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I would like to point out two articles I read recently that perfectly sum up the state of the national circus known as our political process, and those individuals who may be gumming up the works. One of the articles is as short as the other is (moderately) long, and one is as partisan as the other is (mostly) decidedly not.

First, the former, which is an essay by Mark Warren, writing for Esquire magazine, on the mostly self-induced situation our leaders on the right find themselves in:

The energetic right wing of this new Jacobin Republican party (which has swallowed the party whole) lately has been going through a purification ritual, turning on conservative stalwarts deemed insufficiently radical. In this atmosphere, merely participating in the essential acts of democracy — negotiation, compromise, legislating — becomes suspect. Worse, and perhaps the root of this phenomenon, is the party’s now decades-long habit of trying to win elections not on the basis of its governing strategy or vision for the country but rather on scandal-mongering and defamation, the two biggest targets being Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the Republican House, and Barack Obama, whom a majority of Republicans, according to some polls, consider to be an illegitimate president because they believe he was born in Kenya.

There are obvious problems with pursuing scorched earth as a long-term strategy. First, movement conservatives have become so ill-equipped to govern that when they do win elections (as with the Gingrich revolution of 1994), they don’t know what they are doing; second, and more important, what started as a tactic to win elections became, over time, a literal belief in the actual evil of their opponents. The party’s committed constituencies became conditioned to ascribing the very worst motives to people who in saner times would merely have been their political opponents. A poll conducted in the spring found that 20 percent of Republicans believe Obama could be the actual Antichrist.

If there is an error in Warren’s argument, it’s that he indicts all Republicans without specifically naming who he’s talking about, like Tea Party Republicans or the Republican Congressional leadership. But that is perhaps only a vagary of journalism or an issue of semantics. No one is claiming that every single last person in the Republican Party thinks or behaves this way. The people he’s talking about are the people he’s talking about. Res ipsa loquitur.

(Personally, I would very much like to hear the well-crafted, intelligently thought-out counterargument to Warren’s piece, and by counterargument I do not mean a similar ad hominem indictment of the Democrats.)

The latter article is by Peter Beinart, writing for the Daily Beast, and though titled “The Rise of the New Left,” it is more an assessment of the current transformations undergone by both parties and put in a historical context than it is a promotion of the left wing or a treatise on liberal values.

Maybe Bill de Blasio got lucky. Maybe he only won because he cut a sweet ad featuring his biracial son. Or because his rivals were either spectacularly boring, spectacularly pathological, or running for Michael Bloomberg’s fourth term. But I don’t think so. The deeper you look, the stronger the evidence that de Blasio’s victory is an omen of what may become the defining story of America’s next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left. It’s a challenge Hillary Clinton should start worrying about now.

To understand why that challenge may prove so destabilizing, start with this core truth: For the past two decades, American politics has been largely a contest between Reaganism and Clintonism. In 1981, Ronald Reagan shattered decades of New Deal consensus by seeking to radically scale back government’s role in the economy. In 1993, Bill Clinton brought the Democrats back to power by accepting that they must live in the world Reagan had made. Located somewhere between Reagan’s anti-government conservatism and the pro-government liberalism that preceded it, Clinton articulated an ideological “third way”: Inclined toward market solutions, not government bureaucracy, focused on economic growth, not economic redistribution, and dedicated to equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, government spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product was lower than it had been when Reagan left office. 

For a time, small flocks of pre-Reagan Republicans and pre-Clinton Democrats endured, unaware that their species were marked for extinction. Hard as they tried, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole could never muster much rage against the welfare state. Ted Kennedy never understood why Democrats should declare the era of big government over. But over time, the older generation in both parties passed from the scene and the younger politicians who took their place could scarcely conceive of a Republican Party that did not bear Reagan’s stamp or a Democratic Party that did not bear Clinton’s. These Republican children of Reagan and Democratic children of Clinton comprise America’s reigning political generation.

It provides some enlightening answers to the questions of where we are going and where we have been – worth a read.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

“I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.

– Pope Francis (emphasis mine), in an interview with the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.

Res ipsa loquitur…

Much has been made about how this doesn’t actually change any doctrine, but the shift in tone and priorities is seismic, incredible, undeniable, and profoundly awe-inspiring.  He has also done something previously thought impossible: made me a fan and admirer of a (the) leader of the Catholic church.

It is not often these days that I am amble to write about something that excites me – that is, something that excites me in a positive way. Fortunately, I have been moved to do so of late, and have picked up the metaphorical blogging pen, after an extended summer hiatus, for want of one particular issue.

Is it the conflict in Syria, an example of grotesque human cruelty? No. I am immensely skeptical of the effort on our (America’s) part to intervene, and I am equally skeptical of any argument invoking a moral imperative. But I am even more skeptical of my own ability to understand the situation fully. Though certainly important and of-the-moment, foreign policy and particularly the Middle East has never been my area of knowledge or interest. I am more interested in the war at home, in which a significant blow was struck for the good guys recently, a blow I sincerely hope is the beginning of a very long-overdue reformation that will correct a glaring error and gross injustice in our legal system, and in so doing be remembered as a turning of the punitive tide in the war on drugs.

I am speaking, of course, about mandatory minimums.

The Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday, noting the nation is “coldly efficient in jailing criminals,” but that it “cannot prosecute or incarcerate” its way to becoming safer.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder told the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco.

-From CNN.com, August 12, 2013

Everyone who pays attention to the news has heard already that Attorney General Eric Holder has instituted new Justice Department policy that takes a much more nuanced step on crime and punishment than mandatory minimums are designed to allow.

One of the most Draconian tools implemented in the colossal waste of time, energy, money, and humanity known collectively as the War on Drugs has been the mandatory minimum sentencing laws passed by Congress in the late 80’s. Short of repealing the laws, the act of correcting them and, frankly, stripping them of many provisions, would be a quantum leap toward putting the “justice” back in Justice System. (If, perhaps, you haven’t seen a crime/law/drug war documentary in the past couple decades and you need a refresher on the horrifying punishments born of the mandatory minimum era, go here.)

This would all be one thing if the MM laws were shown to produce a precipitous drop in the crime rate that is in any way close to a correlating with the social, economic, and human burden born by the rest of us.  That would still be very troubling, but perhaps stomach-able (though I wouldn’t bet the farm). But, lo and behold, like its progenitor the Drug War, it has been ineffective at producing results.

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In this past 2012 election, we North Carolina voters finished giving the entire state government to Republicans – and not the moderate, “business-minded” Republicans North Carolinians are accustomed to, but the same far-right social conservatives who are plaguing the rest of the country – as we had begun to do in the Tea Party wave of 2010, shepherded along as we were by the massive amounts of money from conservative leader and corrupting influence Art Pope (a subject I have written about previously here, among other places). Apparently aware that their extremely conservative proposals are likely to precipitate an imminent backlash from historically moderate and increasingly young and progressive NC voters, Republicans in the statehouse have tried to cram in as many bedrock-conservative agenda items as possible as quickly as possible, and in so doing destroy some of the best things about North Carolina.

From an expansive and enlightening article from Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis, writing for The American Prospect:

Recognizing that this conservative moment might not last long, Republican legislators are moving swiftly. Despite the headlines, the most notorious bills—like the resolution to establish a state religion or the measure to outlaw public nipple displays—have been nonstarters. But the core of Pope’s agenda is going ahead. Every lawmaker in North Carolina knows that agenda: Scale back taxes, especially for businesses and the wealthy; slice away at the social safety net; and reverse the state’s focus on public schools as an engine for social and economic progress.

In February, lawmakers decreased maximum weekly unemployment benefits from $535 to $350 and shortened the period in which workers can receive them—an especially harsh measure given that unemployment in North Carolina is the nation’s fifth highest at 9.2 percent. North Carolina is one of 15 states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a move that would have covered about 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians with the federal government picking up the tab. Now Governor McCrory is pushing to privatize management of the state Medicaid program, which would funnel North Carolina tax dollars to out-of-state managed-care companies while raising costs and reducing access to care.

Taxes became more regressive when lawmakers voted to end the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which was claimed in 2011 by more than 900,000 low-income, working North Carolinians. Senate Republicans are now considering a bill to cut the state’s corporate income tax from the highest to the lowest in the Southeast, which would be low indeed. It could have been worse. An earlier Senate plan, promoted by Pope’s Civitas Institute, would have abolished corporate and personal income taxes altogether, replacing them with a higher sales tax—the most regressive form of taxation. Even Pope shot down that idea, saying sales-tax increases would “hurt the economy.” (They would definitely have affected sales in his retail chain.)

Republicans have also set their sights on gutting environmental laws, proposing to repeal the state’s renewable-energy standard, speed the way for fracking, and allow offshore drilling for oil and gas. The party is also taking aim at the historic centerpiece of North Carolina progressivism: public education, which has long been a target of Pope’s network. Last session, cuts to schools eliminated more than 4,300 teaching jobs. This time, one Republican bill would shift $90 million of public-school funding to private schools through vouchers. Another would eliminate teacher tenure. A proposal to shutter at least one UNC campus is on hold, following a public outcry.

We gave them the state, and this is what they are doing with it. Perhaps the most tragic effort is what they are trying to do to North Carolina’s exemplary voting procedures, which had “become a national model for clean elections and expanded turnout, thanks to reforms like early voting, same-day registration, and public financing of some races.” Because of the advantage the expanded turnout gave to Democrats in 2008, Bill Cook of the state senate – under the influence of Art Pope – has proposed the following:

So the senator introduced a strict measure to require government–issued photo ID at the polls, slash the number of early-voting days, eliminate same-day registration during early voting, and delay by five years the time it takes for former felons to regain their voting rights. None of these proposals is original; they’re the same voter-suppression measures floated in recent years by Republican legislators from Wisconsin to Georgia. But then Cook got creative. He co-sponsored Senate Bills 666 and 667, both of which would ban parents from claiming their college children as dependents on their state taxes if those children vote on campus (as most students do). Then he filed Senate Bill 668, prohibiting the “mentally incompetent” from voting. Why? Because, as Cook told The Charlotte Observer, he had once seen such a person be “manipulated” at the polls.

If you live in North Carolina you should definitely read the entire article.

An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated.”

– A quote from American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair, soon to be gracing the surface of the country’s first public atheist monument, which is about to be erected in the small community of Starke, Florida, in reaction to a longstanding controversy regarding a Ten Commandments monument that was set up outside the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke last year. The organization American Atheists sued to have the Ten Commandments removed, and and the atheist monument is being erected as part of a settlement.

Though dueling monuments isn’t exactly the least ridiculous result that could have come of this, I agree with Ken Loukinen, the director of regional operations for American Atheists, that, “We’d rather there be no monuments at all, but if they are allowed to have the Ten Commandments, we will have our own.” It is a small step forward. A threshold has been breached, a barrier has been broken, a modicum of progress has been made toward a just and balanced society where state is actually free of church. Though I’m certainly not anti-religion, personally, separation of church and state – complete separation – is one of the most important issues facing us today, and, well, separation is getting its ass kicked.

To further extrapolate on the previous two posts, the Obama administration is indeed responsible for broad failures related to the current scandals in its inability to reform government in the way he promised, and act on some of his campaign principles. Obama’s culpability here, though, is in a more abstract, ideological sense, a failure of principle, rather than specific wrongdoing, negligence, or conspiracy on the part of the administration as relates to Benghazi, the IRS, or the Justice Department. From a post by Dan Balz:

[Obama] then described what that meant for the government he was beginning to assemble [in 2009]. “What we don’t know yet is whether my administration and this next generation of leadership is going to be able to hew to a new, more pragmatic approach that is less interested in whether we have big government or small government [but is] more interested in whether we have a smart, effective government.”

What has happened since Obama laid down that challenge for his administration? More Americans favor smaller government over bigger government than when he was first elected, according to exit polls from last November. Public confidence in the federal government is as low as it has ever been, according to a Pew Research Center survey released this spring.

This weekend, four of the government’s biggest agencies are beset by political controversy, management breakdowns or both: State (what happened in Benghazi), Treasury (targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service), Justice (leak-related investigationof the Association Press) and Defense (rising numbers of sexual assaults). Add to that the questions about Health and Human Services and its implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and it is little wonder confidence has eroded.

There are many reasons for the public’s diminished confidence in the federal government, reflecting general disapproval with the way Washington has worked during the Obama years. The president’s advisers blame Republicans for much of the gridlock and partisan infighting, and they are quick to note that Obama’s approval ratings are far higher than those of the Republicans.

Republicans do bear a considerable share of the responsibility for overall attitudes about Washington and government. Their dismal ratings are a measure of public dissatisfaction with the party generally and with House Republican efforts to thwart the president. But Obama bears a particular responsibility for failing to do what he said he had to do, which was to persuade the public that he could make the part of government that he directly controls — the executive branch — smarter, more effective and more deserving of trust.

[A concerned reader – who is also a close relative of mine – emailed me regarding my last post, about the  vacant, ephemeral nature of the recent scandals, and the Ezra Klein article I used to support my assertions. In the email he expressed some doubt as to the veracity of Klein’s claims (I believe the phrase used was “full of shit”), and made it clear that it was crazy to claim there had been no wrongdoing in any of these instances. The email got me thinking and made me want to better clarify the original post, in something like an addendum.]

In my previous post, I definitely didn’t mean to imply that there was no wrongdoing at all – there were some IRS agents in Cincinnati who were certainly in the wrong in way overstepping their discretion prerogatives, and perhaps some of their superiors as well for allowing it to happen, and there were some employees of the Justice Department who clearly violated black and white regulations that are meant to protect the press. I can barely tell what the Benghazi debate is even about these days – there was a question of why the main embassy could not fulfill a request to spare four soldiers to help the consulate ahead of the incident, but its not clear that would have made any difference, and anyway the main accusations have shifted from the actual incident to what the White House said about the incident, like whether the word terrorist was actually used, for example, so I suppose there might be some low level bureaucratic wrongdoing there.

My overall point was that, based on current information, the impropriety of any of these scandals didn’t even expand to the White House, much less Obama himself. The question of his involvement needed to be asked at first, and it has been, and the evidence has shown the administration had little to do with any of it. Many pundits have taken this defense as an opportunity to slam Obama for the opposite sort of conduct, saying that he is too aloof, too uninvolved, too uninterested in his own government, which may have some amount of merit, but the way the argument came about does a lot to denigrate its credibility, and to what level it exists at all it is a separate issue (and it’s not just the right taking up this argument, but some on the left too – here’s an example, and here’s another one).

I think the focus surrounding these scandals stems from the premise that some people dislike Obama so much that they think he must be guilty of everything he is accused of. There are plenty of worthwhile things to criticize the man for, without saying every worst fear about him must be true, as some in Congress have done. People can keep looking, and even hoping, for something to go catastrophically wrong with his presidency, but this isn’t it, and my bet is that his presidency won’t go down in anything but overreaching, maybe arrogance, and mild neophytism.

As of today, even Newt Gingrich and some other top Republicans have offered a similar argument to what I was trying to say, and on NPR no less (here).

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was front-and-center during the Republican-led impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, is cautioning his GOP colleagues about the risk of appearing to be too eager as they dig into the scandals now dogging the Obama administration.“I think we overreached in ’98 — how’s that for a quote you can use?” Gingrich told NPR’s Mara Liasson for a story on Friday’s broadcast of Morning Edition.

And:

Gingrich’s view about how Republicans should proceed echoes those expressed by other GOP leaders in a piece published Thursday evening by Politico:“Republicans are worried one thing could screw up the political gift of three Obama administration controversies at once: fellow Republicans.“Top GOP leaders are privately warning members to put a sock in it when it comes to silly calls for impeachment or over-the-top comparisons to Watergate. They want members to focus on months of fact-finding investigations — not rhetorical fury.”

The Politico article contains another an interesting perspective. It looks like even most Congressional Republicans (and even a Fox News pundit) agree that the calls for Obama’s resignation and the comparisons to Watergate are preposterous, an example of overreaching. And that was my main point: these scandals are largely a result of overreaching in an effort to condemn Obama by people who hate him, and contain far less actual wrongdoing and effectual substance than is being claimed.

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