Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Change and Reaction

Much has been written about how the Republican Party has moved ever further to the Right. Even Bob Dole just said his party, the same party that nominated him to be their presidential candidate, "needs to be closed for repairs."  It is clear that the party's pols and operatives have become stridently right-wing; to call them mere conservative no longer seems sufficient. Moderates, which once dominated the party, no longer feel welcome. Republican primaries have become a testing ground to see who can appear more strident and uncompromising, a chance to swagger and sneer at people not like themselves. On this see Mike Lofgren's The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted (2012).

On a deeper level, not much has changed. Conservative politics has always had, and appealed to, far-right elements. Circumstances in recent years, and that certainly includes the election of President Obama, have merely aggravated an attitude that has always there, never hidden for long. On the varying but ever-present influence of America's deeply anti-democratic and intolerant right wing, see  Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (2012); Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: the Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008); and The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right, by Arthur Goldwag (2012).

For generations, indeed from the earliest days of the republic, the American Right generally had its way on the issues that gnaw at the authoritarian personality; and they weren't the national debt, tax rates, or regulations. There is resistance on those issues, to be sure, though primarily from Wall Street and the investor class. What really galls middle America's true reactionaries are the range of social changes that have allowed various people not accustomed to fair treatment --women, blacks, Hispanics, gays and more more-- to a more equitable share not only of the American Dream in some abstract sense, but of the right to visible public space, public office, and public prominence, whether it be as a priest, a CEO, a teacher, or the American President.

The American Right has always promoted an inequitable, unfair, and discriminatory creed, with select white males on top. And that meant if you could not be a corporate big shot, at least you were in charge of something; a small business, your church's policies, or the pecking order at your favorite bar. And failing that, you were master of your home and everyone in it had better know their place.

Reactionism at its core is an ideology of hierarchy, privilege, obeisance towards authority and established order, and, it must be noted, condemnation and violence to those who challenge it. It is, as I have noted earlier, the social economics of the Old South, a plantation mentality that has defined Dixie from colonial times. The Right is currently reacting, as it always has, to changes in society that offend its moral code, e.g., too many people, other people, are getting and becoming something they don't deserve. And they, meaning liberals and Democrats, are doing it with the wrong-headed and corrupting influence of government, mostly at the federal level.  
The current response of the Republican Party was predictable. The moral issues that animate the deeply conservative, whether it be the politicians or their voter base, have not changed much. The difference is that they see their world slipping away from them. As they confront the reality of say, a black president or gay marriage, they react once again with fear and loathing. Their forbears of just a few decades ago enjoyed the wholesale discrimination of women and minorities. Gays were brutalized and Jim Crow ruled throughout much of rural and small-town America. Republicans didn't need to scream and threaten. Even when they were in the congressional minority, their world seemed intact.  

That world is ending and Republicans are not handling it well.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Presidential Limits

It is difficult to overstate the steaming shit pile that was handed to Barack Obama on his first day of office. Those who choose to ridicule the President for pointing this out have forgotten the "yeah, that's right," chorus line that Republicans sang so heartily when Reagan took office and how he would fix all the terrible things Carter had done. They, and Reagan, knew what they were doing; every positive snippet of news was to accrue to Ronnie; any bad news was obviously the legacy of his Democratic predecessor.

Don't let your brain take the lazy way out on this. Don't say both parties do it and leave it at that. Both parties throw blame at their opponents, to be sure. but it is an insipid and unhelpful observation. Let's not forget that the federal budget deficit, the national debt, and the trade imbalance were all relatively modest when Reagan took office. Our infrastructure at that time was viewed around the world as excellent, and manufacturing played a proportionately far larger role. We had the world's largest current account surplus when Carter left office. When Reagan left, we had the world's largest deficit.

The point here is not to claim that Carter did such a wonderful job. But we must remind ourselves how much this country, and this economy, have changed in recent decades. When President Obama took the oath of office in a ceremony that Chief Justice Roberts screwed up, he faced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. He also inherited two long and costly wars that served little purpose except to get men killed and enrich defense contractors, as war always does.

But even if you support(ed) the war(s), and choose to not blame Bush (or Cheney), the point remains that the US fought those wars without paying for them. That much is indisputable. Instead, the horrendous costs, separate and addition to the Defense Department's already mammoth budget, were added to our federal debt. That was George Bush's decision, not Obama's.

And need I remind anyone that those wars came after Bush passed his huge tax cuts for the wealthy, thereby giving back the budget surplus carefully built up during the Clinton era when tax rates and economic growth were both higher.

The real point here is the severe constraints Barack Obama faced when he took office, many of which John McCain would have also faced had he won. Taxes, primarily for the rich, had been reduced so much early in Bush's tenure that it has become arithmetically impossible to meet our relatively modest social spending needs, our huge military appetite, our substantial and neglected national infrastructure, and also balance the budget. And this is on top of a massive trade deficit, a declining manufacturing base, and most jarringly, the fallout from Wall Street's casino capitalism.

I have posted before on the overwhelming challenges Obama faced on inauguration day, challenges that would be huge even if Congress decided to, you know, work together and solve some problems. Unfortunately, President Obama has had to face an additional challenge that a President McCain would surely not have--unprecedented obstructionism. Along the way, Americans have come to learn, to their disgust or delight, the surprising flaws of our federal government and how determined ideologues can lay bare the constitutional limitations of the executive branch.

Republicans control only the House; Democrats control the Senate, despite all appearances, and, of course, the White House. And yet Dems in the House are helpless to stop the unending stream of bills that Tea Party reactionaries promote.  Well, you might say, Republicans control the House, so it figures they would dominate legislation. In the Senate, however, Democrats are in a clear majority, but it usually makes little difference because of the Senate's self-imposed 60 vote supermajority "requirement."

Thus, even flaccid and feeble legislation, mere tweaking, has little chance of being enacted. Anything that does pass is so watered down as to be useless. And that is not because most members of Congress, or even all Republicans always want to oppose the President; it is sufficient that only a determined minority, the Tea Partiers of the House and Senate, choose to obstruct, as they so often have. Let me put it this way: the seemingly intractable John Boehner would not be making those asinine, vapid, and breathtakingly stupid comments on economic policy if teabaggers in his party did not have such a tight grip on his nuts.

Historians are at pains to find a period when the flaws of the federal government were so transparent. Parliamentary governments around the world are taken back by the inability of America's two-party presidential system of government to tackle the most basic tasks, such as properly regulated banks, appropriate tax revenues, a modern infrastructure, and demographic well-being, such as on health care, child mortality, and housing. All of these are becoming a national embarrassment, instead of world-leading, as they once were.

We are now seeing with increasing frequency that even legislation large majorities of Americans want, such as background checks on gun purchases, cannot get passed. There are just enough Republican reactionaries in the House, sometimes helped out by pandering Democrats in the Senate (I'm looking at you, Max Baucus), to derail even the most popular legislation. This can happen, mind you, even when a majority of both houses of Congress and the president favor such legislation. This is not majority rule, it is not even checks and balances as the founding fathers envisioned. It is the tyranny of an ideologically-driven minority.

This is new territory for America.