caste to support Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a brief period during the 1930s. Tragically, the opportunity to get FDR-style reform may have already come and gone. What the history of FDR’s era shows is that the political caste will demand change and even embrace reform that benefits the people if, and only if, they are suffering themselves. A recession is a period when the poor and the middle class suffer. A depression is a period when the rich suffer too. They, of course, don’t suffer from homelessness or hunger like the “little people,” but they do suffer--in their own, pathetic way--when they see their wealth evaporate before their eyes, and that is precisely when they demand change. They watched the Great Depression unfold and deepen for three years while Hoover tried, and failed, to combat deflation and restore prosperity. Hoover’s failures gave us FDR.

In all likelihood, the conditions were right during the last quarter of 2008 for a collapse of the global financial markets that, had they fallen, would have heralded a true “depression.” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson got down on one knee in 2008 and literally begged Nancy Pelosi to pass Bush’s TARP legislation, thereby guaranteeing that the American taxpayer would bail out AIG and the banks, buy their toxic assets, and insure their solvency. Had Nancy Pelosi listened to the American people and said no, we may have been gifted with a true “depression” that would have allowed Barack Obama to be a genuine, liberal reformer. Instead, Pelosi caved to the will of the political caste, and we got “the great recession.” Twenty-first century politicians learned a lot from Hoover. They know that if they allow the political caste to suffer, then they and their political party will suffer in turn. This is the impetus behind the “austerity measures” that are all the rage in the industrial democracies these days. Every effort is being made to prevent suffering on the part of the already-wealthy, even if that means creating massive pain for working people and the erosion of the social-safety nets that protect them. If the wealthy were suffering too, it would be possible to turn the American Ship of State to port, as FDR did in the 1930s, but, for the moment, the political caste is doing just fine. The stock market is rebounding, the larger banks seem secure, financiers are getting record bonuses, insurance companies are making record profits, the economy is growing a little, and fears of a true “depression” have abated.

For ordinary Americans, that’s too bad, honestly, because it also means that the American political caste has no interest in implementing reforms that might improve the lives of the people. Instead, working people are going to be subject to “austerity measures” that will insure the prosperity and continued security of the political caste while creating widespread misery for those who, through no fault of their own, happen to be taxpaying citizens. Of course, it’s possible that austerity measures will backfire and create reform conditions similar to those seen in the Progressive Era. Greeks have rioted in response to government cutbacks, English students have protested tuition increases, and it’s likely the Irish will respond similarly when the government in Dublin figures out what it’s going to have to cut in order to guarantee the debts of the nation’s failed banks. If wealth disparity continues to grow and if living conditions continue to deteriorate for most people, fears of revolution may again haunt the political caste, but let us hope not. Revolutions are bloody, nasty affairs, and their results are very unpredictable. Recall that the Progressive Era was characterized by widespread and brutal repression of labor and that it culminated in a bloody revolution in Russia which produced a well-intentioned but ruthlessly repressive totalitarian state. The 1960s were only slightly better. That was an era of national fear bordering on paranoia in which voices critical of the government were suppressed, often with bullets. The sixties were marked by riots in American cities and a senseless war in Asia. The Cold War ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union, and it strained the American treasury while also strengthening the military-industrial complex and the machine of state secrecy. On balance, the Cold War did more harm than good. Besides which, there is no state that is both capable of carrying the banner of working people and also willing to pick it up.

Frankly, of the available choices, a true depression may be the least harmful means of inducing progressive action on the part of the American political caste. The Great Depression was characterized by calls for courage and shared sacrifice. People got the sense that they were “all in this together,” and they were, for the rich suffered a little too, unlike during the other periods described in this essay in which the political caste took positions in opposition to working people but suffered very little, itself. If the political caste could now be made to truly feel a bit of the economic pain that their greed and recklessness has inflicted upon the working people of America, then they would demand and get reform, as they did with FDR in the 1930s. It matters not whether the reformer is a Republican or a Democrat. Politicians of all stripes are fully capable of serving the political caste in that capacity, and they will again ... when the conditions are right.

The historical course of the American Ship of State has been marked by short, dramatic left turns that have been followed by long periods of stagnation and slow drift to the right. The ship has been either stagnant or drifting right for forty-five years now, but it seems likely that a sharp left turn is on the horizon. Believe it or not, the American people enjoy more political power now than ever before. The internet, in particular, has given people of ordinary means the unprecedented ability to observe the inner-workings of their government and to contact their representatives quickly and inexpensively. The internet has also facilitated political discourse among people who, in another era, would have been excluded from our national, political conversation. Some people even believed they had purchased a President in 2008 when over two million of them made individual contributions to Barack Obama’s 2008 political campaign. Turns out they were wrong and made a bad investment, but that is no reason to believe that the people are utterly powerless in relation to a political caste that regularly ignores the concerns of the nation’s citizenry. Sooner or later, the concerns of the people will become the concerns of the political caste, through one scenario or another, and when that happens, progressive change will come. History shows that eventually the American Ship of State will make a dramatic turn to the left. If it doesn’t, it will sink like the Titanic.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kissing Butt and Taking Names: Obama’s Winning Political Strategy

Kissing Butt and Taking Names: Obama’s Winning Political Strategy

December 18, 2010

What in the world is he thinking?

Liberals have been asking themselves this question about Barack Obama and his administration since the day he was sworn into office.  On issue after issue, in ways both subtle and overt, Obama has acted in ways that alienate and marginalize the political left, such as it is in America today.  Assuming that Obama needs the energy, money, and political support of liberals in order to be re-elected, liberals have been left scratching their heads by this President, trying to figure out exactly what his game plan is and trying to understand why he would risk alienating his political base.

Several theories have been advanced to explain Obama’s apparent tone-deafness and his willingness to regularly betray those on the left who helped get him elected.  One such theory is that Obama is a neophyte--incompetent in his role as the political leader of his party and, therefore, incapable of effectively advancing liberal policy.  This theory ignores the reality of the past two years.  Obama has proven to be remarkably effective as the leader of the Democratic Party.  Rahm Emanuel boasted that the President was “13-0” going into the health care reform debate, and Obama even managed to pull a political victory out of that fiasco, enacting historic legislation that, lo and behold, perfectly matched the contours of the agreement that he negotiated with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries before debate over the legislation even began.  An inept politician could never have pulled this off.  No, Obama has proven to be very effective—demanding, and getting, lock-step support from his party to advance his legislative agenda.  Only recently, during the debate over extending unemployment insurance and tax cuts for the rich, have cracks begun to form in Obama’s previously solid control of the legislative branch, and despite this mini-revolt within his own party, Obama managed to enact legislation that conformed, almost to the letter, with the agreement he had already made with the Republican leadership.  To argue that Obama is inept ignores his impressive history of legislative success in the face of unprecedented resistance from the opposition party.

Another theory holds that Obama is some kind of liberal pragmatist.  He takes what he can get, according to this theory, and given the intransigence of congressional Republicans, especially in the Senate, it is impossible for Obama to enact truly liberal legislation.  Liberals are supposed to be pleased that Obama managed to accomplish as much as he has given the current political climate, and liberals are supposed to presume that in a more favorable political climate, Obama would have had the power to effect the transformative change we were promised in the 2008 election campaign.  The flaw in this theory is that it ignores everything Obama has done that did not require congressional approval.  Appointing Rahm Emanuel, a died-in-the-wool corporatist and leader of the DLC, as Chief of Staff?  An industry insider, Ken Salazar, as Secretary of the Interior?  Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education?  Tim Geithner and Larry Summers as the foxes guarding the financial industry hen house?  Republicans didn’t force Obama to appoint any of these people, and each one of these appointments constitutes a direct attack on a core Obama constituency.  Environmentalists hate Salazar.  Teachers hate Duncan.  Most Americans who realize that bankers and financiers are making record profits and pocketing record bonuses on the public dime, while working Americans are forced to tighten their belts, hate the people who got us into this mess.  Both Geithner and Summers played key roles in creating the financial meltdown from which we are now trying to recover.  Everybody, of course, hates Rahm Emanuel, but liberals have more reason to hate him than most given that he is fond of calling them “fucking retarded.”  To argue that Obama has liberal political instincts, but that he has been constrained by congressional Republicans, is patently absurd given the people he appointed to run the Federal Government.

And it’s not just his appointments that have irked liberals.  Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay.  It’s still open for torture and unconstitutional detention.  Obama promised to end the Iraq war.  Our troops are still there.  Obama said he would escalate the war in Afghanistan, and he has kept his word on that, but he also promised to bring the troops home in 2011.  Whoops.  Now liberals are supposed to be happy that they’ll be coming home in 2014 ... maybe.  Obama promised open government, but in nearly every case that has come before the Courts, Obama’s Department of Justice has argued for secrecy and for denying the public the right to know exactly what our government is doing in our name.  Even worse, the Obama administration has taken a hard line on whistleblowers and is dead set on punishing Julian Assange for having the audacity to actually provide the people with some knowledge about the inner workings of their government.  Obama could have eliminated “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” with the stroke of a pen.  Instead, he ordered a survey and drug his feet on this issue for two years.  Environmentalists were hoping that Obama would actually do something about global warming, but the Obama delegation effectively sabotaged negotiations in Copenhagen.  Those of us who value our constitutional rights were hoping that Obama would put an end to warrantless wiretapping.  That practice has been endorsed by this administration, not to mention that this administration is fully responsible for the electronic, full-body, naked-image searches that are now routine practice at airports across the country.  Those of us who care about the republic were hoping that Obama would disavow the unconstitutional “Unitary Executive” theory of government propounded by George W. Bush.  Instead, time after time, Obama has fought to preserve executive privilege and power.

Given all of this, liberals are supposed to believe that Obama has liberal instincts and intentions, but that he has been stymied by Republican resistance?  Republicans didn’t force Obama to take any of the positions he took on the long list of issues cited above. The argument that Obama is some kind of “liberal pragmatist” is patently absurd.

So who is this guy?  What is he thinking?  He’s not inept, nor is he unintelligent.  Stupid people don’t get to be the editor of the Harvard Law Review.  He’s not weak.  Weak Presidents don’t enjoy the record of legislative successes that Obama has managed to compile.  He’s not some kind of liberal pragmatist.  His record shows that he’s ambivalent to liberal concerns on a whole host of issues, and it doesn’t take any Republican pressure to make Obama stab the left in the back.  Starting with his inauguration, when he invited Rick Warren to give the convocation, Obama has shown his willingness to betray liberals and large groups of people who voted for him in 2008.  This includes the unions.  Organized labor was hoping for card-check legislation that would have made it easier for workers to organize and enjoy the protection of unionization.  While Obama somehow had the political strength to push through health insurance reform, despite organized resistance, he somehow lacked the strength to push through protections for workers.  Not only that, he publicly backed Blanche Lincoln in a primary contest against a union-supported candidate, and he negotiated a NAFTA-style trade agreement with South Korea that will destroy thousands of American manufacturing jobs.

So, again, liberals ask, what is Obama thinking?  How can he expect to be re-elected in 2012 after abandoning the left, and not only abandoning it, but regularly attacking it, as he did in a recent press conference at which he called liberals sanctimonious purists?  To liberals it’s laughable to hear pundits like Dana Milbank laud Obama for finally “standing up to the left.”  When, liberals ask, did Obama ever cave to the left?  When has he not stood up to the left?  Despite Milbank’s ridiculous assertion to the contrary, Obama’s strategy has not changed in the two years he has been in office.  Obama has consistently fought against the left on issue after issue.  He has betrayed those who elected him at nearly every turn.  He has done his best to distance himself from his core constituents.

And here we come to the only explanation that makes sense when trying to understand Obama’s political calculus.  What Obama understands, and what most liberals do not, is the extent to which liberalism, as a political philosophy, has been discredited among the American political caste.  Obama can not govern as a liberal, nor can he even appear to be a liberal, because doing so would make him a pariah to the political caste, and that would doom his ambition to be re-elected in 2012.  As Noam Scheiber recently informed us in The New Republic, Obama and his team see political issues “through the class warfare stuff--Kerry in 2004, Gore in 2000.”  An anonymous Obama insider admits that “[t]hey [Obama’s political team] worry that they'll get painted as lefties,” a statement that rightly mystifies liberals who supported Obama and who hoped for the kind of transformative change that they were promised in 2008.  From the point of view of the left, Obama better BE a lefty, or he’s not worthy of support.  If Obama is not even willing to appear to be a lefty, then hope is lost for this Presidency, and Ralph Nader’s pronouncement that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major American political parties rings terribly true.  This would explain the abysmally low turnout of traditionally Democratic constituencies during the 2010 midterm elections.  Why vote for a party that refuses to support your interests and that actively works against them?

Whereas Obama’s political strategy baffles liberals, it is likely that Obama knows exactly what he is doing.  He’s wicked smart, after all, and one assumes he intends to run for re-election in 2012.  So, what’s he thinking?  Why is he so eager to abandon, and even attack, the very people who elected him?  Again, there appears to be only one reasonable answer, and this answer calls into question a fundamental premise of our democratic republic.  Obama assumes, and he’s probably right, that he doesn’t need the support of liberals to win, nor does he need the support of the Democratic Party’s core constituencies.  In fact, one can even go so far as to say that Obama doesn’t need the support of “the people” to win.  To Obama, it is more important to appeal to this nation’s political caste than it is to appeal to voting Americans.  In a tragic way, this makes sense.  Let me explain.

Washington is famous for being tone-deaf and insensitive to the needs and desires of the American people.  For example, most Americans opposed the 2008 TARP bailout of the financial industry.  Did our politicians care?  No.  They did it anyway, and members of both major parties were complicit in the bailout.  Most Americans wanted a public option included in Obama’s health care reform package, but did that matter?  No.  Most Americans wanted to eliminate Bush’s tax cuts for the rich.  Did that happen?  No, and again, both parties were complicit in extending those budget-busting cuts for millionaires and billionaires.  People who vote for Democrats complain that their legislators are weak and ineffective because they fail to enact legislation to improve the economic conditions of working Americans.  People who vote for Republicans complain that their legislators are weak and ineffective because they fail to balance the budget, combat illegal immigration, ban abortion, or act upon other planks of the religious right’s agenda.  Neither party seems to serve its constituents well, and both parties blame the opposing party for their failure to do what their constituents demand.

This behavior would be puzzling if the explanation for it were not so abhorrently clear.  The fact of the matter is that neither major political party represents its voting constituents.  They pretend to, and they ask for our time, our money, and our votes on that basis, but they regularly fail to do what they promise us they will do--what we elect them to do.  Let’s face it.  Republicans controlled all three branches of the Federal Government from 2003 until 2006.  If they wanted to balance the budget, they could have done it, along with a host of other things that their constituents wanted.  They could have tried to outlaw abortion if they really wanted to, but they didn’t.  Democrats, for their part, have controlled the Presidency and both chambers of Congress for the past two years.  If they really wanted to enact some significant progressive legislation, they could have done it.  They didn’t, but why?

Both Republican and Democratic politicians fail to actually represent the interests of those who vote for them because they are part and parcel of what I call the nation’s political caste.  That’s who our politicians work for, not “the people.”  As a result, for better or for worse, our government is completely controlled by perhaps half-a-million people who may, or may not, have the best interests of the majority of Americans at heart.  This group includes legislators and their staff-members; judges and their clerks; high-level members of the executive branch of government; thousands of lobbyists; bank and insurance executives; high-powered lawyers, doctors, stock brokers, and accountants; industrial and agricultural tycoons; oil barons; military contractors and high-ranking military officers; media tycoons and editors of major newspapers; a sprinkling of Hollywood types thrown into the mix to improve the over-all sexiness of the bunch; and all the others who interact and socialize with these people.

These people, collectively, are what might be called “the powers that be,” and they are a remarkably insular and exclusive group.  They go to the same parties, or they talk to people who went to those parties.  They are members of the same clubs, or they talk to people who are members of those clubs.  They wear the same kinds of clothes.  They read the same newspapers.  They share the same gossip.  They vacation at the same exclusive resorts, and they intermarry.  Through regular and ordinary social interaction of this kind, they form a more-or-less cohesive group, and like all social groups, they operate on an internal logic, or “group think,” if you will.  They both think collectively and make decisions collectively, in the same way that a flock of geese decides to fly South for the winter.  One goose will get cold, take off, and start flying South.  If the rest of the flock stays put, that goose will circle back and land, preferring to stay with the flock rather than going it alone.  In our own sophisticated political speech, we call that “a trial balloon.”  Perhaps one or two more geese will make the same attempt to “move the group,” as it were, but if the group does not follow, those geese will also return to the flock and wait.  At a certain point, the desire to “fly South” will reach a critical mass within the group.  At that point, one goose will take off and start flying South.  That goose has no way of knowing whether the rest of the flock will follow, but once critical mass has been reached, lo and behold, most of the group will take off and follow, and the flock will begin its migration.  The few stragglers that weren’t ready to go yet will follow their instincts and try to catch up with the flock, if they are able.  Those left behind are likely to die.  This is how group decisions are made, and it’s no different for America’s political caste.

Being a member of the political caste is extremely desirable, for obvious reasons, not the least of which is that membership in this exclusive club gives one the ability to suckle on the government teat—a very rich and powerful teat.  Thus, it’s important to the members of the group that they not “rock the boat,” or challenge the collective thinking of the group, as doing so could mean expulsion from the group and an inability to suckle.  Sending up a trial balloon is one thing, but actually challenging the collective wisdom of the group is unthinkable, or, at the very least, unwise (as, perhaps, John F. Kennedy discovered). Members of the American political caste fiercely protect the group, and when they do this, it is usually the American people who pay the price.

Barack Obama, as a junior member of this group and an obvious outsider, is more susceptible than most to its group thinking, and he’s more afraid than most to challenge it.  After all, very few black men have been allowed into the American political caste, and Obama is more of an outsider than many black men.  His father was Kenyan, and he was reared, for a time, in Indonesia.  To his credit, Obama overcame these obstacles to become the President of the United States, but he must sense that his status as a member of this group is in constant jeopardy.

Obama’s desire to be an accepted and acceptable member of America’s political caste, better than any other theory, explains his behavior as President.  He was elected as a Democrat, and this put him at a disadvantage because Democrats are distinctly un-cool among the American political caste.  Some renegade Democrats actually try to protect the interests of the great, unwashed masses, whereas Republicans are much less threatening to the status quo that has allowed the political caste to thrive.  In fact, liberalism, as a political theory seeking social and economic justice, has been so thoroughly rejected by the political caste that Obama felt the need to laud Ronald Reagan as one of his political heroes.  Actual liberals in Congress are a bit of a joke, frankly.  When the Progressive Caucus was making some noise about not supporting Obama’s health insurance reform proposal unless it included a “robust” public option, Nancy Pelosi laughed and predicted that, in the end, the Caucus would support the final bill.  She was right, of course.  The Progressive Caucus folded and voted for a bill without any public option in it, much less a “robust” one.  Even the members of the Progressive Caucus, supposed champions of the people, will sacrifice principle in order to remain members of the political caste—and they did, despite the fact that a majority of Americans supported the public option.  This explains the seemingly inexplicable behavior of both Democrats and Republicans when they are in power.  Neither party ever truly challenges the “groupthink” of the political caste.  On occasion, a few individuals like Ron Paul will do so, but what’s your opinion of him?  To challenge the groupthink of the American political caste means to be ostracized and labeled a nut.

For his part, Obama has done his best, from the very beginning, to show that he is no threat to the political caste.  Starting on the day he was inaugurated, Obama has gone out of his way to distance himself from the very people who voted for him.  He immediately alienated the GLBT community by having Rick Warren give the convocation, and it has been all downhill from there for Obama’s supporters.  He alienated liberals everywhere by making Emanuel Chief of Staff, but at the same time he sent a strong signal to the political caste that he was not a threat to the status quo.  Time after time, on issue after issue, Obama has betrayed liberals and core Democratic constituencies, and the apparent intent of these betrayals has been to placate the political caste.  Each betrayal sends a clear message to the political caste that he is not a threat to them.  Moreover, Obama is perfectly clear about his desire to improve their lot.  Obama recently told a group of prominent business leaders, “We want to be boosters because when you do well, America does well.”  He went on to say, “I want to dispel any notion that we want to inhibit your success.”

And this, it appears, is his ultimate “winning” strategy.  Obama hopes to win re-election in 2012 by betraying his supporters and the political left while “boosting” the American political caste.  Sadly, this strategy might just work.  Call it triangulation, if you will.  I call it being a school-yard bully—picking on the little kid so that the cool kids will like you and accept you.  Whatever you call it, Obama is a brilliant politician.  He has proven himself to be adept at sticking his finger in the air (in whatever social group he’s in) and going the way the wind is blowing.  Obama knows which way the wind is blowing in the political caste, and he has been very successful at giving them precisely what they want.

But doesn’t Obama need the support of the people in order to be re-elected?  Perhaps not.  Ultimately, the political caste has the necessary connections and resources to insure that Obama gets a plurality of the votes cast, if they so choose, and there’s very little that the American people can do about it.  Most Americans are not aware of the extent to which Obama has betrayed their interests.  Favorable media coverage combined with boatloads of campaign cash may be enough to insure the outcome of the election.  Obama appears to believe that all he has to do is to appease the political caste.  Then, he thinks, they will support him and insure his victory.  He may be right about that.  Besides which, Obama’s political strategists have probably concluded that the Democratic Party’s core constituents will vote for Obama in 2012, no matter how many times he knifes them, because the Republicans are worse.  That argument is rapidly losing its potency.  To many Americans, voting appears increasingly irrelevant.  We get policy dictated by the groupthink of the political caste no matter whom we elect.  In fact, liberals might be better off with a Republican President.  After all, only Nixon could go to China.  Only Clinton could gut welfare and enact NAFTA.  Bush tried to privatize Social Security and failed.  Obama may actually do it.

One thing is certain, though.  If Obama determines that the American political caste wants to “reform” Social Security, Obama will do his level best to make it happen, and he will not lose any sleep worrying about how his actions will hurt the American people.  Oh, he’ll blame the Republicans for “making” him gut the most popular social program in American history, but he will do it, all the same.  The groupthink of America’s political caste will, once again, become the law of the land, no matter what the people think, and Obama will celebrate his “victory.”  He’ll also be patting himself on the back for his “winning” strategy.  Kissing the collective derriere of the entire American political caste may even get him re-elected.


Cross posted from: