Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Humanitarian Danger of States' Rights

When conservatives oppose the rights of homosexuals to marry whomever they choose or to adopt children, they will often claim that they aren't homophobic, but rather that these are simply matters best left to the jurisdictions of the states.

When they oppose health care reform measures that would guarantee every American citizen the economic right (as articulated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1944) "to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health," they will often argue that such matters are best left to the jurisdictions of the states.

When they assert that children shouldn't be spared from being preached religiously-motivated junk science in their school curricula, or that the poor and unemployed shouldn't receive benefits from economic stimulus legislation intended to ameliorate their suffering and help them find stable work, or that Latinos shouldn't be protected from being pulled over and investigated solely because of their race... they will claim that they oppose these things not because they are hateful individuals, motivated by theological dogmatism or elitism or homophobia or xenophobia. No, they are simply advocates of "states' rights" and, as such, feel that the federal government shouldn't be establishing policies that infringe on state sovereignty. Indeed, they espouse a specific philosophy of government that actually sounds quite reasonable. It usually sounds a little bit like this:

... the States have the right to "regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States"... A state is supreme, with regard to the regulations of its own government, so long as there is no conflict with the Federal Constitution...

That isn't so bad, right?

Of course, it may help if I showed you what came after that quote:

... and the people have a perfect right to permit or refuse negro suffrage
(i.e., the right to vote), to make a distinction of shade, allowing for the saddle color to vote, to make property qualification or make any other regulations of that character that they deem advisable.

The passages you just read came from an editorial written by political columnist Moses Beach on May 9, 1865, less than a month after the end of the Civil War. Because emancipation had stigmatized overt racism, he knew it would be unwise to directly advocate the disenfranchisement of black citizens. As such, he fell back on an argument that smacked of libertarianism - that is, the belief that the sovereignty of local governments should have greater authority than federal power - and asserted that, while he didn't necessarily want blacks to be denied the right to vote, it would clearly be unjust, even tyrannical, if a group of politicians from faraway Washington were able to impose their will on the people rather than allow them to decide for themselves how they should be governed. Using that logic, he managed to place Republicans (who at that time supported universal black suffrage) and Democrats (who at that time wished to deny black suffrage) on the same moral and Constitutional level:

The radicals claim that every negro, from saddle color to ebony, shall be entitled to the same rights, with respect to voting, that white citizens enjoy... On the other hand the "conservatives" contend that unrestricted negro franchise would be productive of great social evils and that it would be highly pernicious to the interests of the South. Now the truth is, that neither party takes the right view of the question.

It may or may not be relevant that Moses Beard was a Democrat.

Either way, there was one fatal error in his thinking:

Even though his argument rested on the assumption that protecting states' rights was the equivalent of protecting individual liberty, in this specific situation many of the states themselves were actually working to infringe upon, rather than advance, the liberty and basic human rights of their individual citizens (i.e., of blacks to vote). As such, granting more power to the states on this particular issue worked AGAINST, rather than in favor of, the cause of freedom. Only having the federal government create laws that overrode the sovereignty of the states when it came to black suffrage would be consistent with the cause of liberty.

Unfortunately, decades passed after the Civil War during which the states' rights argument held a great deal of undeserved sway when it came to black suffrage and a host of other civil rights issues. Even when the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 guaranteed that race could not be used to prevent individuals from voting, the claim that states had a right to have complete control over their own "peculiar institutions" was so strong that the federal government dared not use its power to enforce that amendment on an unwilling South. As a result, it wasn't until nearly a century had passed that an additional law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was passed that absolutely banned all methods previously used to deny black people their right to the ballot.

Naturally, when that law was being debated in Congress, its opponents rarely used directly racist rhetoric in their arguments. Their only concern was "states' rights."

Am I bringing this up to argue that today's practitioners of "states' rights" theory are racist?

Absolutely not. Those who claim that "states' rights" matter more than the rights of homosexuals aren't motivated by racism, but by homophobia, just as those who brandish the "states' rights" mantra on the issue of creationism are motivated by religious dogmatism, and the ones who use it for health care reform and economic stimulus are motivated by a belief in a plutocratic economic philosophy, and those who use it to defend Arizona's draconian anti-immigration laws are motivated by xenophobia (although in that case some actually are also motivated by racism).

The point I'm making is that states' rights is only tantamount to the cause of individual liberty when state governments aren't trying to infringe on the freedoms of its citizens. When, on the other hand, a state government is posing a threat to the basic rights of those who live under its domain, then it is the absence of federal intervention, not its presence, that becomes the threat to freedom.

Conservatives may be able to throw up a convoluted entanglement of jurisprudential gobbledygook to support their position, but liberals on this issue have something even better on their side - history.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Key to Obama's Election: Hypnotizing Jews

As a proud Jew, I don't know whether to react to this news with a burst of outrage or gales of laughter.

Did you think that the radical right had lost its proverbial marbles when it insisted that Barack Obama hadn't been born in the United States?

Were you certain that they'd finally reached a critical mass of insanity when they claimed that he wanted to create death panels in his health care reform bill?

Was it clear that things could get no wackier when Tea Party leaders insisted his back-to-school platitudes contained secret messages intended to brainwash our children into becoming socialists?

In the words of Al Jolson, you ain't heard nothing yet.

It has recently been revealed that two Republican members of Congress, along with one Republican candidate for Senate - all of them, by the way, beloved by the Tea Party movement - believe that Obama won the Jewish vote through the use of hypnosis.

I am not creative enough to make this up.

From "The Jewish Forward":

The rise to power of Barack Obama has been a vexing issue for many Republicans in the past two years. How did he ever get elected?
Well, it turns out the answer is simple: by hypnotizing the Jews. Or at least that is what one group of conservative doctors thinks. The group, Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, which is based in Arizona, opposes Obama’s healthcare plan and is strongly against abortions. It also published an article in 2008 wondering if Obama is ‘a brilliant orator, or a hypnotist?’ The answer, according to the paper published on the group’s website, is that Obama has used in his speeches ‘covert hypnosis intended only for licensed therapists on consenting patients.’ And those most affected by Obama’s covert hypnosis were Jewish voters. Or else, the paper asks, how could you explain the fact that ‘many Jews are supporting a candidate who is endorsed by Hamas, Farrakhan, Khalidi and Iran?’

Further research has yielded that members of AAPS include Rand Paul, the Republican Senate candidate in Kentucky, as well as his father, Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, and another member of the House of Representatives who hails from the radical right, Paul Broun of Georgia.

"The Jewish Forward" neglected to mention that Obama's rhetoric wasn't alone in putting the Hebrew people under a hypnotic spell. As culled from some research I did in the "Louisville Courier-Journal":

The AAPS article notes that the Obama campaign logo "might just be the letter 'O,' but it also resembles a crystal ball, a favorite of hypnotists."

To be fair, it is true that 78% of the Jewish vote went to Barack Obama in 2008. Then again, it might help us gain some perspective to note that, on average, 75% of Jewish voters have supported the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since 1928 (which was the year when the nomination of Al Smith officially associated that party with the cosmopolitan liberalism with which Jews throughout the world have long identified). Indeed, with one exception, no Democrat has received fewer than 60% of the Jewish vote in that same eighty year period (the exception was Jimmy Carter in 1980, although he still won the Jewish vote overall). More currently, no Democrat has received fewer than 74% of the Jewish vote since 1992.

For more on the history of the Jewish vote, see:

In short, while I am hardly as grounded in statistical analysis as the great minds at AAPS, I think it is fair to assume that the Jewish community's historical affinity with liberalism - and as such with America's liberal party, the Democrats - probably has a lot more to do with Obama's solid Semitic support than any Svengalian code words or covert crystal balls.

Wait a minute...

Aren't I pretty, Matt?


Hope...... Change...... Hope...... Change......


Yes you can...... Yes you can......


Monday, September 27, 2010

Obama v. Liberalism

The verdict is out: Liberals are not happy with President Barack Obama.

Bill Maher has groaned that Obama's "not even a liberal."

"Progressive Democrats need to realize that Obama is not a liberal, and he is definitely not their friend," declared Charles Brown from Talking Points Memo.

Even Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has joined the chorus. "Obama... seems to go out of his way to convey the message that although he rode to office on a wave of progressive enthusiasm, he and his people don't respect the people who got him where he is."

And those are the milder observations. In less restrained circles, insults like 'sell out', 'spineless', and 'closeted conservative' are being tossed about with increasing frequency.

I am by no means condemning these liberals for their criticism of Obama. Indeed, I have voiced similar complaints about his presidency numerous times, particularly regarding the self-imposed limitations of his economic recovery plan, the premature removal of a public option from his health care bill, and his politically-motivated escalation of the Afghan war. That said, it is obvious that these mistakes are coming not from conservative convictions, but from a desire to win support from those who don't share his views. As seen in the early months of Obama's tenure, even when he was initially capable of pushing through a highly ambitious agenda without bipartisan support, his desire to "reach across the aisle" by bringing conservatives and Republicans to the fold has defined his approach to governing (see the preemptive reductions of his stimulus and health care packages as two main examples). If given the choice between trying to earn right-wing support for his programs by watering them down or abandoning his hope of "building bridges" in the name of implementing the strongest measures possible, he chooses the former every time.

In short, when liberals say that there is a problem with Barack Obama, they are not in error. The problem, though, isn't that he isn't one of them, but that he has an additional priority which they do not share.

Before we delve into that, though, it is important to note that - left-wing gripes notwithstanding - Obama has racked up a long list of impressive achievements during the twenty months he's been in office, virtually all of which were staunchly (and often viciously) opposed by Congressional Republicans and conservatives throughout America. Although a comprehensive list would take up more space than this article can afford, the chances are that historians doing a thumbnail sketch of the early months of Obama's presidency will emphasize the Big Four:

- The most comprehensive health care reform bill since Medicare and Medicaid, one that - though far from perfect - will cover thirty-two million previously uninsured Americans and stamp out many of the rampant injustices that have long plagued our medical system.

- An economic stimulus package that, despite its inadequacies, prevented the recession from turning into a depression by spending enough money to cause once-exploding unemployment rates to level off; in conjunction with this, a series of relief measures that provided basic humanitarian aid to the victims of the recession, from extended unemployment benefits to mortgage assistance, all of which greatly alleviated the suffering caused by the economic downturn.

- Measures to prevent a recurrence of this type of recession by addressing the factors that caused it, from a financial regulatory bill that will help prevent many of the reckless and unethical practices which caused the Wall Street meltdown to a credit card reform plan that will protect consumers from exploitation at the hands of large credit card companies.

- Ending the war in Iraq - a conflict that many once that would be as intractable as the Vietnam War - and thus fulfilling one of Obama's central campaign promises, improving our foreign relationships, and removing one of the most divisive issues in American politics. Similar progress is being made by the administration on other foreign policy fronts as well, from the war in Afghanistan to the illegal detention centers in Guantanamo Bay.

None of this is meant as a way of dismissing or downplaying the areas in which Obama has fallen short. Nevertheless, liberals must not forget that for the twenty-eight years before Obama's rise to power, we had three conservative presidents interrupted only by a Democrat who, after the failure of his one progressive initiative, subsequently abandoned all liberal efforts in the future. Obama may not have done enough to be a great president yet, but he has achieved more substantial good in less than two years than his four predecessors did in almost three decades. This is not "nothing" and, regardless of how we feel now, history will applaud Obama for these accomplishments.

That said, it is true that Obama has often fallen short of the liberal ideal, to the detriment both off his presidency and the country. While examples of this abound in areas ranging from health care reform to gay rights, the most important one is in economic policy. After all, a president's ability to get reelected often depends on his success in handling the nation's major economic issues. When Obama took office, those issues involved a worsening recession, rising unemployment, and stagnating incomes. To effectively handle all three, Obama needed a $2 trillion stimulus package; instead, because he made premature concessions to conservatives in the hope of winning their support, he pushed for legislation that was only one-quarter that size (technically it was $788 billion but, when tax cuts are removed, only $500 billion was actually spent on stimulus projects), thus solving the first problem (worsening recession) while not adequately handling the other two. As a result, lingering unemployment and income stagnation continue to wreak havoc on Obama's political fortunes as well as those of the Democratic Party, to say nothing of leaving millions of Americans in desperate straits. What's more, not surprisingly, none of his overtures succeeded in obtaining for him the conservative support that caused him to make such concessions in the first place.

That last point may be especially difficult for some disenchanted left-wingers to understand. If Obama shares the values and goals of progressives, then why doesn't he do more to implement a progressive agenda? Why is he so determined to please conservatives?

Part of his reasoning, of course, is purely strategic. After the resounding reelection of Ronald Reagan in 1984 and the devastating defeat of Michael Dukakis in 1988, many Democrats erroneously concluded that Reagan's presidency had pushed America to the right, thus making it hard for openly liberal candidates to win or get reelected. The fact that Mondale's defeat in 1984 resulted from Reagan presiding over an unexpected economic turnaround (one unrelated to his polices) and Dukakis's loss in 1988 was caused by his own ineptitude as a campaigner was overlooked; the fault in both cases, it was decided, must have rested with excessive liberalism. That theory was then given false validation when Bill Clinton - a self-described "New Democrat" whose center-right economic, social, and international policies openly refuted the party's left-wing past - was elected over President George H. W. Bush, even though once again liberalism had nothing to do with the outcome (Clinton benefited from the fact that Bush was saddled with a recession). Ever since, the notion that Democrats must move to the right to be politically viable has been a dominant one. To not embrace it is to risk being dismissed as lacking pragmatism.

Yet there is another aspect to Obama's reasoning, one that - paradoxical though it may seem - is borne not of misguided pragmatism, but from excessive idealism. What's more, the nature of this idealism, like Poe's famous purloined letter, is often overlooked precisely because it's hiding in plain sight.

For a clue, let us look to the famous keynote speech he delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the one that transformed him overnight from an obscure Illinois state legislator into a political superstar:

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us - the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes." Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America.

So far what he says, though admirable, is hardly novel, since liberals have fought strenuously for racial equality since the days of Abraham Lincoln. Then again, there is that one sentence - the one that places the divide between "liberal America" and "conservative America" on the same level as racial divides - that gets further emphasized in the next paragraph:

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

At first glance this paragraph may seem like nothing more than an unusually eloquent espousal of a fairly common patriotic theme, but take a closer look. In this section of his speech Obama doesn't just issue the standard call to "come together"; by placing it right after the paragraph on racial diversity (one which also included a reference to unity between all ideological sides), he implicitly conflates partisan divisiveness with racial divisiveness. This is noteworthy because (a) it is inaccurate, as racism is always based on hate whereas partisanship, though sometimes unduly hateful, is just as often based on legitimate and important differences of opinion and (b) it transforms the cause of bipartisan unity from a practical desire for government effectiveness and political civility to a highly charged moral imperative. It assumes that, just as solidarity between all races should be an end unto itself rather than a means unto an end, so too should solidarity between individuals of all ideological vantage points be an end unto itself rather than a means unto an end.

This idea is elaborated upon in The Audacity of Hope, Obama's 2006 book that laid out his vision for America. In this excerpt, he not only reiterates his deep belief in the moral imperative behind bipartisanship, but outlines (to what liberals may feel is an eerily prophetic degree) how he plans on making ideological compromises in order to achieve the bipartisan ideal:

Genuine bipartisanship assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficits. This in turn assumes that the majority will be constrained — by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate — to negotiate in good faith.

If these conditions do not hold — if nobody outside Washington is really paying attention to the substance of the bill, if the true costs . . . are buried in phony accounting and understated by a trillion dollars or so — the majority party can begin every negotiation by asking for 100% of what it wants, go on to concede 10%, and then accuse any member of the minority party who fails to support this ‘compromise’ of being ‘obstructionist.’

For the minority party in such circumstances, ‘bipartisanship’ comes to mean getting chronically steamrolled, although individual senators may enjoy certain political rewards by consistently going along with the majority and hence gaining a reputation for being ‘moderate’ or ‘centrist.’

What is particularly striking about this passage is the high priority Obama places on using a bipartisan method when passing legislation. When one looks at presidents who are esteemed as ideological icons because of their ability to successfully pass an agenda that made sweeping changes - Franklin Roosevelt among liberals, Ronald Reagan among conservatives - one finds that they always started out by "asking for 100%" of whatever it was they wanted. This doesn't mean that they weren't ready to compromise if doing so was necessary in order to receive enough support to pass their measures (on the occasions when a president did commit this folly, such as Woodrow Wilson when trying to pass the League of Nations, the results were usually tragic). Indeed, it was the very fact that they expected compromise would be necessary that caused them to ask for so much in the beginning; because their priority rested on getting as much done to advance their goals as was conceivably possible, they maximized their demands so that, after the inevitable wheeling-and-dealing had taken place, the bill that was ultimately passed would be as consistent with their ideological vision as reasonably possible.

This is the approach that you use if an ideological agenda is your end and the manner in which you bring about that agenda is the means. The very fact that Obama scorns the notion of using the bully pulpit of the presidency and the power of congressional majority to get as much as he conceivably can for his cause - the fact that he views this not as mastering the resources of leadership and power to achieve meaningful results but as a way in which one group worsens national divisions by forcing its will on another - reveals the fundamental difference between him and the liberals he represents. In his mind, the ideological agenda is very important, but getting as many people as possible on board to support it is just as important. Ideological diversity in one's support isn't just a means unto an end; it is also, like racial diversity, a great end unto itself.

The problem with Obama's approach is that ideological differences are not inherently destructive and reconciling them is not a moral imperative. Partisanship only becomes dangerous when it impairs the intelligence of debate (which, since it happens in areas of life apart from politics, is bound to happen anyway), leads to violence (see the Tea Party movement), or prevents progress (see the Tea Party movement vs. health care reform). Otherwise, not only is partisanship not problematic, it is healthy and necessary. Ideological bickering may be acrimonious, but it also exposes flaws in bad policy ideas that need to be brought to light. Unchecked extremism may lead to the proliferation of wacky beliefs and proposals, but it also allows radical notions that better serve the needs of humanity to receive a public forum they might otherwise never receive. Even the heightened passions of partisanship have their place since, without them, it would be that much harder to rally people together behind important causes when they were most necessary.

Finally, and most importantly, if on a given issue one party is absolutely right and the other is absolutely wrong, then partisanship - and particularly the aggressive use of partisan sentiment so as to fulfill one's agenda even when it involves ramming it down the throats of those who disagree - is a very, very good thing. In fact, it was the lack of hyperpartisanship and an excessive willingness to "meet in the middle" that caused the institution of slavery to exist for as long as it did in this country, forcing millions to spend their lives in bondage and millions more to lose their lives in the Civil War; it was an insistence on always compromising to avoid conflict that caused the Allies to appease Nazis, thus facilitating the terrors of World War Two and the Holocaust; it was the unwillingness to "be partisan" by questioning the domino theory that caused us to get mired in the tragedy of the Vietnam War for years before we finally challenged its legitimacy.

This is what Obama fails to understand. When one side is just plain right and the other side is just plain wrong, the important thing is not to make everyone get along, but to guarantee that the right side wins.

Because Obama doesn't agree with that notion, he abandoned the public option instead of fighting for it, compromised on issues such as gay rights and the use of torture instead of standing strong, and, most significantly and tragically of all, didn't fight for a stimulus package large enough to serve the needs of this nation needed - and of his presidency. Because of these decisions, Obama's has lost popularity from the two groups whose support he could have won - from liberals who feel betrayed and from independents who are disappointed at the lack of results - while he has utterly failed to win over the one group whose support he was wooing with his concessions in the first place, the much desired conservatives.

That is perhaps the final noteworthy point about the error in placing bipartisanship in unduly high esteem - it's unrealistic. Unless you are a president whose popularity inherently transcends party lines (of which American history has provided only three in George Washington, James Monroe, and Dwight Eisenhower), nothing you can ever do in the White House will ever make those whose careers depend on being your political enemies become your permanent friends. Even if partisanship wasn't ultimately undesirable (which it is), it is undeniably immutable.

This isn't to say that hyperpartisanship is without its flaws; of course they exist, for the simple reason that partisans are also people, and so long as people retain their human nature, they will be terribly, terribly flawed (something no statesman will ever be able to change). That said, partisan divisiveness - unlike racial, religious, and sexual divisiveness - is not an inherent evil. While it can sometimes bring about terribly evil results, it is - in its own right - a great good. Counterintuitive as it may seem, there is virtue in being disagreeable.

A Statesman Endangered

Many are worried that the overwrought hatespeech of Tea Party leaders and similar right-wing radicals will lead to an assassination attempt against President Barack Obama.

He is not the only politician for whom I am afraid.

Three quotes from Sharron Angle, the Tea Party advocate nominated by the Republicans to oppose Senator Harry Reid (who also happens to be the Majority Leader and thus the head of the Democratic Party within that legislative body):

1) We're at war in this country - for our freedom, our culture, for our liberty, our Constitution...

2) I need warriors to stand beside me. You know, this is a war of ideology, a war of thoughts and of faith. And we need people to really stand for faith and trust, not hope and change.

And last but certainly not least...

3) I'm hoping that we're not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.

Let us pretend for a moment that a liberal senatorial aspirant - say Hillary Clinton in 2000 or Barack Obama in 2004 - had uttered the left-wing equivalent of such a violent statement. How do you think the general public would have reacted to it? How would the media - to say nothing of the Republicans - have responded to it (especially if a candidate named Obama had said that so shortly after September 11th)?

Of course, the problem with that hypothetical analogy is that liberals, for all of their flaws, aren't prone to advocating violence, implicitly or otherwise, in their rhetoric, which makes it pretty hard to conceive of a progressive equivalent to Angle's line.

I know, I know... because I'm a liberal myself, that last statement was clearly tainted by partisan bias, and I need to recognize that in any conflict both sides are always equally culpable (our era's own most persistent fatuous axiom), and as such rend my garments and utter ten mea culpas for even thinking that maybe radical liberals aren't just as bad as radical conservatives in every way, shape, and form, blah blah blah blah blah.

Guess what? I was an undergraduate at Bard College - the institution voted by the Princeton Review to be the most left-wing university in America (which is quite a distinction) - during the height of the Bush years, and I heard my fellow college students say some pretty outlandish things. When they'd compare Bush to Hitler, I would tell them that such statements were as repugnant as they were moronic (an observation that would earn me condescending looks regarding my obvious naivete). When they'd sneer and jeer at anyone who dared mouth a conservative opinion, I would stand up for the maligned right-winger, arguing not only for his or her right to free speech but also for the desirability of having a diversity of perspectives. When they'd state that Republicans were planning on turning the American body politic into a one-party system, I'd politely inform them that (a) they were incorrect and (b) even if they weren't incorrect, history suggests that the Republicans would fail in that endeavor, since the last time America actually had a one-party system was when James Monroe was president (indeed, if Republicans couldn't turn America into a one-party state during their periods of dominance in the Gilded Age, Roaring Twenties, and Reagan Era, it seemed unlikely to me that they'd be able to do so after two narrow victories - one of them fraudulent - with George W. Bush). Heck, after Bush was reelected in 2004 and a gaggle of Bard radicals decided to stage a minor riot in the small hamlet that housed our university, I wrote a letter condemning their action in the Bard newspaper, which caused me to be vilified by a significant segment of the student community.

Oh, and in case you don't believe me, I have a portfolio of editorials I wrote at the time to prove all of this.

But I digress. The point of what I'm saying is that - despite my abundant criticisms of left-wing radicalism as witnessed by me at a campus objectively considered to be one of the nation's foremost hotbeds of extreme liberal activity - at no point did I ever hear anyone, even in the heat of anger, even as a wishful thought or joke, suggest that violence ought to befall a conservative political figure.

Not once.

And that was at a school whose student body was much farther to the left than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama... or, for that matter, Howard Dean and John Edwards (when I played the latter in a mock presidential debate in February '04, I was accused of being conservative).

Now, just to bring us back to the topic at hand, quickly scroll up again and re-read the three Sharron Angle quotes. Don't worry, I italicized them so they'd be easier to find. When you're done, return to the next paragraph, which I've made easier to retrieve with a line of exclamation points to symbolize my fearful incredulity that an individual such as Angle is actually within spitting distance of a position of power.


Considering that the quotes you just read are pretty par for the course in Sharron Angle's rhetorical arsenal, it is not unfair to assume that the message she's trying to send to her legion of devoted supporters is this:

I don't WANT us to have to kill him, but since he and the rest of the Democratic Party are trying to destroy everything that is good, virtuous, godly and right with the world, then if we can't beat Harry Reid in a fair election... well, ya know...

As far as I'm concerned, Sharron Angle's rhetoric is as incendiary as a match in a pool of kerosene. After being preached this kind of contemptible vitriol, how might an Angle acolyte react if he or she discovers that not only has Reid won, but that the Democrats (and thus Reid) have retained control of the Senate?

A preview can be found in an incident that occurred last week at a Sharron Angle rally. A group of pro-Reid protesters decided to stage a walkout while Angle was delivering a speech and - well, one Angle supporter didn't take too kindly to that. So naturally he pushed one woman over a row of chairs and punched another in the face.

Not true, you think? A product of liberal media bias, you say? Here's a picture.

When informed of this, Angle responded that the women must have been "looking for a fight."

You can't make this stuff up.

I am reminded of an incident in 1851, when Senator Preston Brooks (SC) crept behind Senator Charles Sumner (MA) and beat him to within an inch of his life with a cane. Thankfully, Sumner survived and went on to an illustrious political career. Brooks himself, however, was not punished, and even found that hundreds of his constituents gave him brand new canes to show their appreciation for his "heroism."

Sharron Angle is no better than Preston Brooks and her supporters (or anyone who even considers speaking a word in her or their defense) are no better than the people who mailed him those canes.

This may give you some idea as to why I can write, with absolute sobriety, the following sentence:

I'm frightened for America if Harry Reid loses and frightened for Harry Reid if he wins.

Does that mean that the worst possible results of either situation are definitely going to happen - i.e., that Angle will become a latter-day Joe McCarthy if placed in the Senate or that a rabid Angle supporter will assassinate Reid if he is victorious?

Thankfully, no. But what does it say about the state of the modern right-wing that I have a legitimate cause for concern?

For more on the violence of the Tea Party movement apart from the Reid-Angle election (which I have only used as an example to demonstrate a larger point), see this superb editorial by conservative (yes conservative) pundit David Frum:

Or feel free to check out this article:

Or this one:

Or this one:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Obama v. Unemployment

Due to the cacophony of verbiage currently bombarding airwaves about Obama's election prospects, people are losing sight of a simple political axiom, one that was given its best articulation by James Carville in 1992 and - when it comes to the outcome of elections - has yet to be disproven:

It's the economy, stupid.

Let me back up a little bit...

The last three presidents who failed to win second terms - Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H. W. Bush in 1992 - all lost when unemployment was between 7.1% and 7.5%.


Three of the last four presidents who succeeded in winning second terms - Richard Nixon in 1972, Bill Clinton in 1996, and George W. Bush in 2004 - won when unemployment was between 5.2% and 5.6%.


As of September 2010, President Barack Obama is confronted with an unemployment rate of 9.6%. In light of the aforementioned data, this is predictably causing liberals to mourn and conservatives to crow over what both perceive as his impending political demise.


Both of them are doing this prematurely, since they're forgetting the one recent president I haven't yet mentioned - Ronald Reagan, who was reelected in 1984 even though unemployment was at a "loser" rate of 7.4%.


The parallels between the economic circumstances of Reagan's first term and those currently facing Obama are strong enough that they deserve further exploration.

(1a) In 1980, the year in which Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, unemployment rose from 6.3% in January to 7.5% by Election Day, a rise of 1.2%. This undoubtedly contributed to Reagan's election.
(1b) In 2008, the year in which Barack Obama defeated John McCain (serving, politically speaking, as a stand-in for George W. Bush), unemployment rose from 5.0% in January to 6.6% by Election Day, a rise of 1.6%. This undoubtedly contributed to Obama's election.
(2a) When Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981, unemployment was at 7.5%.
(2b) When Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, unemployment was at 7.7%.
(3a) Twenty months into Ronald Reagan's presidency (September 1982), unemployment had risen to 10.1%, an increase of 2.6%. Reagan's approval rating was at 42%.
(3b) Twenty months into Barack Obama's presidency (September 2010), unemployment has risen to 9.6%, an increase of 1.9%. Obama's approval rating is at 46%.

(4a) When Reagan was reelected in November 1984, unemployment was at 7.4% - roughly the same rate at which it had been both when he defeated Jimmy Carter in November 1980 and when he had been inaugurated in January 1981.


Starting in the summer of 1983, unemployment began to steadily decline during Reagan's presidency, starting with a sudden drop from 10.1% in June '83 to 9.4% in July '83 and continuing at a rate of 0.2% - 0.4% per month for ten of the next twelve months until, by July 1984, it had reached 7.2%. At that point it steadied out, neither rising nor falling at any meaningful rate for the rest of the year.
That said, the period of economic growth from July 1983 to July 1984 was such that the American public, rather than focusing on how things had not actually improved from what they had been before Reagan took office, instead simply gave Reagan credit for the sudden perceived progress. By the summer of 1984 his approval rating was in the 50s and, capitalizing on this in such a way as to give the impression that things had changed for the better since Carter's tenure, Reagan was reelected by a landslide.

What does this tell us about Barack Obama's situation?

(4b) It is by no means too late for him to salvage his political fortunes. When Ronald Reagan was at a comparable chronological point in his presidency, unemployment was higher than it is for Obama today, his approval ratings were lower than Obama's are at present, and defeat in his campaign for reelection seemed all but certain. Yet even though no one knew it at the time, events would begin ten months later that, within a year after that, had transformed Reagan from an unpopular leader into a surefire winner.
That said...

There are still thrice as many examples from recent history of presidents in Obama's situation who didn't win a second term (Ford, Carter, and Bush I) then there are those who managed to pull it off (Reagan). The key difference between Ford/Carter/Bush and Reagan was that, while Reagan's economy was just as lousy as those of the other three, a discernible progress had been seen in the period directly before Reagan's reelection effort, something that did not benefit his counterparts. As such, common sense suggests that if some manner of meaningful recovery (by "meaningful" I mean "significantly reducing unemployment") occurs within the next twenty-two months, Obama will likely find himself in Reagan's shoes, whereas if nothing of that sort happens, he will indeed become another Ford/Carter/Bush.
So how can Obama make sure that he winds up in Reagan's category?

There are three possible ways, of which the first two are:

i. The economic equivalent of a deus ex machina takes place, causing a recovery to occur independent of Obama's efforts and helping him get reelected.
Obama pursues policies that bring about a recovery on their own.
For obvious reasons, the second option is clearly preferable to the first one. But how can Obama make that happen? Once again, history provides us with a guide.
What ended the recession in 1983 was the ability of a Democratic Congress to push through spending programs that stimulated the economy while the Federal Reserve (led at that time by Paul Volcker) kept interest rates at an artificial low. Although the Democratic stimulus measures did cause an explosion in the budget deficit (due mostly to Ronald Reagan's insistence on cutting taxes for the wealthy and increasing spending on the military-industrial complex in conjunction with them), that deficit failed to cause rapid inflation due to the Federal Reserve's actions, while the stimulus succeeded in triggering a period of massive job creation sufficient to constitute what many perceived as a "recovery." In short, even though Ronald Reagan's specific policies (tax cuts for the wealthy and increased military spending) were at best unsuccessful and at worse exacerbated the problem, he lucked out by having other people in power - namely Paul Volcker of the Federal Reserve and Democrats in Congress - pursue policies that would cause a recovery just in time for him to be reelected.
The good news for Barack Obama here is that the Federal Reserve (led now by Ben Bernanke) is currently keeping interest rates at the lowest possible level; in that respect luck is on his side, just as it was with Ronald Reagan. The bad news, though, is that the stimulus package Obama passed was inadequately small compared to the needs of the recession he is facing, a problem that did not face the Democratic Congress of Reagan's era, which was lucky enough to have a production gap that could be successfully covered with much smaller stimulus measures. Even worse, Obama has decided to appease conservatives by focusing on reducing the deficit and cutting spending instead of priming the economy through stimulus spending regardless of the misplaced fears of the deficit hawks; this is an approach born of a bipartisan idealism that, apparently, he has failed to realize is as undesirable as it is unrealistic (see:
That said, if Obama wants to have the same good fortune as Ronald Reagan, the most reliable way of going about that would be to pivot to the left economically and reverse his current course of action. As John B. Judis of "The New Republic" wrote last November:
. is pure folly for the Obama administration to encourage talk about curbing the deficit. What’s needed is exactly the opposite: greater stimulus, greater deficits, and stimulus programs and budgetary expenditures directed not just toward creating jobs, but toward encouraging new areas of private industrial growth, without which the United States is never going to extricate itself from this slump.
Won’t greater deficits lead to greater debt, which will burden our grandchildren with intolerable obligations? They will in the short term, but they are also the only way to avoid even higher debt in the longer term. The current deficits are much more the result of lost revenues than of increased spending--and they will begin to diminish only when revenues (wages and profits) begin to rise again. That won’t happen without deficit spending now.
Won’t greater deficits lead to higher interest rates, which will choke off investment? This might happen in the future, but not currently, as interest rates remain near or below zero and are not expected to rise until the private economy begins to grow. The Chinese and other foreign holders of dollars could, of course, force interest rates upward by dumping their dollars, but they would lose in the process, as the value of their existing holdings would plummet. So while greater deficits might imperil investment in the future, the United States still has a window of opportunity to use deficits to revive its economy.

In short, if Obama wants to preside over an economic recovery of the sort that benefited Ronald Reagan in 1984, he will need to replicate the variables that led to that year's economic expansion - deficit spending that pumps money into the market, creates jobs, and leads to a self-sustaining cycle of growth. Should he do this, the chances are that the recovery will cause him to win in 2012 regardless of who is nominated to oppose him, just as Reagan's victory in 1984 was guaranteed irrespective of whether the Democrats selected Gary Hart or Walter Mondale.

If, on the other hand, Obama continues on his current course, history suggests that the increase in unemployment experienced during his presidency will override other variables and lead to his defeat. That said, while the likelihood will be greater than not that he will lose, there would still be a third possible way he could pull off a victory:

iii. He can run against the Republicans instead of on his own record.

For that to happen, two very specific events would need to occur:

1) The Republicans would need to make significant inroads in the 2010 midterm elections.

Since most reliable projections indicate that they will win the House of Representatives and, while not regaining control of the Senate, at the very least grab a foothold in that body, this will probably come to pass. What's more, once it happens, the growing influence of extremist elements within that party makes it probable that they will (a) hound Obama mercilessly, (b) make statements and pursue policies that will cause them to be branded as radical, and (c) attempt to thwart every aspect of Obama's own agenda. Even though Republicans may interpret such actions as being well-timed (given their recent string of electoral triumphs), polls and basic political knowledge suggests that this would in fact be destructive to their own ends - Americans supporting Republicans in 2010 are generally motivated not by any real support for their ideology, but from disgust with Democratic ineptitude. Consequently, their actions will enable Obama to characterize Congressional Republicans - and by extension all Republicans - as vitriolic, ideologically dangerous, and obstructionist, a maneuver that would both shift blame for America's difficulties to them and cause the public to sympathize with their chief executive by default.

Such a tactical move, though seemingly far-fetched, would actually not be without precedent. Two other Democrats - Harry Truman in 1948 and Bill Clinton in 1996 - did the same thing and were ultimately successful. Having this first piece fall into place would thus probably not be a problem for Obama.

A second thing, though, would also have to occur...

2) The Republicans would need to nominate a candidate who possesses serious flaws that inherently hinder his electability.

Given the length of the election cycle and the crucial role both fundraising and name recognition play in political viability, it is all but assured that the Republican presidential nominee will be one of the four candidates currently listed at the top of the polls; after all, the last president from either party who was not among the top four in the polls two years before the actual election was Jimmy Carter in 1976. When it comes to the Republicans in 2012, that gives us Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich.
From there Palin and Gingrich can be ruled out, since both - despite the wide affection with which they are held by the rank-and-file in their party organizations - are too widely regarded as being unelectable to serve as serious prospects. That leaves Romney and Huckabee.

Romney has the advantage of (a) automatically receiving the support of moderates in GOP primary voters who will prefer him to the radical alternatives, (b) being a centrist who will not scare off independent voters as Huckabee, Palin, and Gingrich may very well do, and (c) having a resume that, from his successes in the business world to his fiscal record as Governor of Massachusetts, naturally recommends him as a uniquely electable candidate in an election that revolves around economic issues. At the same time, Romney is not a candidate who excites enthusiasm among the right-wing grassroots ideologues who compose the majority of the Republican primary electorate. His wishy-washy record on social issues like abortion and gay rights, his support as governor of a health care reform plan similar to the unpopular one passed by President Obama, bigotry directed against him for being a Mormon, and his general lack of charisma are all serious weaknesses that could be exploited so as to cost him the nomination.

Romney is, in short, the "pragmatic candidate" - one whose virtues are "safeness" and "electability" and whose weaknesses are "softness" (on the issues that mobilize his party base) and the lack of any intrinsically appealing qualities. This status is by no means crippling, as purely pragmatic candidates have been successful both in getting nominated (John Kerry in 2004) and in both being nominated and elected (Richard Nixon in 1968). At the same time, pragmatic candidates also have a track record of suffering as a result of precisely those factors which were believed to be their greatest assets, thus either ultimately losing the nomination (Edmund Muskie in 1972) or being nominated only to lose the general election (Thomas Dewey in 1948).

The other possible nominee is Mike Huckabee. Like Palin and Gingrich, Huckabee's extreme views have earned him the passionate support among the party's grassroots base, especially the Christian Right, the Tea Party, and other far right-wing blocs on social, cultural, and economic issues. Of the three, however, Huckabee is widely seen as the most electable, in part due to his own impressive assets (a charming and affable persona, a record as Governor of Arkansas that pleases conservatives, an oratorical flair that helps him stir right-wing hearts, his deft skill in keeping his name prominent with a FoxNews TV show while avoiding public embarrassments) and in part to the serious baggage harming both Palin (her image as an intellectual lightweight) and Gingrich (skeletons from his personal past, particularly divorcing his cancer-ridden wife shortly after surgery and tricking her into poverty). Should the party decide to go with ideological puritanism instead of pure pragmatism, the fact that they will still care about winning would make Huckabee the logical choice.

Further helping Huckabee in this respect are the patterns of recent history. Republican primaries in the 2010 congressional and gubernatorial races have yielded a surprising number of cases in which candidates whose reasonable conservatism and widely acknowledged electabilty wound up being defeated by less electable but more philosophically stalwart alternatives, in part due to the latter group's ideological zealotry and in part because the former group was perceived as being soft in their conservatism. Should those patterns hold during the 2012 Republican primaries, Huckabee's nomination would become virtually inevitable.

Insofar as Obama is concerned, a Huckabee victory would be far better than a Romney triumph. To explain why, I will need to delve into
another central political axiom, one I like to call "The Rule of Thirty-Seven":

In every presidential election, 37% of the electorate is guaranteed to vote Republican no matter what, 37% is guaranteed to vote Democratic no matter what, and the contest is thus decided by the remaining 25% (with 1% going to third-party candidates).

This principle, which has held true in every election since 1924, holds with it the logical corollary that the 25% of voters who do decide elections are generally unconcerned about ideological particulars. This isn't to say that they don't possess ideological convictions (all voters do), but rather that, whatever the substance of their convictions, those aren't going to be a deciding factor in how they cast their ballot; after all, if ideology was going to decide how they voted, they'd be a Thirty-Seven (or, less likely, a One). Indeed, the only way ideology ever does influence their decisions is as a negative - while a liberal Twenty-Five is willing to vote for a reasonably conservative Republican under the right circumstances, and likewise a conservative Twenty-Five is willing to vote for a reasonably liberal Democrat under the right circumstances, both liberal Twenty-Fives and conservative Twenty-Fives get scared off when a Republican is too conservative or a Democrat is too liberal.

Instead the Twenty-Fives usually are more concerned (a) the incumbent party's success or failure in successfully dealing with the major issues of the time, including the economy, domestic tranquility, addressing major injustices at home, and maintaining security and strength abroad and
(b) the strength of the leadership qualities that they see in the two major candidates, including intangible gravitas, honesty, basic human decency, boldness, competence, and being principled (without being extreme). Since both parties are generally smart enough to choose candidates who don't flagrantly violate any of the minimum of criteria of (b) but, at the same time, aren't exemplary enough to win the election on (b) alone, elections usually wind up getting decided by (a).

This is what helps Romney. Despite his weaknesses, he is lucky that virtually all of them would only hurt him in the Republican primaries. Should he actually receive the nomination, many of those former disadvantages would either become strengths (his image as a moderate, his distance from the party's extreme wings) or be rendered unimportant (his Mormonism and lackluster support among conservative radicals is unlikely to hurt him, since they will be compelled to turn out in full force behind him anyway so as to beat Obama). Left behind would be his presence as an unoffensive alternative to Barack Obama, a candidate whose moderate image would make him immune to being blamed for the errors of a radical Republican Congress, and a man with a strong image on economic issues during a time of terrible recession. Thus, barring any serious gaffes on Romney's part, the odds are that these variables alone would make him capable of easily defeating Obama in the general election.

Huckabee, on the other hand, would have trouble written all over him.
That is because, on those occasions when an election is decided by (b), it is usually not because a candidate is so exemplary that (b) alone gets him elected, but rather because he falls so short in meeting basic standards that (b) alone sinks him. For example, of the four candidates for whom (b) alone was a deciding factor within the last sixty years, only one of them - Dwight Eisenhower - found that (b) alone could get him elected. The other three candidates - Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, and Michael Dukakis - found that (b) worked to their detriment because they were found to fall beneath minimum standards, in Goldwater's case because he was too ideologically extreme, in Dukakis's case because he was viewed as incompetent, and in McGovern's case because of both. Hence Huckabee would lose because the extreme nature of his Christian Right ideology would be too radical for Twenty-Fives, his failures in the Wayne DuMond and Maurice Clemmons case would be viewed as too incompetent for Twenty-Fives, and his bigoted remarks about homosexuals, women, and Mormons would be perceived by Twenty-Fives as reflecting poorly on his basic human decency.
What is the final conclusion of all this analysis?
Obama may be screwed right now, but he isn't fatally screwed. That said, if he wants to get out of this mess, he needs to start aggressively unscrewing himself.

The Immature Campaign

People who express contempt for the Tea Party movement and its supporters on the radical right generally do so by claiming that:

1) They're racist (for more, see the expose at or my attempts to explore the issue at and

2) They're incendiary (for more, see David Frum's brilliant op-ed at or my attempts to explore the issue via the Reid-Angle election in Nevada at and

3) They're stupid (for more, see

All three of these criticisms are valid. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that the overwhelming body of evidence (to say nothing of sheer common sense) makes them irrefutable. That said, there is a fourth marked quality in the Tea Party movement that doesn't receive adequate attention, even though it is in many ways the most revealing:

4) They're shockingly immature.

Let me illustrate that point with a personal anecdote.

When I was a little boy, I was a huge fan of the Swamp Thing, so much so that on the day a much ballyhooed Swamp Thing action figure arrived on toy store shelves, I began to nag my parents incessantly about buying it for me. Although they probably planned on purchasing it and giving it to me as a surprise, the insistence with which I kept pushing and prodding them eventually caused them to declare that I would not, after all, get my Swamp Thing action figure.

Naturally, I was livid. Before long I had concluded that my parents were the worst human beings who had ever lived. There was simply no other conclusion besides that they were monsters, meanies, and jerks, since clearly no parents in the whole wide world had ever treated their child as badly as they were treating me. I hated them and was certain that years later I would feel vindicated in my anger.

Of course, in retrospect, I recognize that I was just being immature. Had I possessed a proper perspective, I would have realized that my plight - compared to that of children who are starving or sick, suffering in war or poverty, or have parents who physically or sexually abuse them - was not really all that bad. Indeed, had I taken the time to think about it in depth, I might have even come to the conclusion that - considering my rude behavior - they were absolutely right in not buying me that Swamp Thing action figure.

Fortunately, I was only six at the time, which is a sufficient excuse to absolve me of any undue guilt. What would be truly mortifying is if I had thought and behaved that way as an adult.

Which brings me back to the Tea Party and its radical right-wing supporters.

If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party partisans, and the rest of the extreme conservative movement, you will hear countless claims that they are persecuted, suffering, in danger of losing their freedoms, and in general sorely afflicted. What's more, you will hear lofty rhetoric comparing their grassroots campaign to the battles waged by the founding fathers during the American Revolution and other great freedom fighters, including the civil rights protesters.

There is just one problem with this worldview. It isn't based on reality.

For one thing, none of these conservative extremists are in any real danger when they engage in their protests. No one is ordering law enforcement personnel to drag them off to prison or threatening violence against them (which is more than can be said of how they treat their various targets); no one is jotting their names down on lists to be used to prevent them from getting a job or buying a home; no government agents are wiretapping their phones or investigating their personal lives in order to find ways of smearing and thereby discrediting them. Their claims of being victims and martyrs notwithstanding, neither the leaders nor the followers of these movements have ever incurred any real risk as a result of their self-expression.

Even worse, none of them are fighting for causes that actually involve their sacred rights and liberties. Some of the evils against which they fight WOULD be very serious if they were real - such as the belief that there are death panels in the health care reform bill, that Obama is trying to create a dictatorship, or that his back-to-school speech was intended to indoctrinate children with political propaganda - but without exception such assertions wind up being entirely without merit. Other claims that they make are not only fictitious but, even if true, would still have no real bearing on the ability of the protesters to comfortably live their actual lives; the assertions that Obama wasn't born in this country or that he is a secret Muslim fall into this category. Finally, the few battles in their crusade that actually are based on reality almost always involve outrage over matters that are remarkable in their pettiness and lack of perspective - see when they fulminate about having their taxes increased to help the unemployed and poor (even though such increases only effect the rich and well-to-do, surveys have repeatedly shown that Tea Party protesters and radical right-wingers tend to be much more affluent than the average American), when they rant because they feel too many Latinos are immigrating to this country or too many blacks are benefiting from affirmative action (further suggesting racism), when they complain about gay people wanting to get married and openly serve in the military (displaying homophobia), or when they scream because they see secularism growing in America and complain that their specific religious beliefs (usually those of the Christian Right in some form or another) aren't being allowed to dominate our national life. In short, even when they're factually right, they're still morally wrong.

Now compare all of this with the historic freedom fights with which these same right-wingers often juxtapose their own silly causes (and in this case I feel deeming them "silly" is pretty objective):

The American Revolution, from which they get so much of their rhetoric and symbolism. The real American revolutionaries were men and women who, if they were lucky, only risked dishonor and disgrace at being forever branded as treasonous rebels; if they were unlucky, the penalty was death on the battlefield or at the end of a hangman's noose. The cause for which they were willing to incur these very real risks - to say nothing of the economic and physical deprivations imposed by the Revolutionary War - was, as Thomas Jefferson put it, the belief that "
all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The Civil Rights Movement, including the famous March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King which Beck and his supporters pretended to emulate from their safe perch of historical retrospect and lilywhite affluence. Of course, the King march wasn't the only front in the civil rights crusade - there were countless other protests at diner counters and school courtyards, on buses in Selma and at voting booths in Mississippi. These were people of all races who were fighting to end segregation, job and housing discrimination, voter intimidation, laws that prevented black people from marrying whites or from serving in public office, and the countless other manifestations of systemic racism that caused unequal treatment for African Americans. Those who participated in these causes were often followed by the government, arrested without just cause, and intimidated into silence by powerful state officials who had a vested interest in the status quo. In the name of the cause of racial equality, these civil rights protesters risked (and often suffered) death, serious bodily injury, the loss of their livelihoods and homes, and the destruction of their personal reputations.

Once you compare these real freedom campaigns with the teapot tempest being stirred up today by the radical right, you can see why it's so hard for me to respect the Becks, Limbaughs, Palins, and Tea Partiers of this country. In a way that their immaturity makes them incapable of understanding, they don't even respect themselves.

Milton's Letter or: My Thoughts on the Morons Who Keep Calling Obama a Socialist

I'd like to apologize in advance for the length of this essay. While normally I agree that succinctness is ideal, I felt that - in light of the vociferousness with which right-wingers accuse Obama, the Democratic Party, and liberals in general of being socialistic - I had to be as thorough as possible in logically deconstructing this erroneous charge, even if doing so forced me to err on the side of verbosity.

A few weeks ago an editorial of mine was printed in The Rutgers Observer. In it, I pretended to have searched for the wisdom of Karl Marx and instead stumbled upon quotes from Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

Naturally my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek through the piece. I have been bandying about those Jackson and Lincoln quotes for years, and intentionally allowed my readers to mistakenly believe that those words came from Karl Marx instead of two revered American presidents so as to illustrate, in an ironic way, how easily any liberal economic statement can be accused of having socialist connotations in today's political climate.

Of course, none of that prevented me from receiving a letter of protest from an indignant conservative Rutgers student, who for the sake of simplicity I will hereafter refer to as Milton (not his real name). In his e-mail, Milton claimed that (a) I had taken the Lincoln and Jackson quotes out of context and (b) I was wrong in asserting that Obama was not a Marxist.

Allow me to briefly address the issue of context. Let's start with the Jackson quote:

There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection and... shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.

That came from a statement penned by Old Hickory to explain his vetoing of a bill that would have renewed the Second National Bank (July 10, 1832). Jackson believed (correctly) that the bank, as run by the shamelessly plutocratic Nicholas Biddle, created fiscal policies that benefited big businesses and the wealthy at the expense of the common man. What's worse, he feared that the bank had so much power that it could manipulate our currency policy and thereby create artificial recessions in order to exert its political will (a concern that wound up being validated when Biddle engaged in precisely that tactic to coerce Congress and the public into opposing anti-bank measures). Since Jackson viewed such an institution as both undemocratic and a threat to the economic liberty that he believed was just as vital to freedom as the political kind, he resolved that the bank needed to go. This comment was in direct reference to that incident.

Now to the Lincoln citation:

... there is one point... to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government... Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and serves much the higher consideration.

That quote, culled from Lincoln's first State of the Union Address (December 3, 1861), was an attempt by the Great Emancipator to take the immediate issue of slavery - and specifically the arguments its defenders would use to rationalize that "peculiar institution" - and pivot from there to a discussion of the mentality that he believed was used to justify the inherently unjustifiable on all economic questions, even when such arguments were blatantly inconsistent with America's founding principles. As was Lincoln's wont, he approached the conflict of his own time from a macro perspective, one that placed the ideological struggles of the 1860s into the broader sweep of history. This led him to conclude that it was important not only to condemn slavery, but to the strike at the root assumptions which allowed people to defend it. Indeed, the State of the Union Address was not the first occasion in which Lincoln took the logical step from protesting slavery to espousing the larger cause of economic egalitarianism. In the previous year he delivered a speech with a much more succinct articulation of his conviction:

While we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.

Of greater concern to me than Milton's claims about history, though, was his misunderstanding of the present. Throughout his letter he glibly conflated the economic policies of Barack Obama and of liberals with those of Karl Marx, from his insistence that the beliefs of Jackson and Lincoln were "in opposition to Marx and currently Obama" to his statement that for Jackson's statement "to be consistent with Marx and current liberal principles, the quote would have to be more like this - 'there is no necessary evils in government, so it must stop all highs and lows, rich and poor for an blessed state.'"

This kind of argument is not merely erroneous; it is downright harmful. There are three reasons for this:

1) It is factually incorrect. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Obama's policies, the simple truth is that they are not socialistic.

For further proof, we can refer to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary's definition of socialism:

noun \ˈsō-shə-ˌli-zəm\
1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

It is important to note that this doesn't say that ANY government intervention in economic matters - be it in providing goods and services or in regulating major industries - constitutes socialism. If that was the case, we would have been a socialist state long before Barack Obama or even Franklin Roosevelt ever ascended to the White House. After all, the government does offer a "public option" in education via free schooling for children (an idea prominently advocated by Thomas Jefferson) and state colleges (supported, with an initial lack of success, by John Quincy Adams); regulates the food we eat and the medicines we take to make sure they are clean and safe (passed with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt); imposes an eight-hour workday (with the bill that set the precedent for this having been signed into law by Woodrow Wilson); prohibits the use of child labor (also passed into law the first time under Woodrow Wilson, although a Supreme Court decision overturning it required a second passage under Franklin Roosevelt); and bans the formation of corporate "trusts" that stifled competition (thanks to the efforts of Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson).

There is much that the earlier list doesn't take into account. For example, there are public firefighters and police officers (both of which were initially only provided by private corporations until the obvious dangers and inefficiencies of that system became too flagrant and dangerous to ignore), the Securities and Exchange Commission (which was created after the Great Depression to prevent a repetition of the fiscal chicanery that contributed to the Stock Market crash, and which was effective until weakened by Ronald Reagan and his successors), and Medicare and Medicaid (pushed into being by President Lyndon Johnson and adamantly defended even by Republicans today, despite claims that it was "socialistic" back when LBJ and other liberals supported it). Expensive economic stimulus packages also have a long and distinguished history, from the massive national economic mobilization ordered by Franklin Roosevelt during World War Two (which caused unemployment to drop from 14% in 1940 to less than 2% in 1943) to the Interstate Highway Act pushed through by President Dwight Eisenhower, which contributed greatly to the economic prosperity of the late 1950s and 1960s. In fact, if it wasn't for government regulation of the economy through civil rights legislation, it would still be legal for private businesses to refuse employment or refuse customer service on the basis of race, religion, and gender (indeed, many conservatives opposed legislation that wanted to prohibit this form of discrimination precisely because they felt the effect it would have on private enterprise was "socialistic").

In short, an elementary understanding of both the history of this country and the workings of today's government makes it very clear that spending money to end a recession, imposing regulations so as to guarantee fair play or prevent injustices, and advocating government involvement in providing goods and services are not socialistic. The reality is that "socialism" refers only to an extreme perspective in economic policy, one which argues that EVERYTHING in the economy should be controlled by the government. In the same vein, there are fundamentalist libertarians at the opposite extreme of that same spectrum who argue that NOTHING besides the military should be provided by the state. Fortunately, the vast majority of political figures and private citizens agree that the ideal lies somewhere between these two simplistic absolutes.

Of course, there are bound to be fierce disagreements as to the exact location of that happy medium, and not only is that acceptable, it's healthy and necessary. There is nothing at all illegitimate about conservatives who claim that too much government regulation can inhibit economic growth, that having the government provide certain goods and services can stifle creativity and hinder efficiency, that welfare programs to help the poor and assist the unemployed find work provides a disincentive for individual initiative, or that economic stimulus to end the recession is too expensive to be fiscally safe. While liberals may disagree with these arguments, there is nothing intellectually dishonest about their use by the right-wing in political debate, and if we are confident in the correctness of our position (which we should be), there is no reason to object when we are expected to rebut them.

That said, there IS something intellectually (to say nothing of morally) dishonest about claiming that advocates of financial and business regulation, labor rights, a public option in health care, unemployment benefits, food stamps, welfare, minimum wage increases, programs to put people back to work, aggressive economic stimulus spending or other liberal economic policies are bringing us toward socialism. Just as it would be inaccurate to claim that someone who supports less government economic intervention is advocating fundamentalist libertarianism (unless he or she is saying that the government should have absolutely no involvement in the economy), so too is it inaccurate to claim that someone who supports more government economic intervention is advocating socialism (unless he or she is saying that the government should have complete control over the economy). As such, since there is no evidence that Barack Obama, his advisors, or the vast majority of American liberals want a complete state takeover of the economy (kooky conspiracy theories to the contrary notwithstanding), the claim that any of them are socialistic is just factually wrong.

To quote the great Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

2) It breeds violence and persecution.

There is a long, tragic history in this country of people with legitimate progressive ideas being persecuted due to an erroneous conflation of their objectives with "socialism" or "communism." The most famous period during which this happened, of course, was in the early 1950s, when Senator Joe McCarthy had the nation tearing itself apart in a terrified frenzied at the prospect of potential Communist infiltration. The political atmosphere caused by his wild assertions resulted in mass firings, persecution, and blacklisting - based solely on suspicion and unsubstantiated accusation - which impacted individuals in every sector of American life, from academia and journalism to entertainment and the business world. The exact number of lives ruined during this period will never be known with certainty, although the Eisenhower administration later released the names of more than 2,400 government employees who had been terminated due to the government's anti-subversive program (only one of whom was ever definitely proved to have been engaged in Communist activity). It is also known that hundreds were blacklisted in Hollywood during the height of the Red Scare (with Ronald Reagan, then leader of the actors' union, among those who "named names"), while acts of violence against suspected communists were reported with increasing frequency.

Although the notoriety of McCarthy's actions has caused his name to be forever associated with the practice of trying to discredit opponents through false charges of socialism, McCarthyism itself actually predates its namesake. Rabid fear of radical leftists can be found as early as the First World War, when President Woodrow Wilson ordered Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to arrest (using undercover informants and warrantless wiretaps) thousands of people suspected of being having Communist, Socialist, or anarchist sympathies. It could be found after McCarthy's downfall, such as during the presidency of John Kennedy, when Adlai Stevenson (former Democratic presidential nominee and then America's ambassador to the United Nations) was spat upon and hit on the head with a placard by a right-wing mob in Dallas that insisted he was a socialist. It was rampant during the Vietnam protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, in which violence against anti-war students was often justified on the grounds that the activists were in cahoots with Communists. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't immune to red-baiting - during his crusade for civil rights, the violence inflicted against both him and his supporters was often justified on the basis of a lingering whispering campaign that King (and the civil rights movement in general) had ties with socialists (FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover even had King followed on the basis of those rumors).

In light of this history, it is hardly surprising that the same people who claim Obama and liberal Democrats are socialistic come disturbingly close to advocating violence or oppression. One can see it in Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada, who has claimed that "if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies," casually suggested that people need to "take out" her Democratic opponent, and stated that one of the goals of her movement is to force the press to "ask the questions we want to answer so that they report the news the way we want it to be reported." It can be found in the jeremiads of right-wing pundit Glenn Beck, who has joked about poisoning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and argued that Barack Obama's administration must be stopped because it is attempting a "second American Revolution." There was the time when Fox News contributor and former Washington Times bureau chief Liz Trotta mixed up the names of Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden and then made an off-hand wistful comment about wanting to "knock off" both of them "if we could", or the time when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin urged her supporters, "Don't retreat... Reload!" It makes itself manifest in the right-wing grassroots movement known as the Tea Party, whose protesters have held up signs saying "It is time to water the tree of liberty" (a reference to the Jefferson quote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants."), shouted bigoted slurs at pro-health care reform legislators, and even attacked Democrats who supported Obama's health care reform legislation (windows of Democratic offices in Wichita were shattered with bricks; the front door and window to the office of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords was also destroyed; a similar incident occurred at the office of New York Representative Louise Slaughter; South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, the highest ranking black member in that body, received a fax with an image of a noose; the brother of one Virginia Congressman found the propane gas line to his house severed and later discovered that a radical right-wing website had accidentally listed his home address instead of that of his sibling).

The incitement to violence isn't only direct. It is hard to avoid drawing a connection between the wild assertions that Obama is a socialist and similarly paranoid conspiracy theories - that he is a secret Muslim, that he was not born in this country and is thus an illegitimate president, that he wanted to create death panels in his health care reform legislation, that he is deliberately and systematically destroying American freedoms. Although those who defend the disseminators of these calumnies argue that their statements don't technically constitute threats, as former Republican speechwriter David Frum observed:

If Barack Obama really were a fascist, really were a Nazi, really did plan death panels to kill the old and infirm, really did contemplate overthrowing the American constitutional republic—if he were those things, somebody should shoot him.

But he is not.

In light of all this, it is hardly surprising to hear that the Texas education board - which is revising its history textbooks and which, as one of the nation's largest purchasers of that product, has influence in how history is taught far beyond the borders of its own state - is rewriting Joe McCarthy's role in history so as to claim that he was vindicated. It even makes sense that Glenn Beck has advocated the restoration of the "loyalty oaths" that were commonplace during McCarthy's heyday. However, given that these are the same sources which repeatedly purport that Obama is a socialist, it becomes difficult to dismiss the timing of their discovery of the glories of McCarthyism as coincidental.

3) It stifles intelligent debate and limits our ability to solve important problems.

No policy should ever be implemented without first undergoing the litmus test of rigorous debate. At the same time, such debates are only beneficial when they involve a direct and thorough exploration of the FACTS involved in the given policies, rather than being mired in fictions and absurdities.

It is in this way that the conflation of liberalism with socialism oppresses the freedom of intellectual dialogue. When advocates of left-wing economic and social policies are accused of socialism, they usually wind up having to expend a great deal of intellectual and emotional energy attempting to demonstrate the falseness of the charges (often to no avail, since the sanctimoniousness of many red-baiters has made them impervious to rebuttal). While this would be acceptable if the charges themselves were potentially sound, the fact that they are patently ridiculous makes it unreasonable to expect liberals to have to waste their time addressing them. Naturally many liberals react to this obstacle by deciding to not even put in the effort. Even worse, many who are initially brave enough to weather the storm of vituperation become so overwhelmed by the hostility they face that they become apprehensive at the prospect of dealing with it again, eventually resulting in them either moderating their stands to be "less liberal" just so they can avoid the socialist charge or resolving to not articulate them at all - in effect, being intimidated into silence.

Forcing liberals to address erroneous charges of socialism is not only unfair, it is also detrimental to the quality of the debate. Once such a highly-charged distraction has been injected into the political dialogue about a given issue, it winds up consuming a great deal (if not a majority) of the attention regarding that subject. In the case of liberalism and the false charge of socialism, the disproportionate negative attention usually has the correlative effect of highlighting whatever points, valid and invalid, are being made by the conservatives who oppose the given left-wing idea. At the same time, it simultaneously causes the public consciousness to either minimize or entirely dismiss whatever arguments, valid or invalid, that liberals might have which support their position. A sound analogy might be made between the impact of those who cry "Socialist!" at liberal policies and the influence of hecklers on a stand-up comic's performance; even though other audience members may not like or even respect the heckler(s), as any comedian will tell you, the sheer vociferousness and shrillness of what they say almost invariably causes people to become unreasonably critical of the comedian's material, even if the so-called flaws being identified by the heckler are bogus and the material itself has genuine merit. Similarly, cries of "socialism" don't just take time away from the relevant portions of a given debate; they force people to pay attention to silly straw men instead of the real issues at stake. By muddling the clarity of the public's understanding, false cries of socialism wind up dumbing down the debate.

None of this, though, constitutes the worst consequence of today's McCarthyism. No, the worst part is a ramification so obvious that the failure to more widely recognize it is astonishing - i.e., when liberals are correct in what they want to do, they often are rendered unable to implement it, to the detriment not just of their personal cause, but of the American people.

Take our current recession. History has repeatedly shown that the way to bring about an end to economic recessions is through policies that lower unemployment, increase wages while avoiding rapid inflation or deflation so as to maximize purchasing power, and allow the law of supply-and-demand in our free market to work on a macroeconomic level - that is, watch as increased spending fuels job creation, which in turn will fuel more spending, which will in turn fuel more job creation, and so on.

Conservatives have no meaningful proposals as to how we can make this happen in America today. Although some say that cutting taxes on the wealthy will stimulate the economy, the data shows that such measures usually only cause the wealthy to hoard their extra cash or spend it on luxury items; likewise, arguments that cutting taxes on big businesses will cause them to create jobs have proven inaccurate, since the owners of said businesses tend to pocket the additional money for personal profit instead of using it to expand their enterprises or engage in other job-creating endeavors. Similarly, claiming that tax cuts on the middle or working classes will bring about recovery is erroneous (even though liberals usually join conservatives in supporting such measures) since the unemployed obviously can't benefit from tax cuts while the non-wealthy have an understandable instinct to save when they perceive that the economy is flailing.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that the way to improve the economy is to (1) spend as much money as needed in order to create the jobs necessary to put unemployed Americans back to work, even if doing so requires cutting superfluous military spending or raising taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses so as to avoid increasing the budget deficit and/or raising taxes on the middle and working classes, and (2) strengthen labor laws and raise the minimum wage so as to guarantee that people who receive jobs will earn enough money to be able to afford their reasonable wants and needs. This latter goal serves not only an obvious humanitarian objective but also a practical one - since ideally economic stimulus should not be permanent, the easiest way to make sure that it serves as a temporary life support system instead of a lasting crutch is to guarantee that consumers earn enough money at their jobs so that the cash they infuse into the marketplace can create a self-sustaining cycle of prosperity independent of government activity.

The essence of the liberal economic mentality was best summarized by Franklin Roosevelt in a speech during his first presidential campaign in 1932:

The task of government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights... Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him.

In the past, the programs based on this mantra have worked spectacularly well, as evidenced by the success of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (especially the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and the program of national economic mobilization during World War Two) and the host of milder policies implemented by his three Democratic successors (Harry Truman's Fair Deal, John Kennedy's New Frontier, and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and War on Poverty, all of which addressed both the immediate issues of employment and wages and related socio-economic issues including housing, medical care, security in old age, and education). As such, it stood to reason that Barack Obama should attempt some variation of those policies in the fight against our current recession - and initially he agreed.

But then McCarthyism reared its ugly head. Before Obama had even finished hammering out the details of his stimulus proposal, protests cropped up all over America decrying his recovery plan as "socialistic." In response to this, the president decided to propose a plan that liberal economists (Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz) instantly realized was only one-fourth as large as what would be needed to increase employment and create a real recovery (even though its price tag was $787 billion, $288 billion of it was wasted on tax cuts, with less than $500 billion going to a stimulus that, in order to be effective, would need $2 trillion). Obama's clear goal, as indicated by both his approach with Congress and his rhetoric, was to prove his right-wing critics wrong in their charges that he was a socialist, even if doing so required a package that only prevented the recession from worsening instead of causing it to actually improve.

The consequence of this is well-known: The recession hasn't ended, Obama's approval ratings are at an all-time low, and his right-wing critics still accuse him of being a socialist, as they would have inevitably done regardless of whether he'd passed a bill four times larger - as was needed - or one that was even smaller. Despite his efforts to reason with the right-wing, the hypocrisy of many of their charges still eludes them. Their complaint about the increase in our budget deficit, for example, ignores the fact that of the $200 billion budget deficit increase caused by the bill in 2009, half of that came from the tax cuts demanded from conservatives such as themselves, and even had the bill been large enough to end the recession ($2 trillion), this only would have increased the deficit by $400 billion, making it still cheaper than either George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy or his war in Iraq (and also meaning that it could be paid for without increasing the deficit by ending either one of those). Likewise, their claim of being overtaxed ignores the reality that taxes under President Obama have only increased for those who makes $250,000 a year or more.

Far worse than Obama's political woes, though, is the human toll of his failure to adequately act after the charge of "socialist" was lobbed against him. Because claims of socialism caused Obama to water down his bill to a quarter efficiency, unemployment remains sky high, income levels are stagnating at best, and the suffering caused by this downturn has no end in sight. Although much of the blame rests with Obama for capitulating to today's McCarthyites instead of fighting them, the reality is that the decision to capitulate never would have been made had he not first faced ideological bullies who forced him to choose between fighting and appeasement. Now that Obama has learned his lesson and is trying to pass the stimulus needed (albeit piecemeal), it is too late; the damage to his political brand is so serious that he lacks the resources to push through the bold program that was necessary from the beginning, and barring a decisive re-election in 2012, he will not get that back. A similar story can be told with other key issues, particularly health care reform, where claims of socialism caused Obama to take a plan that had never been socialistic in the first place (at its most liberal it merely called for a "public option," or a government-run health care provider to exist as an alternative to, rather than replacement for, private insurers) and water it down so that, while still effective, it wound up leaving millions uninsured needlessly.

This is the greatest harm of all caused by McCarthyist tactics, both as used in the past and as applied against Obama today. When they force liberals to retreat on issues where they're wrong, the only victims are the liberals themselves who have been harassed, intimidated, and/or silenced. When, however, they force a left-wing retreat on issues where the progressives are right - with the economic stimulus package and health care reform being only the most recent examples - everyone in America suffers. For that to happen in any situation is a senseless tragedy, but for it to occur as the result of an argument that has more of gravy than of grave to it is something unforgivable.

It is the triumph of stentorian stupidity over the needs of humanity.

Of course, I admit that the contents of some of these paragraphs may meet with disapproval from conservatives. I welcome their dissent. I encourage an uninhibited discussion on all of these issues. In a free society, it is necessary that intelligent men and women vigorously disagree on matters of great importance.

But no society can be free when one point of view is so mischaracterized that its adherents are denied a reasonable opportunity to make their case to the public. No nation can advance when intelligent, well though-out solutions to major problems aren't given a fair hearing because they are shouted down by irrational hatreds. In short, if conservatives wish to debate me, disagree with President Obama, or criticize any other liberal in any way, they have the right to do so - but ONLY if they stick to the realm of facts. As one of America's first conservative thinkers put it best:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
- John Adams