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“If we were to design the perfect candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, that person would sound and act quite differently from Bob Goodlatte...
“Too often I hear that American politics has become polarized between the extreme left and extreme right. To those expressing this notion, I say: Get...
Andy delivers hit performance with ABC 7 affiliate WDBJ Web Staff: http://www.wdbj7.com/news/wdbj7-andy-schmookler-answers-your-questions-20121007,0,2315715.story
Schmookler begins political quest http://www.libertychampion.com/2012/10/foes-face-off-for-6th-district-seats/
Please Come Support Andy Schmookler who will debate Representative Bob Goodlatte Saturday, October 13 @1:30 pm James Breckinridge Middle School 3901 Williamson Road, NW Roanoke Monday, October 15@10:30...
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Every political party wants its followers to stick with them and not their opponents. So it’s natural that a party will seek to discredit a leader from its opposition. But today’s Republican Party went beyond the usual discrediting, and has sought to outright demonize Barack Obama.
Here’s my interpretation of why that is. It has three steps.
First, the Republican world constitutes a hierarchical society.
There are a number of ways of seeing this. We can see it in the tremendous party discipline they have, compared to the Democrats. Herding Republicans is not like herding cats. The Republican Party is increasingly a party of the South, and for generations interpreters of American culture have been discussing the hierarchical nature of the culture of the American South. Also, the hierarchical orientation of the Republican Party is shown also in many of the basic ideas –- even of usual conservatism — about good order (top-down, rather than bottom-up).
Second, in a hierarchical society, people are trained in the ethic that those lower in the hierarchy should obey those above, not question or challenge them.
Of course, any American political party, as well as any American region, is not going to be 100% hierarchical. That’s not the nature of a democracy, and not consistent with the national creed that enshrines liberty as one of the rights with which we’ve been endowed by our Creator. But America contains other non-democratic, non-liberal components within in its culture, including older hierarchical values characteristic of the warrior code and of military organization. Over the generations, especially in some parts of America, these components have instilled in a great many Americans the ethic of deference to those above. So, to oversimplify some, for the member of a hierarchical society the question is: Who is above me in the hierarchy to whom I’m obliged to give some measure of credence, deference, and obedience?
Third, today’s Republican Party, having no interest in cooperation or compromise, but only in fighting for power, needs for its supporters to give President Obama zero standing and credibility.
The Republicans, as I’ve been saying throughout Obama’s presidency, have made a fight over everything. They take absolutist positions on almost every issue, like guns and taxes –they even fight against ideas that used to be their own– because compromise is contrary to their whole political approach. If one’s way of doing politics is to wage a fight to the death, there can be no question of seeking the right balance between competing values and the contending positions of the different parties. Compromise becomes a dirty word. The result is that the Republicans don’t want their supporters to perceive the president as someone whose words they obliged to respect, lest they start weighing how much credence to give to his side of the argument. That requires that the Republican base not see the president as legitimately above them in any hierarchy of which they are part.
As a result, the Republicans went to work immediately not just to discredit President Obama, but to demonize and delegitimate him. From the beginning, they told tell their base, that he was not really their president, that he couldn’t be because he was born in Kenya. Not only was he not a legitimate president, and therefore not truly one who outranks a loyal American citizen in the hierarchy, but he hates America and –- Muslim terrorist with Nazi and Communistic purposes that they insinuated that he was — is out to destroy it. Of course, Obama’s race made it that much easier to cast this president as a dangerous “other” who could not be one’s legitimate superior in the hierarchy.
So, given the Republicans strategy not to help govern but to engage in an all-out struggle for political power, and given their supporters tendency to believe themselves obligated to give some loyalty and respect and obedience to their commander in chief, the Republicans had to make Obama out to be not just wrong on the issues, but wholly outside the boundaries of any “Us” that included their people.
Hence, the demonization of the president.
Afterword: One of the major errors made by President Obama in his first years in office was his forfeiting completely what should have been a battle over this demonization. By the time we got half way through Obama’s first term, an alarmingly large proportion of Republicans believed the demonizing lies the Republicans and their media allies had been promulgating. It is unlikely there is any chance at this point that the roughly one-third of Americans that constitute the Republican base could be persuaded to reconsider the demonized portrait they were given then.
This article appeared this past weekend in the Northern Virginia Daily and, in a shorter version, in Staunton’s Virginia News Leader.
What are we to believe about the size of government and the level of government spending?
Republicans say that the U.S. government has become way too big and that Americans are grossly overtaxed. Is that true?
In the United States, the rate of taxation is lower, and the size of government in relation to the size of the economy is smaller, than in just about every other nation like ours—rich, free, capitalistic, democratic societies.
Our peers around the world have decided that the best balance between the things that can be bought by people separately in the market and the things we have to buy together through tax dollars means having a government as big as ours, or bigger. So if Republicans are right, and government and taxation are too big, then not only are Americans foolish — every other society like ours is foolish.
In the Declaration of Independence, our Founders called for “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” And dismissing as foolish the judgment of dozens of advanced societies like ours hardly seems in keeping with that “decent respect.”
The attempt to discredit government and reduce its size may serve some interests but not the people. For example, government is the only entity strong enough to serve as a check on the huge agglomerations of private power in our big corporations.
The issue shouldn’t be the size of government but how wisely and justly we use it.
When Republicans call for cuts in spending, they take the position that we need to cut back on social programs and, indeed, on virtually every aspect of non-defense discretionary spending. But they strongly oppose cuts to defense spending. Is this the way to make America the best that it can be?
Republicans have in recent years encouraged the habit of boasting about our country, “We’re number 1.” And when it comes to defense spending, we are indeed far and away number 1. The United States spends almost as much on defense as the rest of the nations of the world combined. And most of the other large defense budgets are in countries that are our allies, not our enemies.
Is military spending the part of the budget where more spending will do most to help this nation fulfill its potential?
We’re also number 1 of all the nations on earth in how many of our people are in prison, number 1 among the 20 major advanced nations in the rate of infant mortality; in income inequality; in the proportion of our people, especially our children, who live in poverty; in how much we spend per person on health care, while also having the most people who go without health care because of cost.
Shouldn’t these be the kinds of areas where we invest?
Among advanced nations, we have the highest homicide rate; the second-highest high school drop-out rate; the highest rate of obesity; and the lowest rate of social mobility (the ability of people to climb up to a higher economic level than that into which they were born).
In tests of students from around the world, in various subjects, America’s children come out far from the top.
Are you satisfied with this picture? I’m not.
What does it say about a political party if it protects that part of the budget where we’re already fat, and wants to trim areas where we are hurting and deficient?
What kind of patriot brags about his country’s greatness while advocating policies that undermine its true strength?
Here’s another of the foundation stones that will prove indispensable for building the “house” that that’s coming—the new integrative vision that I promised at the outset (in ”Swinging for the Fences: Please Join Me in this Bold New Effort”) — another of the major forces at work in human cultures: the transmission through the generations of the culture’s basic patterns.
For better and for worse.
Our biological inheritance is transmitted through time by the passing of DNA from generation to generation. The transmission of our cultural heritage employs different means –which we will have important occasion to discuss—but with much the same effect: while there is change, what is most striking is the continuity.
The English language in which Beowulf was written is a far cry from the English language of today. Nonetheless, we can readily understand the speeches of Washington and Lincoln. A century from now, Americans will still be speaking a recognizable English language, transmitted through our children and grandchildren to their children and grandchildren.
The phrase that captures this ability of culture to replicate itself from generation to generation—often across many centuries—is “the persistence of culture.”
And as with the transmission of DNA, there is much that is beneficial about this preservation, from generation to generation, of the patterns of culture.
In terms of our present concern –our ability to choose our future—the first and main point to be made about the way cultures transmits their patterns is that it represents a powerful stabilizing force. It is less a force –like that described in The Parable of the Tribes and that in The Illusion of Choice —that pulls us off course than an anchor that keeps us on a course.
As an anchor, it can be a problem, acting as an obstacle to our moving into the future we might most desire because it sets limits on our ability to change.
But there is also another way that the “transmission of culture” is more complicated, and will illuminate that “mystery magnet” that we’ll be getting to soon.
Regarding the first point –cultural transmission as resistant to change, for better and for worse—here’s one vivid example:
In the north of New Mexico, it was discovered in our times that there were people who still lit candles every Friday evening at sundown, but had absolutely no idea why they did it. But their parents had done it. It turns out, of course, that these people are the descendants of Jews from Spain or Mexico who were compelled to conceal their Jewish observance and to maintain the pretense of being Christian. So, three and a half centuries later, their descendants –good Catholics by now, I guess– are still lighting candles on Friday evenings.
Here’s another, with more profound ramifications. For many centuries, China was the dominant civilization in the world in which it operated. The experience of this power and status generated in the culture –in the minds of its people—and image of Chinese civilization as the Center of the World, the Middle Kingdom, superior to everything they saw around them. What is amazing, in terms of the persistence of culture, is how that feeling survived in China even through many, many generations of disintegration, and humiliation, and subordination to foreign powers. The idea remained, ready to reassert itself.
The story of China also shows how this persistence of culture can provide continuity even despite efforts to effect a drastic change of course.
The Chinese revolution, led by Mao Tse-Teng attempted to extirpate, root and branch, much of Chinese tradition. But analysts of Communist China back in the reign of Mao noted how profoundly Confucian, in many ways, was his way of ruling.
Societies and cultures and peoples have a powerful tendency to remain what they are.
In the next round, I’ll bring up another dimension of what the transmission of cultural patterns reveals. Cultures are not all of a unit.
Within a cultural system, there can be different components or currents of the culture flowing with some autonomy, interacting in interesting ways. Different components may be at war with each other, competing for control over the destiny of the society of which they are all parts.
That will be a key to understanding the pathologies we have witnessed in recent years in the American power system. American “culture” has a multiplicity of parts, some constructive and some destructive. By seeing how the patterns move through history, we become better able to perceive these essential forces and how they work to determine our destiny.
More about that in the next round.
Here’s another systemic force that can subvert the ability of a society to achieve the kind of future that they want. In this case, the dynamic is one growing out of the relationship between different components of the society’s population, different subcultures that together comprise the overall culture.
It’s the process of POLARIZATION, a process by which the interaction between different points of view leads to an increasing division between those points of view. It is “systemic” in that the positions adopted by each side cannot be understood without reference to those adopted by the other side. It is destructive not only because it tends to increase the level of conflict in a society, but also to increase the level of folly.
In the 1970s and 1980s, I was focused mostly on the “magnets” already described, where systemic forces acted on people and societies as in The Parable of the Tribes and The Illusion of Choice. In the 1990s, I directed most of my attention to the problems associated with polarization because I was concerned about the destructive dynamic I saw operating in America, particularly in what was then being called the “culture war.”
Here is a passage from an op/ed I published in the mid-1990s in both the Baltimore Sun and the San Francisco Chronicle. It is called “The Dance of Polarization.”
“Polarization is something we can see happening constantly in human [systems and] relationships, on scales large and small. I have observed some relatively benign examples in my own life.
“When I drive with my mother — who can envision accidents occurring at every turn — she voices the need for caution to a degree I regard as extreme. In response, an impulse arises in me to drive less carefully than I usually do. In the presence of what I see as my mother’s over-cautiousness, I have to work to maintain my more typical prudence. This dynamic leads to a division of labor concerning the polarity of caution and daring.
“Something analogous happens between me and my 18-year-old son. To my mind, he procrastinates too much; I lean on him to take care of business more promptly and reliably. His tendency toward procrastination may have developed in reaction to my tighter relationship with my inner Taskmaster. But whatever its origin, when I am in his presence, I tend to become even more like myself than usual: my taking-care-of-business muscles get tighter than even I am comfortable with.
“You have probably noticed how married couples can polarize in various ways — between the slob and the compulsive straightener, the spendthrift and the miser, the one who does all the feeling and the one who is always rational and controlled, etc.
“When people divide on an issue, unless they find a resolution, they tend to push each other further out toward the opposite ends of the spectrum. Each end represents a value that is legitimate, but that also must be balanced against another value. Polarization is one way the system preserves balance, but it is an unstable and conflictual balance. Far better if the actors in the system, instead of dividing into mirror-image opposites of one another, could achieve the healthier balance of integration.
“But such integration is difficult. It represents that high human achievement: wisdom. In the absence of wisdom, people are compelled to struggle in their folly. Each side, wedded to its half-truth, sees the other as the problem. But the problem is a property of the system: the polarization and conflict are symptoms of the failure to find a way to bring together those values that are in tension.”
I will talk more about polarization and the pathologies of our times in the next round of entries on these various “magnets.”
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As the gun lobby says, only a small percentage of the gun deaths in America are inflicted by semi-automatic weapons. But the importance of fighting to ban these weapons goes beyond the number of lives that can be saved.
Theologians say the most dangerous heresies are those that take a sacred text and distort it by making it absolute. Such absolutes are dangerous because achieving the good always requires balancing competing values.
Americans have been pretty good at understanding that. We hold “freedom of speech” as essential, but we agree with Justice Holmes that it does not include a right to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We hold “freedom of religion” to be sacred, but we draw a line at human sacrifice.
No right is absolute—not when the basic security of a society and its people are at stake.
But the NRA refuses to weigh other values. Rejecting attempts to arrive at some wise balance, the NRA has worked for years to inflame their followers with the fear that any limitation on gun rights is an intolerable assault on their freedoms.
With a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, we could turn the gun issue toward political sanity by drawing a line between weapons that serve legitimate civilian purposes, like hunting or personal protection, and weapons with no legitimate purpose, like those that enable a shooter to kill many people in a short time.
These are weapons of war and, to legitimate these weapons, war is what the gun lobby has worked to get its followers to envision. But war against whom? Against their own government if/when that government threatens them with tyranny.
One hears from the gun culture that guns protect all other liberties. Arms in the hands of civilians, it is declared, can block a tyranny from taking over America. That idea has a powerful effect on how the gun issue plays out in America, but it is a dangerous falsehood.
The weapons of civilians would hardly slow down such a tyranny. The Iraqi army – several hundred thousand soldiers, organized with a command structure and possessing sophisticated weapons—withstood the American military for only a few weeks. If the American military were being wielded by some tyranny in Washington, a dispersed assortment of armed civilians would not be much of an obstacle.
The people of other democracies enjoy liberties like ours. In none of those countries are citizens given the far-reaching gun rights that the NRA insists are essential to protecting our freedom. In many of these free countries, the citizenry is substantially disarmed.
Although guns in the hands of civilians are neither necessary nor sufficient to keep us free, the NRA works to instill such fear-mongering falsehoods, creating the atmosphere for unreasoning antagonism. By defending gun rights as an absolute, the NRA ensures that Americans will fight over this issue rather than consider together how best to balance competing sets of legitimate values. And by treating anyone who disagrees with them as an enemy to be vanquished, the NRA turns politics into warfare. Members of Congress have cowered for years before the NRA, with its “cross us, and we’ll destroy you” approach.
As a candidate for Congress, I encountered citizens who said that they only needed to know a candidate’s stand on gun rights to know how they would vote. By making gun-rights advocates into single-issue voters, the NRA extracts political power from its supporters, power that is then used against them.
Much has been made lately of how the NRA works to feed the coffers of gun manufacturers, but that’s just a piece of a much larger picture. The NRA is part of a team on the right deceiving Americans about where their real interests lie.
The real threat to our liberties in America is not from restrictions on assault rifles but from the increasing concentration of power in the hands of a few. History shows how gross inequalities of power can lead to tyranny, and the NRA is part of the political force working to widen still further the gap between the exploitable many and the powerful few. Like a magician, the NRA works with the other members of the right-wing team to distract people by pointing to peripheral issues with the left hand while the right hand picks their pockets and threatens their American birthright.
That deception, as well as the lives that can be saved with a balanced approach to gun rights, is why this battle is so important.
Last week I submitted this piece to the Washington Post articulating the strategy I think President Obama should use in dealing with the problem of the debt-ceiling and the Republicans. In the days since, it has become clear that — although the President has made many of the same rhetorical points that I recommended — will not be taking the approach I proposed. Overtaken by events, this piece will therefor not be appearing in the Post.
But I’d like to share it here with you anyway. Time will tell how well the President’s decision on strategy works out.
Republicans in Congress are once again poised to damage their country with a threat to default on the nation’s debt. It’s time for President Obama to neutralize this threat with one of his own.
First, President Obama could remind Americans of some basic points about the debt ceiling:
• The debt ceiling isn’t about spending. The money has already been spent (by Congress). This is about paying our bills.
• Responsible people –and responsible nations—pay their bills.
• The United States benefits from an impeccable record for paying its bills. That’s why the U.S. can borrow at low interest rates.
• If Republicans carried out their threat and made us default on our credit, they would seriously damage America’s financial standing, thereby costing American taxpayers billions of dollars. That irresponsibility could also damage the world economy and plunge us back into recession – adding to the federal deficit, which they claim to care about.
• Last time Republicans used the debt ceiling to extort concessions, the mere threat damaged our economic recovery.
Having given the facts, the President could say:
“Congress has exercised its power on the debt ceiling over eighty times in recent generations, but never until last year had any Congress seriously balked at raising the debt ceiling. The power not to pay our bills, which Republicans in Congress have insisted on keeping, can be exercised only in ways that damage the nation.
“In addition, today’s congressional Republicans can put a president in an impossible situation — required to pay out money to execute laws duly passed by Congress but forbidden to spend that same money because that would require borrowing beyond the current debt limit. One way or another, the president would be acting illegally.
“There’s something wrong about a power that cannot be used without damaging the nation and that compels the president to act illegally.
“When Republicans threaten to drive the nation into default, unless their demands are met, they compel us to make one of two terrible choices:
“We can give in to blackmail, which we as a nation say should never be done. (The U.S. has always declared that we don’t negotiate with terrorists. And isn’t this political terrorism?)
“Or we can refuse to meet the blackmailers’ demands and wait to see whether the hostage-takers kill the hostage.
“Policy by extortion is not how a healthy democracy operates. A great nation cannot chart a proper course if its political leaders are forced to choose either to give in to blackmail or to expose the nation to the real harm the blackmailer is threatening to inflict.
“This abuse of the debt ceiling process has led thoughtful people to re-examine its legality, and fortunately, a strong case can be made that this whole debt-ceiling arrangement is unconstitutional.”
Here the president could summarize an argument articulated by various constitutional authorities: A clause in the 14th Amendment (“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned”) can be construed to mean that Congress is forbidden from doing what the Republicans are threatening to do. If the U.S. is constitutionally required to make good on its debt obligations, then Congress cannot, legally, force the nation into default.
Finally, the president could make his counter-threat.
“I have said that I will not negotiate about the debt ceiling. I will not allow the debt ceiling issue to be used to extort concessions that could not be won by legitimate political means. Let me now underscore my determination not to allow such blackmail to become a plague on our political system.
“I declare that if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling to pay for bills already incurred, I will declare Congress’ claimed debt ceiling powers to be unconstitutional and will simply pay the bills, as the 14th Amendment arguably requires that I do.
“I do not welcome a constitutional clash. Because Congress had always acted responsibly, the current arrangement –whether constitutional or not—has worked, and there’s been no reason to challenge it. But a new and destructive practice has been inaugurated by congressional Republicans. It is my responsibility to use every constitutional power available to me to protect the nation.
“Congress can raise the debt limit, or I will act. If the Republicans want to take the matter to the Supreme Court, I will be glad for the opportunity to argue that the Constitution does not give Congress the power to destroy the good faith and credit of the United States but rather gives me the power to protect it.”
The advantages of this strategy for President Obama –making this counter-threat rather than either acquiescing to the status quo or taking unilateral action —are two-fold. It would make the Republicans the ones responsible for precipitating a constitutional showdown, should there be one. And it would focus Americans’ attention on the destructive nature of the power the Republicans are claiming and threatening to exercise.
President Obama has a winning hand. America needs him to play it.
Andy Schmookler, formerly a candidate for Congress in Virginia, is the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.
Even when we’re done with the “fiscal cliff,’’ it looks like we’ll be compelled, early in the new year, to face another totally unnecessary, Congress-made crisis– over the debt ceiling.
In a news conference on December 13, House Speaker John Boehner insisted that the Republicans in Congress would insist on holding onto their ability to compel the U.S. to default on its credit, saying that Congress would never give up its “power of the purse.”
But the legitimate congressional powers of the purse are about spending, and this has nothing to do with that. The debt ceiling isn’t about spending. The money has already been spent. This is about paying one’s bills.
Paying one’s bills is what responsible people—and governments—do. The power that Boehner wants is the power to make the United States an irresponsible country.
In recent generations, the debt ceiling has been raised eighty-some times. Never before –until the summer of last year—has any Congress seriously balked at raising the debt ceiling.
It has been understood that we don’t jeopardize the full faith and credit of the United States. It has been the American tradition not to threaten to break promises it made to people who bought U.S. credit secure in the knowledge that the debt of the United States has long been the safest place in the world to put money.
We Americans have benefitted greatly from Uncle Sam’s impeccable reputation. It allows our government to borrow at very low interest rates.
But if the Republicans compel the U.S. to ruin our reputation, investors at home and around the world will demand a higher rate of interest to induce them to buy United States government debt.
That would make the federal deficit — which the Republicans claim to care about — still worse.
The power that Boehner insists on keeping cannot be used without damaging the nation. Even the mere threat to make the U.S. default on its debt is damaging.
Last time around, in 2011, the Democrats and President Obama gave in to Republican demands in order to avoid default. But even without default, serious economic damage was done. The uncertainty, and the spectacle of such unprecedented and irresponsible political behavior, rattled the world of markets and business, and set back our economic recovery. Good studies show that this episode of blackmail cost the United States billions of dollars, as a country and an economy.
The damage is political as well as economic. By making such a threat, the Republicans would compel the Democrats to make one of two terrible choices.
1) Either give in to blackmail, which we as a nation say should never be done. (“We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” the United States has always declared. And what else is the Republican extortion –Meet our demands or we’ll hurt America– but political terrorism?)
2) Or refuse to meet the blackmailers’ demands and wait to see whether the hostage-takers kill the hostage.
These are not the choices you give your opponent if you want your democracy to be healthy. A great nation cannot chart a proper course if its political leaders are forced to choose either to give in to blackmail or to expose the nation to the real harm the blackmailer is threatening to inflict.
America doesn’t have to be this way. We should insist on political behavior that serves the country, rather than makes a fight over everything, even when that means damaging the country.
We need Republicans to work to find cooperative approaches to solving genuine American problems, not create “fiscal cliff” and “debt ceiling” crises that are wholly the result of their own destructive behavior.
It’s up to us, the American people, to let them know that we’ve had enough of this game of chicken
The previous installment, “The Uncracked Nut,” talked about the conservatives in our District who simply ignored my message. Here the issue is the press, who didn’t take my claims seriously enough to ask, “Are they true?”
I have said that our campaign for Congress achieved its goals with the like-minded people of the Sixth District.
But I identified two parts of the body politic where our campaign failed to help the truth defeat the lie.
We did not reach or move the un-like-minded part of the electorate. This was discussed in the previous installment, “The Uncracked Nut.” Now it’s time to discuss the second disappointment: the failure of the press to deal seriously with my message.
I liked the men and women of the press with whom I interacted over the months of the campaign, and I believe they liked me. The problem, I think, is not about them as people but with the institutions they work for. And, indeed, I believe that my experience with the press in Virginia’s Sixth District points to a profound problem in the American press generally in our times.
I ran to deliver a message. In a nutshell, my message was this: A force has arisen on the political right that has made the Republican Party more destructive and dishonest than anything ever seen before at center stage of American politics. My opponent, as a rubber stamp for that party, was practicing the politics of dishonesty to serve interests destructive to our highest values.
This I believed with deep conviction, such that I have devoted the past eight years of my life to communicating that message to my fellow Americans.
If I were correct, what could be more important for citizens to know?
What would be more important for the press to help readers judge than the truth of such a claim, if the proper purpose of the press is to help the citizens of a democracy know those truths they need to know in order to do their part to keep their society healthy?
If an election is not the most appropriate time for a democracy to explore competing versions of reality, when would be?
And if I would not be taken seriously as the bearer of such a potentially vital message –as a candidate and with my decades-long history of writing seriously about just such issues as I was raising — who would be?
Yet the press never inquired into the truth or falsehood of my assertions.
The issue here isn’t about whether the press affected the outcome of the election. I don’t believe that. It’s whether the press recognizes what its proper job is.
Setting aside the matter of how well or superficially my claims and arguments were reported — a sentence here, a few sentences there— there is a more fundamental issue: The press seemed to think its responsibility lay only in reporting opposing positions and not at all in helping readers and viewers judge which of the conflicting claims was true
It would be unreasonable to expect news organizations to adjudicate fully my larger claims about the unprecedented patterns of destruction and dishonesty characterizing the force on the political right. But it would have been easy to inquire further into the conflicting versions of reality, asking each candidate to respond to the claims and arguments of the other.
The press, in other words, can generate the kind of conversation – like the adversarial back and forth that we use in our courts– to help clarify what’s true and what’s false.
Besides making the larger argument, I prosecuted my claims with specific charges about the lies of my opponent and his party. I called him out on his lies about the budgetary implications of Obamacare. I accused him of hypocrisy and inconsistency on his big theme of opposition to “big government.” I labeled as “the politics of dishonesty and distraction” my opponent’s channeling of the deliberate Republican distortion of the President’s “you didn’t built that” statement.
In none of these cases, nor in any of the many other cases of dishonesty I brought up, did the press go beyond “A says this, B says that” in order to help the citizens of the Sixth District judge what’s true.
I made the issue of truth the heart of my campaign, not only in my slogan of “Truth. For a Change,” but in virtually every speech I gave.
But the press acted as if truth is not its concern.
The issue here is bigger than the specifics of my story— bigger than my campaign with my message in this District— because it illuminates a pervasive problem coverage of American politics.
Today’s press tends to practice a kind of balance that says, “This person says the earth is round, and this other person says the earth is flat.” The audience is left to figure out what’s true.
The average citizen spends mere minutes a day on hearing about the news of the wider world. For that and other reasons, he or she is ill-equipped to judge whether the Affordable Care Act will increase or decrease the national debt, or whether climate change deniers have a reasonable case for their dismissal of what scientists say, or whether fiscal austerity would be helpful or harmful under current conditions.
Citizens need help, and who else is in a position to supply that help but the press? Not to tell people what to think but to generate the kind of inquiry that will help the citizenry, like a jury, to come to their own judgments.
The pseudo-balance of reporting equally all claims by politicians is an abdication of responsibility. A press that treats truth and falsehood the same – - that does not put the question “What is true?” at the center of its work – is not doing its job.
So, it there any way that I might have a plausible chance, in a second run, of getting the press to treat my message seriously enough to inquire into its validity?
This continues the discussion of the question: what is the best way to build upon what our candidacy achieved in order to have an impact to turn around America’s destructive political dynamic?
While our returns on Election Night were “respectable,” one thing is clear: we did not make any significant inroads into the conservative part of the electorate.
In Virginia’s 6th District, that’s a requirement for victory. But even in the broader American context, even where there are seats that can be won with only Democratic/liberal voters, getting through to those who have been supporting this Republican Party is still important: America cannot be healthy so long as nearly half our citizens are in the grip of lies that separate them from reality and that feed their hatreds and fears.
In many ways, my failure to bring “the good, decent conservatives” of this District to my side is completely unsurprising. People do not readily break their habits, nor switch their loyalties, nor admit error. And in my eight years of studying this problem, I’ve yet to see any approach that has succeeded in moving people from alignment with this destructive and dishonest force.
But I did have some hopes that my approach might work. I’d never seen tried what I had in mind: telling forcefully and credibly a truth framed in terms of moral righteousness. “The battle in American politics today is not between liberal and conservative. It’s between constructive and destructive. Honest vs. dishonest…” So I declared, and I meant it.
But one thing should be noted. The problem I faced was not so much that these “good, decent” people heard my message and would not buy it. The bigger problem was that, with some exceptions, I could not even get them to hear my message.
Part of my inability to reach them with my message is about money. I didn’t have the money to buy TV ad time and put myself in front of that audience.
But there’s another part that’s more disturbing. There was an intensity in the refusal of some of them even to expose themselves to a message from the likes of me, the Democratic candidate for Congress.
Some have spoken of the right-wing “bubble.” But I’m seeing it as more of a nut. The difference is in the impermeability of the shell. We had some experiences in this campaign that reinforce the sense that we’re up against something here that’s gone beyond the usual American kind of political loyalty and belief system and morphed into something even harder to overcome.
One gentleman in Front Royal, a former Republican who supported my candidacy, ran into the hard wall of that nut when he sent out hundreds of invitations to Republicans in the area to attend an event he was creating for Republicans to meet me. His invitations said “RSVP,” but the only responses he got were outright hostile.
Another couple who organized a Meet & Greet for me near the center of our District were shocked and disturbed by their experience in trying to include Republicans they knew in their event. Upon hearing that the candidate featured in the event was going to be a Democrat, one woman in their church declared, “Oh, my husband and I could not come to a party for a Democrat. My husband would never want to listen to him speak.” When she spoke with a doctor and his wife, a middle-aged couple, about attending the Meet & Greet, “[T] heir response was visceral and palpable. They both recoiled slightly, bending over a little as if hearing this offer brought them pain.”
These illustrate a widespread phenomenon on the right. The distrust and distaste for “the other side” has been cultivated for so long, and has become so deeply entrenched, that the right has become almost like a cult that’s hermetically sealed from any opposing point of view, or even from the correctives of fact-checking.
One reason for me to run again would be if there were good reason to believe that I’d be able to penetrate that wall to a meaningfully greater degree in that second run.
If you believe that I should run again, perhaps you can suggest reasons for thinking that I could crack the nut better next time, and ways in which I might be able to reach those “good, decent conservatives” better.
They pretty well ignored me the first time. Is there some way I can get them to engage with me in a second run?
I said in the previous installment that we should be asking how, starting from where we are now with what we were able to achieve with my campaign for Congress, we can “have the greatest possible positive impact on the political crisis that besets our country.”
So let’s look at how that crisis should be perceived, and what our campaign did and did not achieve related to it.
The most obvious part of the crisis is that “a sick and broken” spirit has taken over one of our two major political parties and has been wielding great power in ways that are “more dishonest and more destructive than anything ever seen before at center stage of American politics.”
But its ability to gain such power is testimony to the fact that the pathology is not confined to the political right (and the Republican Party). This dangerous force could only succeed as much as it has because the “immune system” of the American body politic has become compromised. An immune system is supposed first to recognize the pathological when it enters the body and second to combat it to make sure that the pathology does not take over the body.
Our founders gave us a system in which 1) the competing factions (i.e. the Democratic Party), 2) the press, and 3) the American people would recognize and suppress such a dishonest and destructive force. As I demonstrated in several of my “Rounds” talks (e.g. on the “torture memo” legal fraud, and on the climate change issue), all three of those components of the American body politic failed to respond as our founders would have wished.
I ran for Congress as the best way I could find of trying to activate the immune system and fight the disease.
In our campaign, the pathology was well-represented by Bob Goodlatte, who plays the role of rubber stamp for the destructive force the Republican Party has become, and who consistently communicates dishonestly with the people.
I played the role of the competing faction by dealing with that pathology in the way that I thought the Democratic Party should have been doing for some years: denouncing the Republican Party for what it is, and calling out their lies.
I hoped to light a fire –the fire of “Truth. For a change.”—and for that fire to spread with such energy that it would alter the political landscape.
In one domain, I feel I succeeded. Among the like-minded –those who already sided against the force we must fight—a fire did get kindled. People would say to me that “You’re preaching to the choir,” and I would reply that I wasn’t preaching to the choir, I was “trying to raise an army.”
In the last two or three months before the election, the evidence of the growing fire among us was evident at almost every campaign event. April and I were met and buoyed up by a bright passion in our supporters like nothing I ever experienced. The army I sought had been raised, and it put up an outstanding fight.
That’s what we’ve built now. And what we can hope now to build upon.
But that leaves two other elements of the body politic where there remained important barriers we didn’t manage to get past to any significant degree: that portion of the people who did not begin like-minded, but rather who have been successfully manipulated by the lies; and the press on whose coverage of my message our campaign necessarily relied.
Part of coming to an answer to the question “Should Andy Schmookler run once again for Congress against Bob Goodlatte in 2014?” involves looking at these two parts of the picture where the “immune system” did not get activated.
Is there a way that a second effort can succeed in those areas –reaching the “good, decent conservatives of this district,” getting the press to treat our message with a deeper level of seriousness—where the first effort failed?
It’s not clear to me that, without greater success in those areas, my making a second run for Congress would achieve much that we haven’t already achieved.
So let’s turn now to look at each of those two areas –“cracking the nut” of the right-wing alternate reality so many of our neighbors dwell in, and enlisting the press in a genuine inquiry into what’s true and what’s a lie in American politics today—and assess what we’re up against.
In the aftermath of the election on November 6th, many dozens of people have written or phoned me to encourage me to run again in 2014. I am honored and fortified by that encouragement, and by all the laudatory words that accompanied it.
I’m also open to the possibility. But I’m not yet prepared to make a decision one way or the other. To my mind, the more useful question is not, at this point, “Should I run again in 2014?” but rather a question that’s prior, and more fundamental: “What is the best way for me –and all of us together—to build upon what we’ve already accomplished in order to have the greatest possible positive impact on the political crisis that besets our country?”
The answer might be another run for Congress, but –as I’ll explain in a subsequent posting—there are some questions that need to be explored about that before one can judge how much a second run would achieve that the first one already hasn’t.
In addition, there are some possible other lines of attack besides the electoral arena –as I also will be writing about—that should be considered, either instead of or in addition to another election campaign.
I invite you to join with me in attending to the series (under the heading “The Way Forward”) and in contributing to the discussion. This series and that discussion will potentially serve several functions, one of which is the function of decision-making process.
You may have heard me say that “the spirit behind this campaign acts like water: it always finds its way to flow onward.”
The exploration that I’m beginning here seems to me to be the way that spirit wants to flow from here, as it seeks to enlist our power to achieve its purposes of restoring wholeness –“truth, justice, and the American way,” as per my Superman Platform—to our still-imperiled nation.
It appeared at one time that this piece would be published in a national forum during the last two weeks of the campaign. That did not happen. Nonetheless, even though Mr. Romney has likely by now been consigned to history, this piece has elements that lead me to share it here now.
Many in the Republican base have complained that the erstwhile Massachusetts moderate, Mitt Romney, is not a fitting standard bearer for today’s Republican Party. But there’s a fundamental way that Romney is a perfect reflection of his party: Neither is honest with the American people.
Mr. Romney is the master of conversions—seeing one light then another, switching between moderate and “extreme conservative” positions, depending on which constituency he needs to satisfy. At the first presidential debate, even those forewarned about Etch-a-Sketch were stunned at the unabashed abandonment and denial of policies that were central to the message he used to win the nomination. (Among his distortions: that his health plan covers pre-existing conditions and that he was not proposing any $5 trillion tax cut.)
Politicians have been known to be less than candid. But has anyone been as blatant as Romney in his willingness to say anything to gain political power?
That makes Mr. Romney a suitable leader for what the once-respectable Republican Party has become. When in power, that party lied us into war, lied about torture, punished truth-tellers in the bureaucracy, and changed what its climate scientists said. That party went on to lie about President Obama’s birthplace, about “death panels,” about Obamacare’s impact on the budget. And much more.
No wonder Republicans are not honest with the good people who support them: They’re working to take wealth and power from average Americans and give to those who already have the most wealth and power. Even though we have more inequality of income and wealth in America now than we’ve had in living memory, the Republican plans would widen that gap still further.
Their Ryan Budget is a fraud in terms of its stated purpose of addressing debt and deficit. As reverse Robin Hood, it’s the real thing. It guts Medicare, making seniors pay more to get the health care they need, and strangles other programs that serve average Americans—all in order to give another tax cut to the richest of the rich.
A political party couldn’t survive if it were honest about such intentions.
But the most fundamental falsehood is not about policy; it’s about the true nature of today’s Republican Party.
These Republicans claim to be conservative, but they’re not. Not if the essence of conservatism is a respect for traditions and norms.
America has a tradition that we don’t play politics with the debt ceiling. Today’s Republicans took the full faith and credit of the United States hostage to extort concessions.
The filibuster had traditionally been a brake for a minority to use in special circumstances. But today’s Republicans wield it, as no real conservatives would, consistently to thwart majority rule in the Senate.
American tradition requires that we accept defeat when we lose elections and acknowledge that the winners are entitled to govern. Not today’s Republicans, who set about delegitimizing this president as soon as he took office.
This is the opposite of what real conservatives would do.
Their pose as patriots is also phony. They wrap themselves in the flag and boast of national superiority. But they conspicuously fail the test of genuine patriotism: the willingness to sacrifice self-interest for the good of the country.
Before Mr. Obama was inaugurated and two months after campaigning under the banner “Country First,” Republicans set their No. 1 priority: Make the new president fail. In 2009, with the nation wracked by crises left over from their own stewardship and with American and global economies nearing disaster, the adoption of such a goal was grotesquely unpatriotic. It meant pain for countless Americans, and damage to the country. No real patriot would want that, regardless of the political rewards.
One cultural mantra of the America I grew up in during the 1950s was “Crime doesn’t pay.” Said so often, it was taken as a given. But aren’t the lies of political leaders a kind of crime against our democracy? And yet lately those are paying off big time.
On October 3, Mitt Romney lied or distorted his way to “victory” in the presidential debate and revived his campaign. In 2010, Republicans swept to a great victory because, as exit polls disclosed, voters bought their falsehoods.
When lies defeat the truth, liars aren’t the only ones at fault. Responsibility is shared by those who do not fight for the truth not only by correcting the falsehoods but also by conveying the moral outrage that scandalous conduct should evoke.
Our founders said government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. For that consent to mean anything, it must be informed, not misinformed.
A democracy in which the lie prevails will not remain a democracy for long.
This week provided an interesting glimpse into the political right’s pathological dishonesty (and Rachel Maddow did an excellent job of calling attention to it). It turns out that the liars are prone to lying to themselves.
Hence the striking footage of Karl Rove, on Fox News, doubting the statisticians’ determination that President Obama had won Ohio. Hence the apparent surprise of the Romneyites that the election went the way the polls said it would, rather than conforming to what they had convinced themselves was the truth of the matter.
This phenomenon connects deeply with the theme of my recent campaign for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District (the most Republican District in the state): “Truth. For a change.”
To function properly, democracy depends on truth prevailing. And half the American body politic has diverged from any healthy connection with truth.
Wednesday evening, Rachel Maddow gave an outstanding little speech about the problem for America of having our right half living in an alternate reality.
She called our brothers and sisters on the right back to awareness with a litany of things that are true, and should be accepted as such.
“Ohio really did go to president Obama and he really did win.
And he really was born in Hawaii and he really is the legitimate president of the United States, again.
And the bureau of labor statistics did not make up a fake unemployment rate last month.
And the congressional research service really can find no evidence that cutting taxes on rich people grows the economy.
And Nate Silver was not making up fake projections to make conservatives feel bad. He was doing math.
And climate change is real
And rape really does cause pregnancy sometimes.
And evolution is real.
And the Benghazi was an attack on us, not a scandal by us.
And nobody is taking away people’s guns.
And taxes have not gone up and the deficit is dropping, actually.
And Sadam Hussein did not have weapon of mass destruction.
And FEMA is not building concentration camps
And moderate reforms of the regulations of the insurance industry and financial services industry are not the same thing as communism.”
Maddow went on to say in clear and vibrant terms how good it would be for America to regain an honest political force on the conservative side of our divide. That part of her speech can be heard here: http://upwithchris.tumblr.com/post/35283830686/the-danimal-rachel-maddow-explains-the-2012
This was a beautifully stated version of something I said many times across Virginia’s Sixth District. We need a good conservative party. We need to have a constructive and honest — and genuinely patriotic — political party that is right of center. And we want the Republican Party to move toward being that way.
We want this, and it is entirely appropriate for Rachel Maddow to call out for this, to explain its importance, to summon the deluded to extricate themselves from the cult that the Republican Party has become and to free themselves from the sick and broken spirit that drives that cult and that uses that cult to degrade and destroy as much as it can of all that makes America good and great.
But wanting is one thing; expecting is another. This election was certainly a powerful blow at the right. But so was the Bushite failure in the Iraq war. So was the Bush presidency helping to drive our economy over a precipice. So was the election of 2008.
These blows are important, and the more frequent and harder we make those blows, the sooner we can drive that dark spirit out of the Republican Party and away from the helm of our American civilization.
But this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It may be the end of the beginning. (Hats off to Churchill, master of the rhetoric of conflict.) We need to encourage President Obama, and the Democrats in the Congress, to press the battle and not squander their opportunities as they have in the past.
The fate of the nation depends on it. With the “It’s a Wonderful Life” test, whereby we can compare the the starkly contrasting possible scenarios, the question is will we be Bedford Falls or will we degrade into Pottersville?
With stakes so high, whether we like it or not, this is a battle that must be fought.
Below is the concession speech by Dr. Andy Schmookler, Democratic candidate for Virginia’s congressional sixth district:
I’d like first to congratulate my opponent in this race, Bob Goodlatte, on winning his 11th term in Congress.
Next I would like to extend to all the many people who have helped our campaign a most heartfelt thanks. For April and me, campaigning around this District has been a most rich and rewarding experience. Mostly because of the many wonderful people we have met. I won’t start trying to name names, because there are so many who deserve mention. But please know you are, and will remain, in our hearts.
And let me express the hope, too, that you will remain in our lives. Because though this campaign is over, and though we did not win the seat in Congress for which we have fought so hard, the battle must surely go on.
For me, the purpose of this campaign has never been wholly defined by the outcome tonight. The purpose has always been to have an impact on the political dynamic that’s been degrading our country. Winning would have been one powerful way to have such an impact. But it is not the only one. Indeed, I truly feel that this campaign has already been a success.
Even without victory, we have had an impact: thanks to our efforts, the 6th District is not the same. A fire has been kindled, and a fire tends to spread. As a teacher, I know that with many students the effects of one’s effort can take time to manifest themselves.
Although we have not had all the success we sought, I am feeling deeply gratified by what we have accomplished. And while –having fought this battle now for more than eight years, a bit less than two of them as a candidate, and being 66 years old– I’m not about to say, “I have just begun to fight,” I will say that the battle can and must continue. That would be true, win or lose in this contest. The challenge now is to discern the best way to carry that battle forward.
And wherever that path leads –back into the electoral arena, or some other way, or both– I hope that I will continue to have your support, your companionship, and your prayers.
I have put together three messages to reach the voters of our District through radio broadcast. In each of these, I have tried to say something true and important about who I am and where I’m coming from as I seek to represent this District in the United States Congress. And I have made every effort to say it well.
Here are the three radio message, each one minute in length. I invite you to listen to them. And, if you like and believe in what you hear, I also invite you to send them out to people you know in the District. This campaign can only succeed with the help of people power.
Please remember, the stakes in the political battle in America today could not be higher. Will the truth again defeat the lie? Will our country be able once again to build the better America we all want for our children and grandchildren?
The first radio ad: here I describe how I, with my life-long commitment to being a truth-teller, came unexpectedly to enter the political arena and run for Congress.
The second radio ad: here I speak to the good, decent conservatives of our District, and explain why in this election, the best way for them to support their conservative values is to vote for me, and not my opponent.
The third radio ad: here I express my vision of the better America I’m fighting for.
Finally, here is a longer version of that positive vision, a print ad that’s run in two of the District’s major newspapers.
Please help spread the word. There’s a need for an awakening in America. Help me deliver that wake-up call.
Here is my third radio ad. Having spoken often of the threat to America that I’m fighting against, in this statement I express as best I can in 54 seconds my vision of the better America that I’m fighting for. It’s from the heart.
Click on this link to hear me talk about, I See an America…
In the debates with my opponent, Bob Goodlatte, I made this key point:
“Never in our history has there been a political party so dishonest with the American people as what the once respectable Republican Party has become. Bob Goodlatte is a part of this problem because he so consistently promotes this dishonest party line.”
The debates provided a host of examples of falsehoods, distortions, and hypocrisies—on fracking, on Obamacare, on job-creation, on balancing the budget.
But I want to focus on a particular statement that Mr. Goodlatte made in at least two of our debates because this statement is especially important and especially revealing of the moral bankruptcy of today’s national Republicans.
Mr. Goodlatte, while declaring himself a fine practitioner of bi-partisan politics, blamed the gridlock in Washington on the Democrats in the Senate. The House passed lots of great bills, Goodlatte said, and the Democrats in the Senate failed to do their part—pass their own versions and then “negotiate the differences between the House and the Senate and then send the president one agreed-upon bill.”
“It’s all THEIR fault,” he was saying.
This is not only baloney. It’s deliberate baloney.
During these past two years, when Republicans held a big majority in the House, Mr. Goodlatte and his Republican colleagues focused on passing measures that had no chance of becoming law.
They consistently made no effort to bring Democrats –in their own chamber, in the Senate, or in the White House—into the process of writing their bills. And the bills they passed were not even within striking distance of reaching any agreement in a House-Senate conference. Where in the record is there any evidence of a desire to find common ground? The Democrats in the Senate would have been fools to imagine that there was an opportunity to work together to get real legislation passed.
(The Ryan budget illustrates the larger pattern: the Republicans, including Bob Goodlatte, passed this measure that would gut Medicare, making seniors pay more for the healthcare they need in order to give yet another tax cut to the richest of the rich. There was zero chance that it would pass the Senate or be signed by the President.)
The Republicans were not seeking to get legislation enacted, and do the people’s business (like passing a jobs bill). They were playing politics. They were making empty gestures.
How clear is it that they were big on empty gestures? They voted to repeal President Obama’s healthcare reform accomplishment more than 30 times. 30 TIMES! Have we Americans ever seen the likes of that before?
And we know why they were playing these games.
We know, because it is well documented, that the Republicans decided, before President Obama was inaugurated, that they would do everything they could to make this President fail. This was their strategy for regaining the White House from even before Day: prevent anything constructive from being accomplished, even if their actions would inevitably hurt the country. (And this was when the nation’s and world’s economy were on the edge of an abyss, and the president’s failure would inevitably mean the nation’s failure, and suffering for tens of millions of Americans.)
The respected former Republican Senator from Ohio George Voinovich has said, “If the President was for it we were supposed to be against it.”
So gridlock was no accident. It wasn’t caused by uncooperative Democrats in the Senate. This gridlock was key to the Republicans’ whole political strategy of the past four years.
Why is this instance of dishonesty especially important?
It goes to the heart of the American people’s profound dissatisfaction with Congress. Approval of Congress is at record-low levels, and that’s because this Congress has accomplished less than any Congress in generations. (Indeed, it has been less than half as productive as the previously least productive Congress in our times.)
The Republicans, including my opponent, Bob Gridlock, broke our political system so they could gain political advantage by posing as the ones to fix it.
Why is this instance of dishonesty especially disgraceful?
Making it their top priority was to make the president look bad by preventing anything from being accomplished –in a time of national crisis—was disgraceful enough. Now, the Republicans like Bob Gridlock are compounding their sin by trying to put the blame on their opponents for the gridlock they deliberately produced.
If that’s not a sign of moral bankruptcy, what would be?
I see the battle in our politics today as not at the usual political level of liberal versus conservative, but at a deeper moral and spiritual level.
Never in American history has a political party been so dishonest with the American people as today’s national Republican Party. This dishonesty is poisoning our politics and disabling us from navigating into a successful future.
My opponent Bob Goodlatte, who consistently backs this dishonest party line, is a part of the problem. One example of this is his major campaign theme that we Americans need him and his party to protect us from some threat from “big government.” This argument obscures the truth.
For one thing, Bob Goodlatte supports the very kind of big government that our founders most feared, the kind that tramples on those liberties enshrined in our Constitution. He has backed detention of American citizens without trial, and searches without warrants. He proposed a measure to protect intellectual property that had to be withdrawn because it was an assault on free speech on the Internet.
And the rest of his argument is based on a distortion — the idea that the U.S. suffers from out-of-control government spending, which he keeps saying is 35 times what it was 50 years ago. By ignoring the major decline in the value of the dollar and the huge growth in the size of our economy, Mr. Goodlatte obscures what’s really true and important:
As a proportion of our national economy, the size of government has been rather constant for decades. The federal workforce has actually decreased since Ronald Reagan was President. The size of government in the U.S., per capita, is nearly the smallest among advanced democratic capitalist nations.
The issue isn’t how big government is but whom it’s serving.
When Goodlatte and other Republicans speak of excessive government spending, they’re never talking about bloated defense budgets that enrich government contractors, and that make the U.S. defense budget almost as great as the defense expenditures of all the other nations of the world combined.
The programs they want to cut are those that help average Americans.
And above all, they’re talking about weakening government’s ability to protect the public from corporations that are so mighty that only government can restrain their abuses of power. Do we really want prescription drugs to kill us, food and water and to poison us, or workers to get hurt or killed on the job?
The right size of government is whatever will best enable Americans to live the kinds of lives they want. But to have a government that’s truly for the people and by the people, we cannot allow lies to defeat the truth.
A democracy in which the lie prevails will not be a democracy for long.
This piece was published in the Washington Post on October 12, 2012. It can be found online on the WashPost site at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-far-right-has-skewed-our-political-debate/2012/10/11/1b25e374-081c-11e2-afff-d6c7f20a83bf_story.html
Too often I hear that American politics has become polarized between the extreme left and extreme right. To those expressing this notion, I say: Get real.
Nothing in America’s main political battles today warrants being called “extreme left.” It’s clear that all of the extremism is on one side.
Put another way: On issue after issue on the playing field of politics, the Democrats are backed against their own end zone.
Consider that our nation is in its most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. Tens of millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed, and many are in danger of losing their homes. Against this backdrop, are we fighting over ways to extend the social safety net? No. Instead, the battle line is drawn over whether we’ll cut back on food stamps and whether Medicare will be gutted and Social Security diminished.
Is it extreme for Democrats to defend positions that have been established for generations and to protect what used to be called the “third rail” of American politics?
With the budget deficit soaring and the very richest Americans paying taxes at what some estimate are the lowest rate in 80 years, are we fighting over some extreme “soak the rich” tax hike? No. Congressional Republicans refuse to increase those taxes one cent, and they pass budgets that would reduce the taxes on the wealthiest still further. Meanwhile, Democrats seek to allow taxes for the very wealthy to rise back to where they were during the prosperous years when Bill Clinton was president and to close loopholes so that billionaires don’t pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries.
Is it extreme for Democrats to take positions on tax policy that Ronald Reagan supported?
With our nation and humankind facing potentially disastrous consequences from climate change, are we fighting over measures to meet this challenge? No, the question at issue in U.S. politics is whether to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of some of its important powers, or perhaps even abolish it.
This leads me to ask: Is it extreme for Democrats to defend an agency created by a Republican president, Richard Nixon?
Our economic troubles can be blamed largely on the neglect and dismantling of our financial regulatory system. Yet the battle in our politics is over whether to fund and staff a modest financial regulatory program passed into law with the Dodd-Frank legislation almost two years ago.
Is it extreme for Democrats to rebuild some of the financial regulatory system established under Franklin Roosevelt that gave us decades of economic and financial stability?
With wages for workers no longer climbing in tandem with increases in productivity and, indeed, having been stagnant for years, and with the laws protecting labor no longer reliably enforced, are we fighting over attempts to make workers more powerful than management? No, the battle is over whether workers will be stripped of their rights to bargain collectively.
Is the defense of rights that workers have had for more than 75 years an extreme position?
Democrats are fighting for policies that used to be part of the bipartisan consensus. The nation’s political battles would have to move a long way to the left even to arrive at what we used to consider the center. There is no possibility in today’s political landscape for any policy decision that could be called “far left.” The thought is simply laughable.
Even President Obama’s health-care reform, often called radical, has decades-old antecedents in U.S. political history, including proposals from Republican presidents such as Nixon in the 1970s and Theodore Roosevelt at the beginning of the 20th century. Obama’s plan addresses health-care coverage with predominantly Republican ideas, including the individual mandate that grew out of a Heritage Foundation proposal.
So, no, this nation is not polarized. Rather, it is under assault from a political force that has taken over the Republican Party and promotes extreme and divisive positions.
When people talk about our nation being polarized between two parties that have moved to the extremes, I hear one more illustration of the mindless “evenhandedness” that has made today’s liberals such pushovers.
If we want to get our politics away from the goal line and bring humane, caring, constructive and progressive values back in force, Americans must see this crisis for what it is. And those who do see it need to stand up and boldly tell it like it is.
These questions were posed to both Bob Goodlatte and me, and both sets of answers were published on September 23 in the Roanoke Times at www.roanoke.com/editorial/counterpoint/wb/314390.
1. What changes do you favor to make Medicare sustainable, or what alternative program would you support instead of the entitlement program?
The cost problem is not a Medicare problem. It’s an American health care system problem. As a nation, we pay twice as much for health care as the citizens of any other advanced nation pay. Yet our health care system – the means of delivering good health care to the whole population — is not even in the top 30 in the world. For Americans to pay more and get less is unacceptable. If our health care system cost only as much as some better systems, in places like Switzerland and the Netherlands, we would be running a budget surplus now.
The Republican solution –- the Ryan Plan that Bob Goodlatte has voted for twice— is a terrible idea. It is not about saving money; it is about shifting the costs from the government onto seniors. They will have to pay on average an additional $6,500 a year out of their own pockets. Many will find this unaffordable.
The Republican plan inflicts pain on our older people. But instead of helping with the financial problem it pretends to solve, the plan actually drives the costs up. It increases costs by pushing seniors back into the hands of the private insurance industry, which has big administrative costs and is the least efficient, most money-wasting part of the whole system.
We know that creating a health care system that delivers more for less is possible, because other democratic, capitalist countries have done it. Our job is to find an American way of doing it for our people.
2. Should the national deficit be reduced through a mix of tax increases and spending cuts or solely through spending cuts? What specific taxes and cuts do you favor?
The most important thing we can do to reduce the national deficit is to get Americans back to work and revive the American economy. This economic downturn has made government pay more to help keep stricken families afloat, and the downturn reduces government revenue. Those two items may account for a third of the whole deficit.
However, it is a big mistake for us to focus on the deficit while the economy is struggling. The austerity measures that Bob Goodlatte and the GOP have pushed through have thrown hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work and made our economic crisis worse. The problem with our national debt is not so much that we’re adding to it now, when we need government to take the initiative, but that the Republican administration from 2001 to 2009 doubled the national debt during reasonably good economic times.
When the economy is back on its feet, we should close the deficit both by cutting spending and by increasing revenues.
On the spending side, instead of gutting Social Security, Medicare, and other vital government programs, we should reduce the deficit by bringing health care costs under control and by cutting the excessive defense budget. Fiscal discipline need not dismantle the programs and institutions that make America a great and humane society. Fiscal discipline need not be achieved at the expense of our country’s most vulnerable citizens.
On the revenue side, we should close tax loopholes for corporations and raise taxes on the richest Americans to the level in the prosperous 1990s. The GOP and my opponent insist that the super-rich pay not a cent more in taxes –- and indeed that their taxes be cut still further. That’s Robin Hood in reverse. The super-rich have so warped our system of taxation with loopholes that they now pay taxes at a lower rate than the merely somewhat rich. In fact, the super-rich now pay taxes at their lowest level in 80 years.
We should also increase the number of tax brackets, so that the billionaire earning his billionth dollar pays at a higher rate than the successful small businessman pays on his 250,001th dollar.
3. What, if anything, in your party’s national platform do you disagree with? Why?
On the issue of the dangerously corrupting role of money in our politics, the Democratic Party platform is better than the Republican platform — but not nearly strong enough.
The Democratic platform acknowledges that “our political system is under assault by those who believe that special interests who believe that special interests should be able to buy whatever they want in our society, including our government.” The platform makes a gesture of opposition to the Supreme Court’s dreadful Citizens United decision, which put our government up for auction. And it declares that Democrats are determined to “fight to reduce the influence of money in politics.”
But where is the adequate battle plan for the fight that must be fought? And make no mistake, this fight is not just one among many. It is the fight on which the outcome of nearly all our other battles depends.
At stake is whether we will have a government for and by the people, or for and by the rich and powerful few. Will we have one person, one vote? Or will we have one dollar, one vote? Will we restore that fundamental democratic justice in which every citizen has a meaningful say in deciding our nation’s destiny?
The first step is to overturn that terrible Citizens United decision, which is turning our democracy into an oligarchy.
The Democratic platform should have declared an unequivocal commitment to pass a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and restore the real power in our election process to the American people. If elected, I will make that a top priority.
4. Given that Rep. Goodlatte’s Stop Online Piracy Act stalled in the House over concerns about its unintended impact on legitimate Internet companies, how can Congress act to prevent foreign theft of U.S. intellectual property?
We should all hope that Mr. Goodlatte’s bill stays stalled. It uses a sledge hammer to do surgery where a scalpel is called for. The profoundly chilling effect on free speech and the openness of the Internet is too high a price to pay for dealing with the need to protect intellectual property. The costs of the Goodlatte bill far outweigh its minor benefits.
I am confident that a better way of protecting intellectual property can be found (and as an author myself, I am sympathetic with those who wish to protect their intellectual property). But I am not yet ready to propose such a solution for this new digital and global information world. In the meantime, bad legislation is worse than no legislation. As physicians say, first do no harm.