Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why the (Long-run) Outlook for Progressivism may be Better than We Think

It is all too easy to feel discouraged if not downright pessimistic in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections. One can hardly believe that Obama's weak sauce health and financial reforms would drive the American people back into the arms of the party of culture, class, and foreign wars; recessionary economics; and epic fiscal deficits.

First the bad:

As expected, the GOP won control of the House, having nabbed over 80 seats from the Democrats. They also gained six seats in the Senate and came very close to snatching power there as well. At the state level, too, the GOP won 7 governorships. On the up side, most of these losses came not from the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but from the (fairly useless) Blue Dog wing. It’s also good to bear in mind that the president’s party routinely loses seats in the midterm elections. Viewed in historical perspective, the Democratic losses are not so unusual, particularly given a terrible economy with nearly 10 percent official (and 22 percent “actual”) unemployment.

Still, this is undoubtedly a set-back to the Progressive agenda, as the Left suffered important losses. These include the fire-breathing champion of working-class Americans, Representative Alan Grayson (D), and the incorruptible reformer, Senator Russ Feingold (D), who co-sponsored historic campaign finance reform and has been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform, conservationism and environmental protection, fair trade, banking reforms, and eliminating the death penalty. Moreover, while the Blue Dog Democrats are beloved by no one, the Republicans who turned them out of office are mostly mean, Shi’ite Republicans you would not want to meet in a dark alley (at least not if you are an illegal alien). Many of these so-called “Tea-publicans” (such as their de facto leader, Rand Paul, who has been linked to white Supremacists) make George W. Bush look like a paragon of multicultural tolerance.

How damaging is this unhappy turn of events? I will argue that there is at least one short-term and several long-term reasons why, in spite of this latest disappointment, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of progressivism.

(1) Calm down: we are not teetering on the precipice of fascism.

For one thing, the newly-elected Tea Partiers are almost certainly too incompetent to fundamentally transform our government, even if they had the numbers on their side. Moreover, the total elimination of women’s reproductive rights, deportation of illegal aliens, and militarization of the southern border are not big priorities for their corporate sponsors and may even be downright bad for business. After all, these Tea-publicans were brought to you by corporate America, and in this sense are really no different from the corrupted and corruptible Republican class of freshmen that took control of Congress in 1994. True, there will almost certainly be at least one government shutdown (not to mention impeachment hearings), and Obama's limited reforms are in serious danger of being scaled back. The GOP takeover may also delay an economic recovery and exacerbate unemployment. However, illegal immigrants are in no danger of mass deportations, and we are not about to witness the emergence of an American theocracy presided over by Palin. These right-wingers are simply not inclined to do the kind of work it would take to affect regime change.

It may sound Pollyannaish, but really, it could be so much worse... Happily, there are also significant structural changes that promise to improve the body politic (over the long run, at least):

(2) America is becoming truly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.

In the aggregate, that is. The graph below shows that the proportion of self-reported European or “white” Americans has dropped decade by decade. In the 1950s, the country was 80 percent white. By the middle of this century, however, folks of European extraction are projected to have dipped below 50 percent of the population. This is mostly an outgrowth of immigration from non-European countries, but partly also differences in birth rates. The U.S. Department of Education shows the decline of white America in the chart below.

Why is this a good thing for progressivism? Because minorities are traditionally left-wing voters. Jewish and African Americans have historically trended strongly Democratic, while Asian Americans and Hispanics have been more likely to split their vote. However, in the decades since civil rights legislation was passed, the Republican party has sought to mobilize angry and alienated lower middle-class white folks who virulently oppose anything that challenges, as Bill O'Reilly once put it, the “white Christian male power structure”: affirmative action, immigration, feminism and social welfare programs.

Electorally, the picture is even starker. The charts below show the percentage of whites that voted Republican in the last three presidential elections. Using data from CNN exit polls, L. David Roper shows that in 2000 George Bush did poorly in almost every major demographic except for whites and church-goers. Still, Bush was able to eke out victories (or at least a tie) in 2000 and 2004.

This last chart shows that McCain--who attracted about the same proportion of white voters as Bush did in 2000 or 2004--suffered a decisive defeat in 2008. The reason: white voters are no longer a commanding electoral demographic.

The racial divide in the 2010 midterm elections was even starker--the vast majority of whites voted Republican, while Blacks and Latinos voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

As the GOP tacks yet further right and white, the party is, as GOP Strategist David Frum put it, in danger of becoming a “rural white rump.” Such a party will need to secure ever increasing proportions of the white vote to offset the declining proportion of whites in the voting population. At some point, this will no longer be sustainable, and the GOP will have to abandon the tried-and-true “Southern Strategy” that it has relied upon to win elections since the Nixon administration. Such a development is bound to change the political discourse in America for the better.

We are losing our religion.

Over the past couple decades, it has become increasingly acceptable to declare oneself a non-believer. Indeed, the percentage of secular Americans or "nones" (those who identify as atheists, agnostics, and simply non-religious) has increased significantly since the 1990s, particularly among younger respondents.

The emergence of more and more secular Americans promises a positive paradigm shift in national politics. This is because secularism generally goes together with progressivism and support for evidence-based policy-making. It is worth noting in this respect that non-religious people are far more likely than their religious counterparts to accept the science behind global warming. They also support gay marriage, and are far more likely to believe that evolution provides the best account of the origins of the universe.

A generational shift in religiosity is sure to hurt the Republican party. This is because the GOP has depended for decades on the support of highly religious Christian voters:

Major caveat: Americans will probably always be more religious than Europeans, who declare themselves Catholics or Protestants but rarely go to church. In America, religion seems to be in the country’s DNA, and an overwhelming majority of Americans still declare themselves to be God-fearing and predominantly Christian.

Still, there is no question that we have become more secular over the past twenty years, with every birth cohort less religious than the one before. This may eventually lead to a retrenchment of religion from national politics, which would be a healthy development for believers and non-believers alike. The sooner that national politicians stop debating non-issues such as whether gays should be allowed in the military or to marry one another, the sooner we can focus our collective attention on policies that are properly decided in the political sphere (taxation, regulation of commerce, finance and international trade; consumer protection; issues of security and peace; conservation and environmental protection; and the like). Marriage, sex, reproductive rights, recreational drug use, and assisted suicide, in contrast, are basically private issues that require some degree of regulation, but are best kept out of the daily business of politicking.

(4) Younger voters tend to be more progressive.

According to surveys, younger people today reveal themselves to be less homophobic, less racist, and more supportive of civil rights and social welfare programs than older people. Overall, younger people are also better traveled than their elders, sometimes living for extended periods in other countries. As a consequence, they have a tendency to be less nativist and more aware of how the actions of the U.S. affect people in other parts of the world. We can hope that this openness will promote not only other-oriented thinking and behavior, but also humility about the extent to which America ought to be teaching to, rather than learning from, other societies.

What is relevant for party politics is that younger people are less likely to identify with (and consequently vote for) the Republican Party. The graph below by Gallup shows that Democrats have a huge advantage over the Republicans among the youngest voting demographic (18-29). According to another survey by Pew, the average age of Republicans increased by three years from 1987 to 2009, whereas the average age of Democrats remained constant. The survey also notes that "For the first time in at least two decades, Republicans are older than Democrats on average." This surely cannot be good for the long-term prospects of the GOP, suggesting that the GOP may have to change much of its character to appeal to younger generations as time goes on.

(5) Rural America is disappearing

The right-wing base is shrinking not only because it is predominantly white, religious, and older, but because its voters are disproportionately rural. According to one analysis, fully two-thirds of the GOP wins in the 2010 elections were in rural districts, which make up a fraction of all electoral districts in the U.S.

Political Scientist Seth Mckee has researched the regional and urban-rural divides in America, finding that the traditional north-south political cleavage has in some ways been eclipsed by the rural-urban divide: "the growing divide between rural and urban voters has widened because the North-South sectional cleavage among rural voters has narrowed," meaning that rural voters in the north and south have largely fused to become today's GOP base. He concludes, "it now appears that future Republican presidential success may be heavily reliant on rural support--turning the traditional southern rural-urban cleavage on its head."

The trouble with this as a long-term Republican strategy should be obvious. Like practically everywhere else in the world, rural Americans are migrating to urban areas for jobs and upward mobility. McKee cites ANES data indicating that rural voters as a proportion of the overall electorate dropped from 37.9 percent in 1952 to 31 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2004. Sarah Palin's "real America" is a pale shadow of its former self. This is shown graphically by the following chart from the US Global Change Research Program:

Of course none of this precludes the emergence of a new cultural divide at the national level, nor does it mean the end of political tribalism. What it does mean is that in a two-party system, it will be impossible for one party to rise to power by appealing solely or even mainly to white nationalism. It means that the GOP will be forced to broaden its electoral appeal in order to win national elections, which will almost certainly improve the quality of political discourse in our country.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Morality of Taxes

A core conservative tenet is that raising taxes is bad economic policy. Two reasons are usually given for this. First, it punishes success by confiscating the wealth of our most industrious citizens, a punishment that creates disincentives to work. Second, it punishes the very people (the rich) on whom we rely to create jobs that fuel the economy. If taxes are raised on the wealthy and businesses, job creation will suffer because there will be no incentives to grow and because labor costs will be too high.

It must be said that conservatives are not dead-set against raising taxes in general—just those that target large corporations and wealthy individuals. These include increasing the federal income tax and corporate taxes (progressive, redistributive taxes), closing tax loopholes and taxing capital gains (ditto), and increasing the estate tax (which only affects the wealthiest one percent of income-earners).

However, conservatives do not oppose all taxes. After all, someone’s got to pay for America’s vast global empire. To generate government revenue, conservatives recommend instituting a regressive flat tax (disproportionately shouldered by the poor and middle class). They also do not object to increasing payroll and sales taxes (ditto).

In contrast to the received wisdom at Fox News, mainstream economists agree that investing in the poor is probably the best means of stimulating the economy. In fact, the biggest multiplier effect of federal investment is provided by food stamps, where each additional dollar invested in food stamps is estimated to put 1.73 USD back into the economy. The same goes for earned income tax credits. The investment that gives us the least bang for the buck is…wait for it…tax cuts to the wealthy. Every additional dollar in tax cuts to the wealthy (making the Bush tax cuts permanent) puts a mere 29 cents back into the economy. Which means that, rather than stimulating the economy, extending tax cuts to the wealthy would give us a negative return on our investment. The difference is due to the fact that, unlike the wealthy, poor people have to spend everything they have, so nearly all the additional investment in food stamps and earned income tax credits goes back into the economy.

But this post is not about the utility of taxes. It is about the morality of taxes.

British blowhard Stuart Varney recently had a guest on his program who advocated progressive taxation. He asked her whether she thought it was “moral” to tax the rich at a higher rate to give money to the indolent (presumably, the lower 98 percent of American income-earners).

This represents a new, and rather brazen, line of attack by the “haves” for whom the increase of a couple percentage points in the top marginal tax rate is akin to grand larceny. The argument goes something like this:

(1) Resources should not be transferred from the rich to the poor, because this only encourages laziness and an entitlement mentality among the poor;

(2) The richest (and therefore most deserving) members of society should not be asked to pay a greater share of their money to the commonwealth than the working and middle classes;

(3) It is an abuse of government power to confiscate people’s hard-earned money in redistributive transfers.

Since most American conservatives agree that the last word on morality is contained within the Bible (and particularly the New Testament), I have consulted this text by way of answering Varney’s question as to whether progressive taxation is moral.

Jesus Valued the Poor over the Rich

Jesus promised the poor that, although they suffer now, they will be rewarded in Heaven. He tells his disciples in Luke 6:20: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Far from viewing the poor as bums, lay-abouts or welfare cheats (the predominant view on Fox News), Jesus preached that the poor were actually worthier than the rich. Whereas the poor would inherit the keys to God’s Kingdom, Christ famously made the opposite promise to the rich:

"it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God"(Matthew 19:24).

Was Jesus saying that the rich would not get into Heaven? Sounds that way to me. Additional clarification on the matter from the Son of God:

James 5:1-6: “ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire…Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in the day of slaughter."

1 Timothy 6:9-10: "But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."

Jesus Advocated Social and Economic Justice

Although Christ’s views on the rich are fairly clear, there are many in the Christian Right who apparently believe he was kidding. The proponents of “prosperity gospel” make the ludicrous claim that Jesus was actually a rich man, and that living the gospel brings riches here on earth.

Unless I completely missed the point of my Bible seminary classes, Christ’s entire ministry was about taking care of the neediest of society—helping the poor, feeding the hungry, comforting the widowed and orphaned, and healing the sick and disabled. He taught his followers to do likewise:

Corinthians 12: 25: “That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.”

Christ is saying here that we should not simply help the poor, but strive to reduce the disparities between the rich and poor. We not only have a moral duty to help the poor, but to eliminate poverty altogether. There are those in the Christian Right, most notably Glenn Beck, who reject this notion as an implicit condemnation of the capitalist system of government and society: one should give to the poor, no doubt, but one need not make a big political thing about poverty. Beck went so far as to urge his viewers to leave any church that preached “social” or “economic justice” as purveyors of Godless Marxism.

Following Beck’s logic, God was himself a Godless Marxist, for he defended and advocated on behalf of the poor against an unjust world:

Psalms 140:12: “I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and the right of the poor.”

Isaiah 25:4: “For You have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress.”

Psalms 10:14: “The unfortunate commits himself to You; You have been the helper of the orphan... O Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear to vindicate the orphan and the oppressed.”

It might be countered that social justice is the purview of God alone; it is He who ensures justice for the afflicted—it is not up to us to play this role.

Be that as it may, Jesus was clear about what we are responsible for during our time on Earth, and that is to rectify gross inequalities in society. He commanded the rich to liquidate their wealth and give everything to the poor; if they fail to do so, they face damnation. An oft-quoted New Testament story is as follows:

A rich man approached Jesus and asked him how he might secure eternal life. Although the man followed all of God’s commandments, Jesus told him: "there is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Luke 18:22).

If Christ is to be taken at his word, and Bible literalists are fairly clear on this point, then there is no such thing as an obedient Christian who is also very wealthy. Christ commanded his followers not to give a portion of their resources to the poor and needy, but to give ALL their worldly riches to the needy.

Jesus Says “Pay Your Taxes”

Conservative Christians concede that Christ taught that we should give generously to the poor (although the part about giving all one's riches to the poor was obviously an allegory), but these disbursements should be voluntary and certainly not through taxation by a secular, Godless government.

In point of fact, the Jews of the first century were faced with a similar dilemma because they opposed paying taxes to a secular, hostile Roman government. At the same time, not paying taxes would expose them to persecution by the authorities. Hoping to score points by forcing him to take a position on the matter, Jewish Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him whether it was moral to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus replied:

“You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Matthew 22: 15-22).

Indeed, paying one’s taxes is not only the right thing to do, but also commanded by God. Apostle Paul tells us that sovereign authorities are established by God and are therefore His intermediaries here on Earth:

Romans 13:1-7: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God…Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

We now return to the central question: Do sovereign authorities have the right to use taxes to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor?

Let’s reason this through. If God wants us to care for one another and for the rich to give their possessions to the poor, and if the sovereign authorities on Earth are God’s intermediaries to which we are obliged to pay taxes, then it stands to reason that a progressive federal income tax (itself a very mild form of wealth redistribution) is not only legitimate, but in fact highly moral.

In fact, the Bible suggests that the government has not only the right, but the duty to tax the wealthy for the benefit of all:

1 Timothy 6:17: “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they may not be highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy.”

In light of all of this, the better question might be whether not taxing the rich is moral.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Operation Chaos: Corporate America Goes for Broke

To listen to beltway pundits, you would think that the GOP had shot itself in the foot—overplayed its hand, if you will—in its effort to regain popular momentum in the wake of a humiliating electoral defeat. Across the country, Tea Party activists have challenged, many times successfully, incumbent Republicans in primary contests. In this view, the GOP plot to rev up the Tea Partiers with an eye toward coopting them in the fall midterms backfired spectacularly. They instead midwifed a movement that threatens to destroy the GOP itself.

A related narrative (not inconsistent with the first) is that there is a civil war underway between old guard „establishment Republicans” and hardcore GOP extremists. The metaphor here is that of Republican standard bearers struggling with radical secessionists in a contest over who are the biggest psychopaths. The result of this „outbidding” war is that the GOP is moved even further to the right—right off a cliff.

Either way, pundits agree, the Tea Party movement has seriously undermined the GOP’s electability this fall. It is possible that Democrats will screw up what amounts to an unexpected and undeserved gift and are sure to lose seats in any case due to the principle of divided government, but there is little doubt that the GOP has played an extremely poor hand.

I contend, however, that this conclusion depends on the heroic assumption that either the GOP or the secessionist agitators are in the driver’s seat.

But what if the GOP were not in charge of this movement—indeed were never in charge? And what if this were less a civil war over the „soul of the GOP” than a scheme by economic elites and corporations to throw everything they’ve got at Obama and his liberal allies with the aim of derailing even the most modest Democratic reforms?

The game is Operation Chaos. The goal? Not revitalizing the Republican Party or even introducing an alternative plan of governance. The goal instead is destruction, pure and simple, let the chips fall where they may. It is, as Senator Russ Feingold put it, a „systematic, conscious” effort to „destroy” Obama and his presidency.

Who is playing the game? Those who have the most to lose if Obama and his liberal allies win: a select group of corporations and very very rich individuals.

After all, just because the GOP carries water for the wealthy does not mean that the wealthy look after the GOP. If the GOP can’t deliver, moneyed interests will find someone who can—whether or not this hurts the GOP, its leadership, or its institutions. Since Democrats became friendlier to business in the early 1990s, corporations have become ever more willing to split their campaign contributions between the two parties.

Indeed, the past three years actually saw the Democratic party rake in more corporate money than the Republicans. Particular now, corporate dollars tend to follow whomever looks likeliest to win office—the winners (democrat or republican) are then beholden (to a greater or lesser extent) to those who bankrolled their campaigns.

Heads I win, tails you lose. Nice to have money...

The consequences of increased corporate backing is all to obvious to those who remember when Democrats pushed for truly liberal reforms. The last two Democratic administrations have been extra friendly to Wall Street interests in particular. The Clinton administration dismantled crucial Depression-era banking regulations, opening the door to the Wall Street shenanigans that brought us the global financial meltdown of 2008. The very same Clinton-era de-regulators—Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner—became top economic advisors for the Obama administration, ensuring that the much-touted financial reforms would be very weak indeed. Corporate Dems are also largely to blame for our weak health care reforms, as well as continued lax environmental regulation held over from the Bush administration, making possible—among other things—the horrific mining accidents by the criminally negligent Massey Energy company and, most famously, the BP oil disaster in the Gulf.

Amazingly, the corporations and individuals who made out like bandits during the Bush years are not inclined to lie low as America reels from their most recent sucker punch—even in the wake of the financial meltdown and subsequent taxpayer bailout, the wholesale destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, and the spiralling health insurance premiums that are directly responsible for thousands of deaths every year. Even with a looming economic depression, they are not willing to compromise. They view the slightest tax increases and the most modest constraints on profit-seeking behavior as their own personal Alamo:

Truly, Ben Stein is a greedy, loathsome troll. While most corporate miscreants are not quite as cartoonish as Stein is here, he nicely illustrates their whiney „why me” attitude toward a government preparing to take away the punch bowl just as the party is getting started.

However, corporate flaks well understand that the woes of uber-wealthy Steins of the world are unlikely to resonate on Main Street.

Enter the Tea Partiers...

I noted in an earlier post that although there is a strong grassroots impetus for the Tea Party movement—largely fueled by amorphous rage over economic dislocation and the racial anxieties of a white majority gradually losing ground—the Tea Party movement would have had very little impact without the organizational muscle of seasoned PR flaks.

Corporate front groups such as Koch Industries-funded FreedomWorks have trained activists, organized protests, liaised with the media, and transported protesters to Tea Party events. Without their backing, the Tea Party movement would surely remain incoherent and fragmented--the most successful Tea Party candidates would have gone down in history as obscure also-ran candidates.

The principal organization behind a number of the ascendant Tea Party candidates is the Tea Party Express, established by the same veteran GOP operative—Sal Russo—who created the Our Country Deserves Better PAC in 2008 to defeat then-candidate Obama. Russo’s California-based GOP political consultancy is the principal financial beneficiary of both organizations and is known by some as the man behind the curtain. But who is footing the bill?

CSMonitor notes that “the problem for those trying to ferret out where the money comes from…is that it's getting harder to do so." Citing the New York Times: "Federal campaign spending by groups other than candidates and parties this election cycle has far outpaced similar spending from the last midterm election and could rival the 2008 presidential campaign. But with recent decisions by the Supreme Court and the Federal Elections Commission, it has become harder to know whose dollars they are."”

Even without hard figures, it does not take a sleuth to identify the special interests behind the movement. According to SourceWatch, the Tea Party Patriots (TPP) was “initially organized by FreedomWorks” and in 2009, an affiliated off-shoot, the Tea Party Express (TPE) helped organize a public relations bus tour across the country. TPE events were co-sponsored by the „American Grassroots Coalition,” which includes organizations either established or funded by Koch Industries. One thing is clear: a grassroots organization the TPE is not. Mark Mekler, spokesperson for the rival Tea Party Patriots, said that the Tea Party Express is run by “old-school, top-down, political operatives who are using the Tea Party movement for their own purposes.” That is, GOP strategists.

The surprising twist—given that the Tea Party movement is largely organized and funded by veteran GOP operatives—is that the insurgency is taking aim at the Republican Party itself. But again, the impetus for the insurgency comes not from within the GOP itself, but from their corporate backers.

In fact, the mainstream GOP looks more and more like the dowdy wife who was thrown over for her younger, sexier Tea Party rival. Corporations supporting right-wing candidates in this election cycle have largely eschewed Michael Steele’s Republican National Committee, which is widely viewed as irrelevant and is in fact broke. They have instead bestowed their largesse on 527 organizations like FreedomWorks and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which support hard right Republican candidates, including the Tea Partiers and other Tea Party favorites. American Crossroads receives much of its funding from companies controlled by Texas billionaire, Harold Simmons—the man behind the ads linking domestic terrorist Bill Ayres to Barack Obama. The corporate advocacy group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is also a major contributor and supporter of Tea Party insurgents.

It cannot be stressed enough that the name of the game is not helping the Republican Party—it is destroying Obama’s presidency, and with it, his momentum (however halting) toward reining in corporate power. Moneyed interests back Tea Party candidates against more qualified GOP contenders because Tea Party positions dovetail perfectly with the interests of the richest people in America: cutting taxes for the wealthy, slashing social programs, reducing unemployment benefits, repealing health care reform, opposing cap and trade legislation, blocking environmental and financial regulation, privatizing and/or drastically cutting Medicare and Social Security, and opposing immigration reform. The Tea Party candidates are a corporate wet dream.

These are just some of the highlights:

Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle won the GOP primary in Nevada and will challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for his seat in the fall. She has attracted attention for her extremist and/or batty positions, such as outlawing abortions even in cases of rape and incest, promoting Scientology-inspired "sweatboxes" for prison inmates, advocating a ban on alcohol, and pulling the U.S. out of the UN. More recently, she warned that if the Tea Partiers did not achieve their aims through the electoral process, they may need to explore „second Amendment remedies.” Second civil war, anyone? What fun.

Although Angle is obviously certifiable, her economic positions perfectly align with the interests of the wealthy—more tax cuts for the rich, less business regulation, less government spending, and lower capital gains and property taxes. She has gone on record as saying that the unemployed are „spoiled” and shouldn’t be coddled. She has also called for the repeal of Obama’s health care legislation and the elimination of the IRS, EPA and the Departments of Education and Energy. Since many of these positions belie her populist credentials, she is now madly backpedaling on social security while employing the tried and true GOP technique of fear-mongering to appeal to Nevada voters.

Angle would certainly have gone down in history as an obscure also-ran candidate were it not for the support of conservative pundits Mark Levin and Phyllis Schafly, the anti-tax Club for Growth, and the TPE. Due to a massive last-minute infusion of cash from the TPE, Angle was able to outspend the more moderate (and favored) Republican rival, catapaulting her into the lead. Said one analyst, „The turnaround for Angle has been remarkable. She netted just 5 percent in a Review-Journal poll in early April, a week before the Tea Party Express' endorsement; Lowden [the moderate rival] led that survey at 45 percent.”

In Alaska, meanwhile, Tea Party upstart Joe Miller beat out more moderate incumbent GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was seen as insufficiently aligned with business interests on climate change legislation. In addition to opposing cap and trade, Miller favors extending tax cuts for the wealthy, privatizing Social Security, and massively cutting Medicare (creating significant business for Wall Street and health insurers, respectively). He also questions whether unemployment does not actually prolong unemployment because unemployment is nothing if not one long stress-free vacation from life.

Miller, a virtual unknown, would have certainly lost to Murkowski were it not for the intervention of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, which pumped $600,000 into the campaign—permitting him to eke out a victory. Spending such an amount to sway the Alaskan electorate, said one pollster, is equivalent to pumping 10 million dollars into a primary contest in California.

The most recent Tea Party upset is that of Christine O’Donnell, who won the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in Delaware over more the moderate GOP politician, Mike Castle. It was during the race that O'Donnell's bizarre statements against masturbation came to light. More oddly, she apparently „dabbled in witchcraft, but never joined a coven” in high school, and thinks evolution is a „myth.” It is easy to let these amusing details distract from her hard-right economic agenda, which is deadly serious. She opposes cap and trade legislation, favors repealing health care reform, wants to raise the retirement age on social security benefits, opposes any and all tax increases on the wealthy, and wants to eliminate all earmarks and balance the federal budget through spending cuts. Disaster.

Early in the race, O'Donnell was dismissed as a far-right religious zealot with little to no job experience, poor life management skills, and questionable ethics (she was behind on her mortgage payments, failed to graduate college because of unpaid tuition fees, and was under FEC investigation due to improper use of campaign funds from her earlier runs for office). She had little hope of winning the primary challenge against Castle until the TPE blanketed the state with 350,000 USD of ads, and Sarah Palin and Mark Levin actively lobbied on her behalf. In the end, O'Donnell won the election, and the skeptical GOP standard-bearers were forced to back her candidacy.

By supporting extremist GOP candidates against merely right-wing GOP candidates, moneyed interests send the message that those who go against the wishes of tax corporations and rich people—even a little bit—will face humiliating primary defeats.

But what if Tea Party candidates flame out in the general elections because they are simply to extreme for American voters, leading to more Democratic victories? GOP strategists concede this possibility, but once again, helping the GOP was never the aim of their corporate backers. Changing the political discourse and destroying Obama’s agenda is the name of the game. Says Tea Party Express architect Sal Russo:

“What’s success for the Tea Party Express? I would say we’ve already achieved it,” Mr. Russo said. “Because today you can’t find a candidate running anywhere in America — Republican or Democrat — that doesn’t sound like they belong to the Tea Party movement."

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Tea Party Movement: Grass Roots Phenomenon or Corporate Fifth Column?

American economic elites have a long and storied history of recruiting suckers and mercenaries to do their dirty work. In a practice known as “astroturfing,” an interested party (often a corporation) clandestinely organizes an apparently grass roots movement to give the appearance that their agenda is shared by millions of ordinary people. That the rich find a need to engage in such tactics in a democratic society is understandable—there is no natural mass constituency for economic conservatism, which basically serves the interests of the richest 1-5 percent of the country. They must therefore trick ordinary Americans to lobby for their interests and elect movement leaders (generally Republicans and conservative Democrats).

Why do I say that economic conservatism has no natural mass constituency? Because it is so obviously geared toward the rich and against the working and middle classes. In a recent article, Media Matters listed 13 progressive reforms that conservatives have long fought against, including eliminating or drastically scaling back Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (60 percent of America’s seniors get three-quarters of their income from Social Security, and 20 percent rely solely on Social Security); reducing or eliminating the progressive federal income tax in favor of a flat tax (which places the burden of taxation disproportionately on the poor); eliminating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the right to unionize, worker’s compensation, and other workplace regulations that empower employees; scaling back unemployment benefits and the minimum wage (which would force many workers to accept low-paid jobs); and loosening environmental regulations (allowing industries to pollute freely and forcing taxpayers to clean up the mess). Talk about class warfare.

In fact, America has a rich history of corporate astroturfing aimed at killing progressive legislation. In a set piece of historical irony, the original Boston Tea Party of 1773 was itself astroturfed. What the Sons of Liberty were protesting when they dressed up as Native Americans to pour tea into the Boston Harbor was not a hike in British tea taxes, but rather the opposite. Britain had recently eliminated the tax on British tea in the colonies, thereby undercutting the lucrative business in smuggled tea from Holland that many colonial merchants depended upon; these same colonial merchants backed or took part in what became known as Boston Tea Party. Thus, the tea party was not a protest against taxation without representation, but against cheap imported British tea that threatened to put American tea merchants out of business.

Skipping ahead to the twentieth century, in the 1930s, the uber-rich du Ponts mobilized an apparently grassroots American Liberty League to bury New Deal Social Security program, child labor prohibition, and the Security and Exchange Commission. In the 1960s, the John Birch Society helped Barry Goldwater to mount an attack on the “socialist” Medicare program. The 1990s saw Richard Mellon Scaife (the billionaire heir of the Mellon oil and banking fortune) contribute heavily to bringing down the Clinton administration. And in the 2000s, the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch teamed up to astroturf TeaParty protests against the “socialist Obama regime.”

One can only surmise that “freedom” for these economic elites is freedom from living in an advanced society, which is all very well for those who can afford to live in gated communities. But what about the rest of us? Would these conservatives object to the return of debtors’ prisons, child labor, workhouses for the poor, and a life of begging for the aged, sick, poor, orphaned or infirm? I doubt it, seeing as how they have a track record of fighting against legislation that ameliorated these problems. I am sure that many conservatives believe these are the costs of living in a meritocratic capitalistic society, which rewards the industrious and punishes the lazy. And for those who cannot compete—the mentally and physically disabled, the orphaned, the sick—well, there are always charities, churches and prisons. It is the kind of social Darwinism favored by Wall Street tycoons and other economic elites who worship at the alter of Ayn Rand.

Conservative astroturfing has come into its own since the inauguration of the Obama administration. The town hall protests of summer 2009 that took aim at heath care reform was a top-down coordinated effort by GOP strategists and corporate funders, as revealed by a strategy memo leaked by a volunteer for FreedomWorks. Some protesters were even reportedly bused in to disrupt the town hall meetings of mainly democratic representatives.

In a recent article entitled “Covert Operations” in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer delves into the history of the two biggest funders of right-wing causes in America: Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries (primarily an oil enterprise), whose combined personal wealth is exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. According to David Koch, their business is the “biggest company you have never heard of.” Their father—who ironically accumulated his vast fortune through oil deals with Joseph Stalin in the 1930s—would later become a rabid anti-communist. He co-founded the fringe John Birch Society, whose leadership viewed fluoridating the water as a communist plot and was convinced that President Eisenhower was a secret Soviet agent.

The Koch brothers, Charles and David, largely shared their fathers’ positions and endeavored to fight progressive policies at every turn (a commitment that Mayer notes has dovetailed nicely with their financial self-interests). However, after a failed run for president on the libertarian ticket in 1980, the brothers decided to take their fight underground, by funding right-wing institutes and think tanks. Mayer quotes Media Matters: “the Kochs’ effort is unusual, in its marshalling of corporate and personal funds: ‘Their role, in terms of financial commitments, is staggering.’”

Besides founding the CATO institute, Mercatus, Citizens for a Sound Economy (which later morphed into FreedomWorks), and Americans for Progress, the Koch brothers also have provided funding to a range of right-wing think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute. On issue-specific matters, they have given clandestine funding to front organizations that promote climate change denialism and work to defeat emissions regulations, while backing astroturfed popular rallies against health care reform and “cap and trade” legislation that would have the overall effect of forcing energy companies like Koch Industries to pay for their pollution.

What is the connection between the Koch brothers and the modern Tea Party movement? Defenders of Tea Partiers insist that the movement is as organic as they come. In exchange for a $100,000 speaking fee, Sarah Palin addressed the first Tea Party Convention in 2010, calling it is a “beautiful movement” comprised of Americans from all walks of life who want their country returned to its founding principles.

The evidence usually provided for the movement’s grass roots origins is that there are countless apparently unrelated Tea Party websites and organizations with no clear movement leader, besides which few activists claim to have benefited from corporate largesse. An obvious fallacy of this logic is that the movement of today bears very little relation to the movement in its infancy. The really pertinent question is: what was the genesis the movement? Who midwifed it or did it come into its own spontaneously?

Fortunately, the development of the movement can be traced on the internets. Tea Party nomenclature appears to date back to a Ron Paul event in 2007; however, this attracted little media attention at the time. According to ThinkProgress, the first Tea Party protests appeared in early 2009 (soon after Obama’s inauguration) and received critical organizational and financial assistance from former Republican House Speaker Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, which is backed by corporations that benefit materially from derailing Obama’s legislative agenda.

Indeed, corporate front groups were there “from the very start,” admits Mary Rakovich,a laid-off electrical engineer and volunteer for the McCain campaign who is credited with holding the first Tea Party-like event in protest of an Obama appearance in Fort Myers, Florida, on February 10. She had recently finished a training session by FreedomWorks where she was given specific instructions on how to attract protesters and was counseled that she should focus on policy and not on Obama. According to Rakovich, she was strongly encouraged by the Florida director of FreedomWorks to hold a protest at this particular event.

According to a Tea Party timeline provided by Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake, less than one week later, a conservative activist in Seattle organized the first “porkulus protest” (a term coined by Rush Limbaugh) in protest of Obama’s stimulus bill. The rally received support from the Young Americans Foundation (CPAC), conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, and the Young Republicans and was promoted by the local Fox News station. Another “porkulus” rally was then held in Colorado, organized by the Koch Americans for Prosperity and Coors’ Independence Institute, with wingnuts Tom Tancredo and Michelle Malkin in attendance. Yet another “porkulus” rally took place that week in Arizona with the backing of right-wing media conglomerate Clear Channel. However, it was not until CNBC Rick Santelli’s famous “rant” on the Chicago Exchange floor where he called for a Chicago Tea Party that the Tea Party movement as we know it emerged (with significant behind-the-scenes support):

According to Mark Ames and Yasha Levine at The Exiled: "Within hours of Santelli’s rant, a website called sprang to life. Essentially inactive until that day, it now featured a YouTube video of Santelli’s “tea party” rant and billed itself as the official home of the Chicago Tea Party. The domain was registered in August, 2008 by Zack Christenson, a dweeby Twitter Republican and producer for a popular Chicago rightwing radio host Milt Rosenberg… was just one part of a larger network of Republican sleeper-cell-blogs set up over the course of the past few months, all of them tied to a shady rightwing advocacy group coincidentally named the “Sam Adams Alliance,” whose backers have until now been kept hidden from public. Cached google records that we discovered show that the Sam Adams Alliance took pains to scrub its deep links to the Koch family money as well as the fake-grassroots “tea party” protests going on today.”

In late February, the first “Nationwide Chicago Tea Party” was held in 40 cities across America—organized and coordinated by Freedom Works and Americans for Progress. This was followed by Tax Day Protests on April 15, which took place in hundreds of American cities--a coordinated effort assisted in great part by Fox News.

The next big anti-tax rally took place in September 2009 and was again heavily promoted by Fox News, particularly Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. The rally was enthusiastically covered by a Fox News reporter, as Fox News producers attempted to work up the crowd off-camera.

Fox news personalities thus played a central role in organizing Tea Party events across the country in mid-2009. Meanwhile, Freedom Works and Americans for Progress designed deliberately amateurish websites and organized local chapters of Tea Parties in order to create the illusion of a grass roots movement. These organizations also took the lead in organizing central clearinghouses of information that would direct visitors to local Tea Party events, writing press releases for the news media, contacting activists and coordinating conference calls, and helping them connect up with other organizations on the local level.

There is little doubt popular anger on the right due to Obama’s electoral victory provided the fuel for what would become the Tea Party movement.

However, it was not until FreedomWorks and Americans for Progress (both creatures of the Koch brothers) and Coors Company got involved, and Fox News began to heavily promote them, that the Tea Party events really gained popular momentum.

Today, the movement is made up of numerous factions, including The Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, the Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Patriots, the National Tea Party Federation. Although this apparently chaotic make-up is suggestive of a grass roots movement (reflecting the designers’ original intent), there is a strong case to be made that the Tea Party movement was, is, and will continue to be, a corporate fifth column: every position promulgated by the movement is a CEO’s wet dream, as they are even more corporate-friendly than the water-carriers-for-giant-corporate-interests GOP. Tea partiers stand for eliminating cap and trade, eliminating capital gains and inheritance tax, instituting a flat tax, capping federal spending programs, repealing the health care reform, granting energy companies permission to conduct oil and gas exploration on federal lands, loosening or eliminating business regulations, and so on. How any of these reforms can be expected to improve the lives of even a tiny minority of Tea Party membership is a puzzle indeed.

Tea Partiers who continue to insist that their movement emerged organically because it was “long in coming,” “a product of growing popular frustration at excesses of government,” “motivated out of concern for out-of-control spending,” etc., must explain the suspicious timing of the movement. It should not be forgotten that the Tea Parties did not get off the ground until AFTER the inauguration of a new democratic president. The bank bailout worth trillions of dollars that they supposedly opposed was put in place by the outgoing Bush administration (and Obama’s stimulus bill cost a fraction of the bailout). Bush’s two wars and two rounds of tax cuts for the wealthy cost the nation trillions of dollars, and counting.

Most damningly for the "fiscally conservative" Tea Partiers (most of whom strongly supported President George W. Bush during his two terms in office), the Bush administration turned a 200-odd billion surplus left by the Clinton administration into a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit by the time Bush left office. These discrepancies make hash of the Tea Party claim that the movement has nothing to do with party politics and strongly suggests that the Murdoch-Koch machine that kicked into overdrive in 2009 deserves considerable credit for their existence.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Glenn Beck and the White Civil Rights Movement

It is safe to say that Glenn Beck is one sick, confused puppy. As Washington pundits debate the meaning of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of MLK's historic "I have a dream" speech, the opinion in the reality-based community is pretty well divided on whether he is a garden variety huckster, a delusional demagogue, or an epic whack job. I think there is a case to be made that he is all three.

But this post isn't about Glenn Beck. It is about the cooptation of MLK in the service of a budding white civil rights movement--which may or may not develop into something more than a bunch of fat middle-aged white dudes in three-cornered hats pumping Obama = Hitler signs and shouting about socialism.

White civil rights, I hear you scoff? Isn't it a bit like men complaining of sexism or rich people complaining of classism? Yeah, it is. Which is exactly why it works.

Everyone needs to feel special, to feel a part of something. No one wants to be unnoticed or left behind with no destiny or narrative arc. Women have the feminist movement. Blacks have the civil rights movement, gay people have gay pride...what do ordinary white people have? America, that's what. With the American middle class falling further and further behind in hard economic times, and a sense that they are no longer the commanding demographic majority they once were, a civil rights movement for white people is terribly appealing. It promises not only heroes to champion their cause, but a full restoration of white folks to the core of American history. After all, the most common Tea Party refrain is, "I want my country back." This can be interpreted a lot of different ways, but at its core it is a plaintive childish cry: "I want a place in the sun, I want America to be about me and my family and my white Christian brothers and sisters--we want our American Dream back."

Mind you, I don't think any of this is happening on a conscious level. I definitely don't think that Tea Partiers believe they are racist; they think their movement has nothing to do with race and in fact transcends race, class and gender. They are anxious to show the rest of America that their movement includes people of color, and they therefore go out of their way to recruit and promote minority speakers at their rallies.

In truth, Tea Partiers wish that you would finally shut up about race because it's not about race anyway; besides: talking about race only divides people. They have no problem at all with black people, they just prefer that black people not draw attention to their "otherness," because they don't sees race. They gladly welcome black people into their fold, so long that they accept the traditional (white) Christian history of America conveyed in the schoolbooks of the 1950s and 60s.

The Tea Party/white nationalist movement is identity politics through and through. Denying this basic fact makes for amusing encounters when Tea Partiers attempt to explain to outsiders what their movement is about besides their white Christian identity. Because there is very little else that defines the movement. Policy-wise, Tea Partiers are basically Republicans, only more so--apart from promoting stock Republican positions on government (make it smaller), taxes (lower), health care and pensions (privatized), business (free from regulation), the movement features generalized anger, resentment, and dark predictions that the country will collapse into anarchy and civil war if they don't get that socialist Maoist Marxist Leninist Muslim (black) president out of the White House and "take their country back."

They are, as Howard Beale put in it Network,"Mad as hell and they aren't going to take it anymore." Mad that they have been promised a feast and ended up with crumbs. What happened to the American Dream? Some dark elements must have wrecked it. Like Muslims or Mexicans or liberals or feminists or gays or atheists or any number of subversive groups that hate America and are bent on destroying it.

A white civil rights movement answers each of these needs. It validates the worth of every white person in America, acknowledges that they are falling behind while other groups seem to be getting ahead. It also "restores" white Christian people to the center of American identity and history. To this end, multi-volume revisionist American history books have been published that laud our (white) forefathers and "black patriots" and place the Christian God at the center of each and every key turning point in American history.

To build a white civil rights movement, you need a white civil rights hero (Glenn Beck?), an "I have a dream" moment to inspire them (Beck's speech on the anniversary of MLK's speech?), and guidelines for action that provide direction for the movement (thus Beck's "action steps" in his forthcoming book, The Plan). Beck gave some hints what this was about on his website:

I'm coming to you next year with a plan, and it's multilayered. The first is ‑‑ and I started working on this in August. A 100‑year plan for America. This country was destroyed, and it began 100 years ago with the progressive movement... So how do we get it back?....I'm going to teach you how to be a community organizer next year, oh, because two can play at that game. I'm going to teach you how to be self‑reliant next year. We've divided the country up into seven regions.... Day‑long education seminars... where we're going to teach you everything you need to know. .. And then on August 28th... I ask you to meet me. Take your family. We move ‑‑ we had something planned.... By that time I hope to have enough things out there that you will at least have some teeth to the ‑‑ so the politicians will see you and hear you and fear you!... little by little I'm developing this plan, and I will explain more to you a little later.

A white civil rights movement also calls for historical context, a heroic narrative for conservatives in American history. Conservatives must be cast as civil rights heroes and liberals/progressives to the segrationists/oppressors. Naturally, this entails a wholesale rewriting of America's civil rights history. Beck is, as ever, up to the challenge, and in the week leading up to the MLK memorial rally on Saturday, he aired a four-part "documentary" on the 400-year "history of segregation" in the U.S. How are liberals/progressives implicated in segregation? Simple: “segregation came out of progressivism." Meanwhile, civil rights were something "we did" (conservatives, that is)... Say what?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, slavery does not figure very prominently in Beck's history. He kind of skims over the whole whites-owning-blacks part, focusing in particular on indentured servants and a black man who owned a black slave in colonial America (suggesting that anyone could have slaves-- it was all about economics, religion, etc., so the white-black thing was no big deal). We then literally skip over about 200+ years of slavery in the U.S.--primarily in the south. Also unmentioned is the fact that blacks were immediately re-enslaved after the civil war by southern law-makers who passed legislation permitting them to imprison and/or fine anyone who was unemployed and therefore illegally "loitering.” Since it was difficult for freed slaves to find paid work, and since few white men would vouch for their employment anyway, former slaves were often arrested, levied huge fines, and when they couldn’t pay, law enforcement sold them as forced labor to mines, the U.S. Steel Company, white plantation farmers, etc. In this way, freed slaves became re-enslaved. This system of neo-slavery continued until the mid-1940s.

We also hear nothing about poll taxes, literacy tests and the countless other tricks and intimidation used by the white political establishment to keep black voters disenfranchised. Nor is there anything about Jim Crow laws used to keep the races separate and (very) unequal. Nothing on the rise of the Ku Klus Klan and the systematic lynchings and burning of crosses. Nothing on Nat Turner, Booker T. Washington, Sojournor Truth, W.E.B. Du Bois. Nothing on Malcolm X or the role played by MLK in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Nothing on landmark cases in civil rights history such as the Dred Scott decision or Plessy v. Ferguson, and a very twisted interpretation of Brown v. Board of Education. does segregation come out of progressivism? How does Beck pull the rabbit out of the hat? The trick comes with his gross distortions of twentieth century history. According to Beck, Woodrow ("I hate that SOB") Wilson chose to sell out his black constituents by re-segregating government agencies. Beck points out that government agencies had been integrated, until Wilson segregated them. Wilson was a progressive democrat, ergo, segregation came out of progressivism. (No mention of the fact that Wilson reluctantly signed this order because of intense pressure from powerful Southern Democratic law-makers who wanted the races kept apart in the government.) FDR gets thrown under the bus as well, as he did not go as far in de-segregating society as he had promised. Both (progressive, democratic) presidents had detained German and Japanese Americans during WWI and WWII. Meanwhile, Eisenhower (a Republican president) appointed Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court, which in turn handed down the Brown v Brown of Education decision desegregating schools; Lincoln (also a Republican) had freed the slaves. Ergo, Democrat=Progressive=Nazi/segregationist; conservatives=civil rights supporters.


The truth, of course, is that conservatives fought against the abolition of slavery and segregationism tool and nail. It is universally known that conservatives have been aligned with segregationism since the late 19th century. Segregation came out of slavery, which morphed into neo-slavery, which became the Jim Crow laws (all courtesy southern democrats—today’s conservatives/Republicans). It took the forceful intervention of federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court decision to integrate schools in Mississippi and in Alabama, where segregationist Governor George Wallace gained hero-like status among conservatives by physically blocking black students from entering the whites-only University of Alabama.

Indeed today's conservatives are still enamored of segregationism or at least are not repulsed by it. In fact, leading conservative intellectuals Rush Limbaugh has spoken in favor of segregationism, and Ann Coulter defended a group of white supremacist segregationists against charges that they are racist. As late as the early 1990s, Christian conservatives strongly supported the white-dominated Apartheid regime in South Africa, which was not all that long ago. The late Jerry Falwell, a leading Christian conservative televangelist, railed against de-segregation. The fundamentalist Christian conservative Bob Jones University only ended its ban on interracial dating in 2000; they did not even admit blacks until 1971. And let's not forget the conservative Mormon Church (of which Glenn Beck is a member), which did not grant priesthood to African-Americans until 1978!

Nor has segregation been "solved"; in the twenty-first century, racial segregation may actually be on the rise. In the spring of this year, a federal judge ordered a county in Mississippi to stop racially segregating students into separate schools. And just last week, a story broke that administrators of a middle school in Mississippi mandated racially segregated elections of student body officers.

In fact, Beck himself has gone so far as to defend slavery, claiming it was not a big problem until it started to be "politicized" in the run-up to the civil war. This is not altogether surprising, for one of Beck's heroes, far-right Christian Reconstructionist R.J. Rushdooney, famously argued for "Biblical" slavery, claiming that "some people were by nature slaves" and that southern slavery was "benevolent."

If these seem like inconvenient facts, they clearly do not trouble Beck. Nor are they a problem for his followers as they mobilize at this historic moment against the injustice perpetrated by the fascistic Marxist Muslim oppressor in the White House.

Let freedom ring!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tea Party Speak Made Easy

If you are not an American, or are an American who hails from Blue America (i.e., not a 'real American'), you may have puzzled over the whole Tea Party thing sprouting up all across this great nation. You may have heard one of Glenn Beck's famous rants or listened to Rand Paul, Sarah Palin or Sharron Angle (look her up, she's a treat!), understood all the words, but failed to comprehend the meaning of the words. You may have then become frustrated and put your fist through the wall, despairing of ever "getting" the Tea Party movement.

While journalists, documentary film-makers, and scholars are presently conducting the kind of careful ethnographic research necessary to make this movement intelligible to outsiders, I have in the meantime compiled a quick and dirty guide to 'tea party speak'--the language that your right-wing colleagues, relatives or acquaintances have adopted and that, in all likelihood, has left you baffled.

Here is a sampling of "tea party speak" that I have culled from the internets using a super scientific research methodology (random google searches), followed by an English translation:*

*Warning: the following translations may be disputed by said Tea Party types >:-)

Tea Party Speak (TPS): "If you know even a little about forms of govt you'll quickly recognize that this [Obama's health care reform] is socialism. And socialism is a slide ever closer to communism - the most oppressive and godless form of govt the earth has ever seen on par with few others.

Translation: Europe sucks. America rules. We have to avoid the hell that is Europe.

TPS: We seem to have forgotten what a precious gift our freedom is and that we need to preserve it even if we have to forego some comfort [affordable health care].

Translation: I would rather be ripped off by a health insurance company or forego a necessary organ transplant than live in a European country with a black president.

TPS: I'll never agree that government ought be in the business of (re)distributing healthcare. And that's why I would like to see the private sector and charities step up and responsibly help the people in need. I say responsibly because many people have chronic and costly diseases [...] of their own choosing... Hardworking, sacrificial [sic] people should not be forced to carry the burden of shiftless, n'er do wells. It is one thing to fork over tax money to fix the roads, it is quite another to fork over tax money to pay for someone's drug addiction recovery or diabetes because they are eating themselves to death.

Translation: I shouldn't have to pay for anyone else's health care but my own. Poor people should ask charities for help. Poor fat people shouldn't get any help at all--they get what they deserve. My taxes should pay for roads, not to help poor, lazy fat/drug-addicted blacks or Mexicans. Screw them.

TPS: Those who suck on the teet [sic] of government cannot complain when the milk goes sour. Now, if the government creates laws and taxes that kill the economy, then hands out help to those it has crippled we have to begin to wonder.

Translation: Liberals are parasites who are wrecking our great nation. They must be eliminated.

TPS: I don't like the fact that federal government is basically going to give subsidies for tax-funded abortions in the HealthCare Bill.

Translation: Obama wants to kill babies.

TPS: Profit is a good thing. In fact, it is a very good thing. When you take profit out of the health care equation, companies will cease to be competitive. Without competition, companies will cease to improve. America has the best health care in the world precisely because of profits.

Translation: Greed is good. Private businesses should have a monopoly over health care and get as much money out of people as legally possible. That is "good health care." Europe sucks.

TPS: As a history and economics teacher, I can tell you that never in the history of the world has there ever been price controls that have been successful.

Translation: Because I am a teaching professional, I can talk freely out of my ass and you have to believe everything I say.

TPS: Doctors DO hate [Obama's health care] bill. Doctors already work 55 hour weeks... they aren't going to volunteer to work more for no money. (With taxes, they already do that four months of a year!) ... Without the income to help pay off medical school expenses, there will be fewer students desiring to become doctors. You will be waiting for months to get your studies done or read by a radiologist. My husband is a radiologist and he doesn't know ONE doctor who is for this bill. Since this IS their business, I would think their comments about this should be valued. It's like the astronomist who sees the asteroid coming, and all the lay people say, "Oh, we'll be fine. This is a GOOD thing." What does the astronomist know, afterall?

Translation: Random made-up statistics make me sound credible. The fact that my husband is a medical professional makes me sound credible. Doctors in America are aggrieved souls working under slave conditions for menial wages. If doctors don't continue to earn more than a quarter of a million a year, they will refuse to work, and we won't have any more doctors.

TPS: I [would] rather be screwed by the insurance company then the gov't take over another sector of business. Has no one been to the post office or DMV or better yet a VA hospital - all very depressing.

Translation: Greedy American businesses rule. Europe sucks ass.

TPS: I simply believe in the principles that I speak about. I believe it to be true because I feel it in my gut.

Translation: I don't need to provide any evidence for my claims.

TPS: I will admit that I am a true believer in America. I think it is an honorable country that has made mistakes. I love my country and just want to restore it to its founding principles. It seems like we are trying to be like Europe. I have nothing against Europe but I just want is to return to our roots.

Translation: Europe is for losers.

TPS: The power needs to stay in the hands of the people to prevent abuse. The more industries the gov't snaps up and controls, the greater our loss of freedom will be. Isn't what that we're dying for every day - freedom? At least when you pay someone in the private sector for goods and services, you know you are paying a person like yourself who has to pay a mortgage and put
food on the table. Not so with gov't who's employees are better insulated from the consequences of economic downturns.

Translation: Having a black president makes me feel deeply insecure.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Explaining the Conservative Mind: Are You Born With It?

What determines our political orientation? The question transcends mere party identification. It speaks to our value system and moral compass. It helps us distinguish right from wrong, good from malevolent public policy; it determines the role we believe government has in society, the relationship between ourselves and the state, and to whom we owe our deepest allegiance.

It has a special resonance for me, as someone who was raised conservative but became progressive. The ideological difference between my family and myself is truly remarkable and the distance I have traveled since childhood more remarkable still. The question I am left with is why I and a few other family members made this transition, whereas the rest of my family did not.

In matters of politics and public policy, many ideologies compete for dominance in a democratic system, but there are two broadly-defined political personalities that orient one's thinking on almost every policy issue: conservative (or traditionalist) and liberal (or progressive).

What distinguishes these orientations? Broadly speaking, conservatives value tradition and authority, ingroup loyalty and respect, sanctity and purity; liberals value collective care, equity and fairness. These orientations are supported by distinct belief systems and even moral universes.

UC Berkeley Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science George Lakoff argues in Don't Think of an Elephant that liberal and conservative mindsets are gendered frames. In this formulation, the conservative frame is that of a tough but fair disciplinarian father--punishing those who fail and rewarding those who succeed. By contrast, the liberal frame is that of a nurturing and caring mother who shields all her children from harm. The frames explain why, for instance, conservatives might give more resources to the stronger than the weaker members of society--acting otherwise would skew the moral incentives in society, encouraging sloth and degenerate living. For liberals, on the other hand, the weakest members of society are those who most need a helping hand, so greater resources are directed to the poor and needy so that they have a chance to improve their lot. In this way, society is also made more equitable. Lakoff is quick to note that most people use both frames in their lives, depending on the circumstances. But conservatives emphasize the strict father frame in matters of politics and public policy, whereas liberals draw on the nurturing mother frame.

But what leads some people to gravitate more to the disciplinarian conservative frame than the nurturing liberal frame?

University of Virginia professor of psychology, Jonathan Haidt summarizes the current state of psychological research on the conservative mind:

conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

In this view, the moral system favored by conservatives appeals greatly to people who are fearful of change and prone to authoritarian thinking styles.

So how deep do these personality traits go? A team of scientists from UCLA and NYU published the results of an experiment in Nature Neuroscience showing that self-identified conservative and liberal students displayed different cognitive behavior patterns in computer simulations. Thus, liberal students proved far more sensitive to cues for switching response patterns, whereas conservative students tended to filter out the cues as distracting information. They conclude that the cognitive styles of self-reported conservatives were more "structured and persistent," whereas those of liberals showed "greater tolerance for conflict and ambiguity," suggesting they were "more open to new experiences." Similarly, a 2003 review of psychological research on self-identified conservatives across a number of countries concludes that individuals tend to adopt conservative ideologies "to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity; and to explain, order, and justify inequality among groups and individuals." In short, people who gravitate toward conservative ideologies tend to be psychologically motivated by the need to manage uncertainty and fear.

But why does conservatism tend to run in families? Are some families more fearful than others? If so, is this innate or learned? And which came first--conservatism or the social cognitive need for conservatism?

A fascinating study published in the American Political Science Review in 2005 suggests that, to some extent, conservative and liberal orientations are heritable. The study reported the results of twin studies showing that monozygotic twins (those who share 100 percent of their genetic material) were far more likely to have the same attitudes on a range of political issues than dizygotic twins (those who share 50 percent of their genetic material), controlling for having been raised together or separately and a whole host of other factors.

Still, this does not explain my case. The authors of the 2005 study are clear that genetics only account for a piece of the puzzle, but then what explains the rest? Since both sides of my family are heavily right-wing, it would have to have been some seriously recessive liberal gene. Otherwise, the explanation lies elsewhere.

I find the reearch of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) helpful in this respect. Building on the authoritarian personality thesis, Canadian Psychologist Bob Altemeyer innovated RWA and refined an index to measure it in the 1980s (if you haven't done so, I recommend taking his RWA test). His argument was that conservative is strongly correlated with high scores of RWA, which consists of three broad traits: (1) submissiveness to established authority figures, (2) aggressiveness directed against social deviants, and (3) conformism with accepted traditions and social norms. He cautions that not all those with high RWA scores are conservative and not all conservatives have high RWA scores; moreover, many RWA types are not politically active at all. However, there is a strong correlation between the two.

What I find interesting about his argument is its social learning component. In his extensive testing of university students, he finds that entering university students tend to have higher RWA scores than leaving students, suggesting that exposure to people from diverse backgrounds, grappling with foreign ideas, and being encouraged to think critically tends to reduce conformism and increase social, religious and ideological tolerance toward others.

The upshot is that exposure to foreign people, ideas, attitudes, and philosophies tends to increase one's tolerance for ambiguity and conflict as well as openness to new experience...which in turn correlates with liberal ideologies. Which is exactly my story.

On the downside, Pew Research surveys consistently show that conservatives and religious right-wingers tend to be happier than the rest of us.

Son of a bitch.