Ross Douthat looks to the liberal blogosphere today and examines two perspectives on the source of overheated rhetoric. He compares Paul Krugman’s opinion (“the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time”) to the more pragmatic view of Matt Yglesias (“that we have a kind of furious partisan debate despite the fact that we don’t see large disagreements about the basic principles of welfare state capitalism.”) Douthat comes down on the side of Yglesias:
“All the sound and fury of partisan warfare is just a way to deceive ourselves into thinking there’s something more important at stake in each election than special interests jockeying for control of the fiscal commons. Our debates are so furious, in this reading, because our disagreements aren’t that significant: We rely on apocalyptic rhetoric about socialism and fascism, tyranny and freedom, to persuade ourselves that we’re actors in a world-historical drama, rather than just interest groups feuding over the spoils of governing a prosperous but somewhat decadent republic… most Americans don’t actually disagree strongly about whether we should have a stronger safety net or a more limited government. They think, in a vague and none-too-consistent fashion, that we should have both at once — low taxes and expensive entitlements, subsidies for me but not for thee, a go-go free market when G.D.P. is rising but a protective government ready to save us from our foolishness when the economy goes bad, and so on.”
Douthat goes on to say that the overheated rhetoric is merely an effort by the minorities of each party on the left and the right to convince moderates that much as at stake. By Douthat’s logic, the Republican Party opposes the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wal Street Reform Act mainly because they don’t trust Democrats, but otherwise their policy of choice would be similar. Douthat is right that many Americans want expensive entitlements yet don’t want to pay for them with taxes, but the Republican Party is losing its few remaining moderates minute-by minute. The problem with his analysis is that the policy proposals of the Republican Party consistently call (since the time of Reagan) for the removal the Federal government’s power, in the words of Grover Norquist, “reduc[ing] it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The Tea Party has taken over the Republican Party, and put in power people like Ron Paul who wants to End the Fed, and who now is in charge of oversight of the Fed. Health care did not come down to distinctions about abortion and euthanasia: opponents made it clear from day one that they viewed the act as socialist tyranny. The Republicans simply do not wish to govern from the center.
Which takes us back to the original point. Douthat claims that the overheated rhetoric is simply political football, practiced equally by each side. George Packer makes clear today that in fact one side makes violent rhetoric an art form, a calling card:
“In fact, there is no balance—none whatsoever. Only one side has made the rhetoric of armed revolt against an oppressive tyranny the guiding spirit of its grassroots movement and its midterm campaign. Only one side routinely invokes the Second Amendment as a form of swagger and intimidation, not-so-coyly conflating rights with threats. Only one side’s activists bring guns to democratic political gatherings. Only one side has a popular national TV host who uses his platform to indoctrinate viewers in the conviction that the President is an alien, totalitarian menace to the country. Only one side fills the AM waves with rage and incendiary falsehoods. Only one side has an iconic leader, with a devoted grassroots following, who can’t stop using violent imagery and dividing her countrymen into us and them, real and fake. Any sentient American knows which side that is; to argue otherwise is disingenuous.”
There are distinct differences between the right and the left; the big problems we will face, including Climate Change, long-term entitlement reform, and resource scarcity, will require elected officials on all sides who are willing to work together. Unfortunately, the political dynamite that George Packer describes will prevent much from being accomplished in the next two years. The Republican Party and its Tea Party majority are happy to wait for 2012 and continue their cries of socialist tyranny all the way to Election Day.
David Frum is one of the rare Conservatives that I take at face value, especially after his response to the passage of Health Care, Waterloo:
“We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat. There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible.”
He wrote another recent essay, after the mid-term elections, in which he meditated on the lessons that Conservatives have failed to learn:
“The U.S. political system is not a parliamentary system. Power is usually divided. The system is sustained by habits of cooperation, accepted limits on the use of power, implicit restraints on the use of rhetoric. In recent years, however, those restraints have faded and the system has delivered one failure after another, from the intelligence failures detailed in the 9/11 report to the stimulus that failed to adequately reduce unemployment, through frustrating wars and a financial crash. The message we hear from some Republicans — “this is no time for compromise” — threatens to extend the failures of governance for at least two more years. These failures serve nobody’s interest, and the national interest least of all.”
Yesterday, President Obama forged a compromise with the GOP on tax policy which extends all Bush era tax rates for two years, but also extends unemployment benefits, adds a temporary payroll tax cut to help the working class and continues tax breaks for parents and students. He gave up on a promise to end the tax cuts for the richest Americans, in return for gains aimed at the Middle Class. This is, according to observers, “messy, combustible and painful” bipartisanship, President Obama plunging “headlong into the political calculus known as triangulation.” What can we make of this? What does it portend for the future?
Certainly, the President recognizes that the 2012 election is not going to be won through obstructionism and ideological purity, but rather through compromise and policy. David Frum also recognizes this, and is trying to push the GOP to remove themselves from their closed information systems (FOX), appreciate the power of government safety nets like social security, and move from obstructionism towards clear policy and compromise:
“If Republicans reject Obama-style fiscal stimulus, what do they advocate instead? A monetarist might recommend more money creation, even at the risk of inflation: “quantitative easing,” as it’s called. Yet leading voices in the Republican Party have convinced themselves that the country is on the verge of hyperinflation — a Weimar moment, says Glenn Beck. But if fiscal stimulus leads to socialism, and quantitative easing leads to Nazism, what on earth are we supposed to do? Cut the budget? But we won’t do that either! On Sean Hannity’s radio show, the Republican House leader John Boehner announced just before the election that one of his first priorities would be the repeal of the Obama Medicare cuts.”
How much will the GOP work with the President and Democrats during the next two years, leading up to the Election? The President campaigned as someone who could cut through the old ways of Washington, and work with Republicans. However for the last two years, as Frum wrote, Republicans “would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles.” This tax policy is a compromise won by the White House, and a departure point for both parties going forward.
The Tea Party base of the party demands strict ideological purity, but Independents want the parties to work together. The 2012 Presidential election will partly come down to how successful each party is in reaching those Independents. Will the President be able to channel Bill Clinton and win a resounding re-election victory? The pace of the economic recovery will play a big role in that, but so will the level of leadership that comes from the White House.
On the cover of Eaarth, Barbera Kingsolver writes that the reader should read through to the end, that “whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.” One of my classmates advised me not to pick it up until after our Fall trimester is over next month. With what I know of Bill McKibben an his 350.org campaign, I figured this would be a depressing read. McKibben confronts the fact that we very likely live on a planet different than the one that human civilization prospered on:
“The Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth… This is one of those rare moments, the start of a change far larger and more thoroughgoing than anything we can read in the records of man, on par with the biggest dangers we can read in the records of rock and ice.”
McKibben offers plenty of quantitative and qualitative evidence describing our new home, but this is not a dense tract; in fact, it is refreshing in its readability. I read it over a week before bed, and found his writing to be concise and clear. While the subject, our future on this rock he now calls Eaarth, is a serious and grim, McKibben offers some great recommendations for how we can live on the new planet. He singles out growth as enemy number one, along the lines of ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Constanza. McKibben doesn’t think that an ecological New Deal, as recommended by Thomas Friedman and others, will be able to prevent the planet from continuing to change:
“The next decade will see huge increases in renewable power; we’ll adopt electric cars faster than most analysts imagine. Windmills will sprout across the prairies. It will be exciting. But its not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I don’t think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion; I think the system has met its match. We no longer possess the margin we’d require for another huge leap forward, certainly not fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on.”
McKibben recommends some words that encompass the future we will need to live on our new planet: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, and robust. McKibben argues for smallness instead of bigness, smaller national purposes:
“So the first point is simple: the size of your institutions and your government should be determined by the size of your project. The second point is more subtle: The project we’re now undertaking – maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding on against the storm – requires a different scale. Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighborhoods, about blocks.”
At times like this one, McKibben sounds closer to the Tea Party than the modern environmental movement with his talk of small government. The one distinction, of course, is that the Tea Party supporters largely deny climate science; they believe growth can save us again and again, with the planet providing no inherent limits.
McKibben calls for communities to get closer together, to develop local solutions for energy and food. “If the eaarth is going to support restaurants, they’ll need to look like the Farmers Diner” (in Quechee, Vermont, a favorite destination of m wife and I). McKibben doesn’t just recommend local commerce, but sharing and connecting with neighbors, a lost tradition. Eaarth is a useful book for this moment, because it appears that a price on carbon will not be set anytime soon.
Along the same lines, in a different vein, the upcoming documentary Carbon Nation, which I recently watched, offers useful solutions for tackling our problems with carbon, in a slightly more optimistic manner. Peter Byck‘s new film has an intriguing tagline: A Climate Change Solutions Movie (That Doesn’t Even Care If You Believe in Climate Change). The argument is simple: there are actions that we can all take, that are already being taken, that can begin to solve the problem’s we face. The film’s argument makes financial sense; in fact the clip above is representative of the film in general, optimistic, aimed at an audience that includes conservatives. One of my professors, a rock ribbed New Hampshire conservative, thinks the film will be generally successful in communicating to conservatives. Carbon Nation offers some solutions that we would be wise to listen to. Even the Shell representative who appears in the film says that a price on carbon is crucial to our future. However, the film discusses issues that range from traditional alternative energy, to biofuel, soil conservation and cover crops.
Carbon Nation premiere’s in New York in January, but screenings are occurring now across the country at conferences. Eaarth is out now. Both offer pragmatic, cohesive solutions about the reality we face, and the steps we must take to survive on this planet.
This Saturday, reasonable Americans will be gathering on the Washington Mall, and In A Future Age will be onhand to document the sanity.
In the midst of all the political vitriol, hypocrisy, and insanity being expressed on the campaign trail, it is important to document the reasonable among us.
After all, no one really bats an eye when reasonable people open their mouth. People pay attention when crazy people bring up crazy solutions.
If we are going to find solutions to entitlement reform, climate change, and other complex, divisive issues, we are going to need all the reasonable people we can get.
Those who give out ideological purity tests are not reasonable.
Those that do not try to understand science, but instead adopt the ‘scientific’ views of their favorite radio jock are not reasonable.
Those who have been unable to compromise, especially when their country needs them to, and then have the audacity to claim that they will do so in the future are unreasonable, until proven otherwise.
Those that would rather sit on their hands then move one inch from their ideological platform, because they hold a minority and believe that is the only way to gain political power are unreasonable.
As a society, we need to elect reasonable people – people who will be friends and make deals with people they disagree with, in order to find solutions. We used to have a lot of reasonable people in Washington. In fact, there are still a few, like Orin Hatch, Barack Obama, and Russ Feingold. However, weight of this political moment is on those who represent the extreme, who will not compromise. Unfortunately, that will not get us anywhere.
In Washington on Saturday, we reasonable people will gather. We will act reasonably. I’ll be back next week with photos and an account of the event. Washington D.C., here I come.
Today, along with Buddy Cianci, Senator Whitehouse, Senator Reed, Representative Langevin, Mayor Cicilline, and every other biwig in the State of Rhode Island, I attended Bristol, RI’s 225th annual Independence Day Parade. I arrived over three hours before the parade started, and the sense of community was everywhere – really buzzing. In addition to awesome Drum and Bugle Corps and marching bands from across the country (as far away as Minnesota and Texas) there was lots of local fife and drum groups, dressed up in their colonial best, with tricorn hats included. For the past year, these hats have been featured in divisive, discordant, and sometimes racist Tea Party rallies, featuring grown men screaming at the top of their lungs about language in a bill (spitting, too). However, today the tricorn was reclaimed for positive community vibes. Bravo, Bristol.
If there is one thing that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on, many were happy on Tuesday to see Republican turned Democrat ousted by former Navy Admiral Joe Sestak in the Pennsylvania Senate Primary. Folks of Generation Y vintage may be too young to remember Specter’s grilling of Anita Hill during the Confirmation Hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Well, the video above only gets more disgusting with age. Good riddance, Arlen.
However, that was not the only surprise during the Tuesday elections. In PA-12, the Democrats surprisingly held on to the seat of stalwart John Murtha, who died earlier this year. The race between (D) Rep. Mark Critz and Tim Burns was a precursor to a rematch this fall. The Democrats showed here that they are tactically superior to Republicans, and that they are the big tent party, as Critz opposed health care reform.
In Kentucky, Tea Party darling Rand Paul defeated Secretary of State Tim Grayson, the candidate selected by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to replace Jim Bunning. McConnell favored Grayson, a former Bill Clinton staffer and supporter, because he fit within the box that the GOP would like to paint its candidates to appeal to the great center. Rand Paul, the libertarian financed by supporters of his father, Ron Paul, is beholden to no political hack (at least not a GOP one). His views definitely fit outside the box, however. He favors the elimination of the Department of Education and farm subsidies, for starters. He thinks businesses should be allowed to discriminate those who they serve, and that Medicare’s eligibility and benefits should be diminished. Those positions all appeal to certain segments of society, but more importantly they do not appeal to the constituencies and interests that decide national elections. While he hopes to pull Democrats onto his side in the fall, Joshua Green points out that the Tea Party support was overblown by FOX News, and may not have registered as much to actual Kentucky voters:
“There was certainly activity geared toward the GOP primary. But the Rand Paul rallies I attended in mid-sized cities like Paducah and Bowling Green drew crowds of only a hundred so, and they were far more subdued than the angry Tea Party masses portrayed on cable television. Grayson’s crowds were even smaller. What was most notable about a race that was captivating the national media was how little it seemed to penetrate the consciousness of most Kentuckians. It was a big a deal only to a small group of energized Republicans. But more Democrats voted (about 500,000) than Republicans (350,000).”
Looking closer to home, where I live in the Ocean State, local Tea Party leaders are now at odds with would be-environmentalist Republican Governor Don Carcieri. They oppose the wind farms planned for the coastal waters off of Rhode Island, despite a personal plea in a private meeting. Apparently, they prefer the daily deployment of the fleet of diesel trucks that now light up the generator on Block Island. This conflict is symbolic of the inability of the GOP to harness the wild energy of the Tea Party movement, and the inability of Tea Party members to appeal to moderates.
UPDATE (5/24): Michael Steele, embattered head of the RNC, came out on Sunday against Rand Paul’s libertarian views on Civil Rights:
“I think his philosophy is misplaced in these times,” said Steele during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” “I don’t think it’s where the country is right now. The country litigated the issue of separate but equal, the country litigated the rights of minority people in this country to access the enterprise, free enterprise system, and accommodation and all of that. And that was crystallized in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of ’64. And I think that the party stands very firmly behind its efforts then as we do now, to press forward on new civil rights issues… But I think in this case, Rand Paul’s philosophy got in the way of reality.”
In a separate appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” Steele said: “I think it’s important to understand that Rand Paul has clarified his statement and reiterated his support for…pushing civil rights forward, as opposed to going backwards. Any attempt to look backwards is not in the best interest of our country certainly, and certainly not in the best interest of the party.”
At the same time, Sarah Palin made the point that Rachael Maddow was prejudiced for asking the question of Rand Paul in the first place. I suppose, in Palin’s world, if only pre-scripted FOX News journalists existed, then she would be Vice-President.
In 1997 I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, attending an event by the campus Young Democrats, in which Bill Lockyer was the speaker. Lockyer, the current State Treasurer of California, was back then a stalwart in the California Legislature, serving as Senate President pro Tempore. 1997 was of course during the messy end of the Clinton Presidency, when his triangulation conflated with the burgeoning sex scandals to dim even the most optimistic young liberal. Naively, I asked Lockyer, why don’t we enact Proportional Representation?
Like many before, I thought that a Third Party could somehow get beyond the ideological gridlock to get work done. Of course, Lockyer laughed at my question. At least that is how I remember it. After the 2000 election, when a few Nader votes in Florida swung the election to George W. Bush, my view of third party candidates shifted. They were certainly effective in swinging elections, and elevating issues, but had little hope of governance.
Yesterday in Providence Joe Scarborough, the Conservative MSNBC commentator and former Representative, said before a convention crowd that the two party system was dying, and that a third party candidate would inevitably win election as President. I don’t discount the possibility that one day a Third Party might eventually win the Presidency, but I find it hard to believe that our two party system is facing imminent demise. A look at the current phenomenon of the Tea Party is instructive.
On one hand, Tea Party supporters are creating a “Contract From America” which aims to improve on the 1990s Republican document by avoiding divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage. The Tea Party wants to limit its focus to the role of the Federal government and tax policy, where it believes it can gain more supporters.
On the other hand, it was reported today in Politico that Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, and wealthy Republican donors are working to create a “vast network” modeled on successful Democratic groups like MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress, to take back the White House and Congress. Republicans are working to try to harness the energy of the Tea Party, and focus it behind Republican candidates.
Republicans, however, face a messaging dilemma: their most ardent supporters “want Congress to repeal the healthcare overhaul, aren’t convinced that climate change is happening, and don’t think illegal immigrants should have a way to become citizens or that President Barack Obama has improved the United States’ global standing – all stances that put them at odds with the majority of voters,” based on a recent survey by Resurgent Republic, one of the groups created by Gillespie.
Those core voters are working to create purity tests, and call Republicans like Lindsay Graham RhINOs (Republicans In Name Only). Rush Limbaugh raised the possibility this week that the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is actually an environmental conspiracy. He said on his radio program that:
“lest we forget, ladies and gentlemen, the carbon tax bill, cap and trade that was scheduled to be announced on Earth Day. I remember that. And then it was postponed for a couple of days later after Earth Day, and then of course immigration has now moved in front of it. But this bill, the cap-and-trade bill, was strongly criticized by hardcore environmentalist wackos because it supposedly allowed more offshore drilling and nuclear plants, nuclear plant investment. So, since they’re sending SWAT teams down there, folks, since they’re sending SWAT teams to inspect the other rigs, what better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I’m just noting the timing here.”
Of course, Rush is just “noting the timing.” That being said, when the resurgent Tea Party avidly supports Rush and Glen Beck, it is difficult to imagine that they would be able to even come close to the watershed Third Party moment of 1992, the candidacy of Ross Perot. Ron Rappaport, who co-authored a book on the Perot movement, compared a recent survey of Tea Party supporters with Perot supporters and observed:
“The major difference is that Perot movement was a total rejection of both parties, while the tea party movement is a total rejection of only one party–the Democrats. Whereas only 5% of tea party supporters said that they usually or always voted Democratic, fully one-third of Perot supporters had voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 and slightly more had voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988.”
Nate Silver, who interviewed Rappaport, concludes that “if [the Tea Party] is a danger or threat to the Republican Party it is thus a danger from within, not without. And if it is a threat to the Democratic Party it is because it readily mobilizes voters who ultimately are going to vote for Republicans (or more accurately, against Democrats), not third-party candidates.”
So, based on what I see, it is difficult to imagine the Tea Party becoming a successful third party. The only chance that a third party would have to prosper would be if election rules were amended to include Proportional Representation. In that system, legislative assemblies are apportioned based on the percentage of votes for a particular political party. There are various types of PR, and the system is used in countries like Germany, Israel, Brazil, and Ireland. In many of those governments, third parties create coalitions with more dominant parties to form governing blocks. Like Bill Lockyer told me years ago, neither of our two parties is likely to make a change like this, because it would be against their self-interest.
What about voter reform, in the state where voters have a vehicle for radical reform? Proposition 14, a June ballot measure in California, would reform Primary Elections in the State by enabling only voters to nominate candidates for the primary, and pitting the top-two voter getters of that combined primary in the November election. This measure, similar to Proposition 62, which was defeated 54-46% by California voters in 2004, would aim to elect more moderate politicians to the State Legislature. Opponents of the Proposition argue that the measure will actually reduce the influence of third parties by raising thresholds to qualify for the ballot, and creating a November election in which only the two dominant parties will have a voice. While gerrymandered districts and party extremes frustrate Californians, Proposition 14 will not create conditions for change.
The other potential for a third party would of course come if one of our existing parties were to disband or die off. The Republicans are not going out of their way to embrace the growing Hispanic vote. They will eventually need to moderate the views that their core voters hold on Global Warming and immigration if the party is to grow its base. However, there is plenty of money invested in our current system, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
In the end, the Republican Party will do enough to survive; along with it, so will our two-party system. The only real hope of a third party is if an issue becomes an intractable problem that paralyzes the two parties and threatens the future of our country, in the eyes of voters of all stripes. As voters showed recently in Arizona, an intractable problem can produce unprediictable results if left unaddressed.
UPDATE: The Maine Tea Party just rewrote the GOP platform. Looks like they really want to co-opt the GOP. In the words of the FrumForum, the inmates are now running the asylum:
“delegates attending the Maine Republican party convention voted “overwhelmingly” to rewrite much of the party platform to reflect their less than mainstream views. The new Maine GOP platform now calls for, among other things, getting rid of the Department of Education, and the Federal Reserve. It also rails against “the UN Treaty of Child Rights” and “Law of Sea Treaty” on the grounds that we must push back against “efforts to create a one world government.” The tea partiers also took the opportunity to call for an investigation of (this is an actual quote) the “collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth.” Also, we’ve adopted Austrian economics… whatever that means. It’s hard to even know where to begin. On one hand, it is not exactly new news that Tea Party people have some unconventional views. What is news is that Tea Party values are imposing themselves on mainstream Republican party values. Up until now, the primary question for mainstream Republicans is whether the Tea Party would break off from the Republican Party and form their own movement. The events in Maine raise the possibility that the Tea Party is looking to ideologically transform the GOP to reflect their (gulp) “unconventional” ideas.”