Wednesday, October 27, 2010

James Fallows on Fox and NPR

From one of America's most thoughtful observers and cogent commentators: "Why NPR Matters."

"There is no center to American Politics"

From Robert Reich, here is the clearest explanation I've seen yet about the nature of American politics and the profound cultural differences between the two major parties.

I'm particularly intrigued by the notion that Republicans tend to be cynical about politics while Democrats are idealists.

Unlike being gay or straight (a topic much discussed these days by people who haven't the faintest notion what they're talking about), having an attitude is a choice. As citizens, we choose to be cynical, idealistic, or apathetic.

More than just intellectual positions, these are fundamental moral choices with—in this day and age—global consequences.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rinos and Dinos in 2010

In the months leading up to next week’s midterm election, the influence of the Tea Party made itself felt by relentlessly going after the few moderate Republicans who were up for reelection. One after another, experienced right-wing politicians—Utah’s Senator Bob Bennett, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Delaware’s Mike Castle—went down to defeat in their party’s primary, replaced by extremist “Tea Party” candidates.

In today’s Party of No, anyone who’s ever said yes to anything in Washington—constructive or otherwise—is suspect. With the kind of mindless, knee-jerk decision making that’s all too typical in American politics, the conservative hoards seem to be obeying the libertarian mantra: “Throw the bums out.”

This purging of the right in the interest of some sort of ill-defined ideological purity may well result in sweeping away some of the nominal Democrats who’ve routinely abandoned their principles and their president’s progressive agenda in a quixotic attempt to please powerful right-wing interests.

In Arkansas, for example, Blanche Lincoln seems to be battling into oblivion against Republican John Boozman. I say good riddance to her: she didn’t do her party any good by voting for good legislation, like the health care overhaul, while trashing it publicly to please conservatives back home. Political columnist Max Brantley called her “wishy-washy by nature”—and we’ve got enough of that in Congress already, so long as we still have to put up with John McCain.

Similarly, a recent WSJ article reported that of the 54 “Blue Dog” Democrats (that is to say “Democrats in Name Only”) in the House, more than half are in serious jeopardy of losing their seats in next week’s election. If that happens, as the article suggests, the United States Congress may end up significantly more polarized than it has been for the past two years—or maybe the past two hundred years.

And I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. It won’t be pretty, but maybe it will be a good thing for both sides in America’s battle for the minds of the masses to get their cards out on the table.

American voters are simplistic thinkers, after all, and impatient with too much analysis. Let’s get the Rand Pauls and the Joe Millers out there, in all their proud ignorance, and have them explain—at length— to the American people why Civil Rights legislation tramples on the “rights” of business owners and why Social Security should be “privatized” (which is to say “turned over to Wall Street”).

Meanwhile, let’s make sure that the Democrats we elect to Congress are “real” Democrats—people able and willing to stand up for the rights of individuals to have security, freedom, and fair treatment from banks, insurance companies, and big business.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Juan Williams and the Budinskis

My Polish grandmother used to talk a lot about budinskis—people who habitually mind other people’s business instead of their own and express opinions, no matter how little they may know about a given situation.

The word may be out of fashion, but this whole Juan Williams affair has certainly proved (if proof were needed) that the world is still full of them.

In his new role as budinski-in-chief for the GOP (for want of any elected title), Newt Gingrich is calling for Congress to defund NPR! Pundits are weighing in on the situation left and right (and I do mean left and right—budinskiism is clearly not the purview of either major party). Most, like Gingrich, come down on the side of poor, beleaguered and misunderstood Mr. Williams—who, according to the boss who fired him, had been having ongoing problems with remembering his responsibility to be as apolitical as possible in accordance with his role at the nonpartisan network. (Why she didn’t fire him when he first started moonlighting at Fox is anybody’s guess.)

Companies have a right to fire people for any number of reasons—including failure to conform to an image befitting their role in the eyes of the public. Let’s take an example.

I work in public education. Would the principal of my school have the right to fire me if I started working part time as a bar tender? There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with tending bar, but my principal may—or may not—think the image is in keeping with that of a school professional.

The odds are good that I wouldn’t be fired for that—although such a choice could conceivably generate some conversation with district officials about the need for school employees to be careful about their public image.

Then suppose I became embroiled in a public incident in the bar that generated headlines. Or decided to start expressing my opinions on page 1 of the local paper about matters related to my second job. Or what if, as a representative of the hospitality industry, I started making public statements about lowering the drinking age in our state?

You see what I mean? In such a scenario, I’d be treading dangerously close—and likely sometimes crossing—the line preventing conflict of interest between my two public functions. My superiors in education would have every right to tell me to switch to bar tending as my full-time occupation.

That apparently, is what happened to Mr. Williams. After treading the line for two long, he was given the opportunity to quit his day job—netting a $2 million contract at Fox into the bargain.

Meanwhile, people are still unemployed, the polar ice caps are still melting, and we have an election going on that will profoundly affect every aspect of American life for generations.

So how much more time shall we spend commiserating about the allegedly unfair treatment of poor Juan Williams?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Taking Back Our Country

Offered without comment, except to say that all Americans need to be aware of who's really behind all the hysteria about "big government" and "bankrupting America"—and why.

To quote Jefferson, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: A Danger to Democracy

The Veteran’s Alliance for Security and Democracy has joined a growing list of civic-minded organizations filing complaints with the Federal Elections Commission and the IRS regarding the illegal and unethical interference of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the current election cycle.

Despite the Supreme Court’s best efforts to allow banks, corporations, and other special interests to use their vast resources to buy American elections, there are still a few laws in place—laws that extremist right-wing members of the Supreme Court have not (yet) managed to overturn.

One of those laws states that nonprofit organizations are banned from making contributions to candidates for federal offices. Another says that no foreign entities, including governments and corporations, can contribute to U.S. political parties or candidates. (Duh. Sounds like a good policy to me!)

Last week alone, the tax-exempt, allegedly “nonprofit” Chamber spend $10.5 million in support of 31 House and Senate candidates—all, of course, Republicans. This money comes from what the Chamber calls its “general fund”—the same pot into which money flows from most of the countries in the world, as well as countless foreign corporations.

How much money? How many countries? Which corporations?

Shhhhhhh. That’s all secret.

The Chamber says, “trust us.” They claim to have an “internal auditing system” that ensures that none of that tainted foreign currency is ever used to influence politics in America.

Okay, let’s use an analogy here. In most jurisdictions in America, people arrested for drug trafficking are likely to have their homes, automobiles, bank accounts, and other property seized by the government. Why? Because those individuals are believed to have profited from the drug trade. It may be that not one single cent of drug money was used to purchase the property in question; however, having access to money allows a person to buy more stuff. Where individuals are concerned, the government recognizes (rightly or wrongly—that’s a whole other subject) that having the money enables the person to buy the house, the car, etc.

But the Citizens United verdict that overturned decades of finance campaign law did not, as conservatives claim, put corporations and other special interest groups on the same footing as individual United States citizens; rather, it gave these groups enormous privileges—even beyond the privileges that money can buy—to do things individuals cannot. One of those special privileges is keeping secrets about their finances.

The outrage many people are expressing about the Chamber’s unwarranted and illegal interference in this election is well deserved. The Chamber doesn’t like the negative publicity, but it’s a problem the Chamber itself could easily resolve.

All it has to do is to open the books.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Pitfalls of Polling

Looking back, it seems that election day “surprises” have become the norm rather than the exception.

For the first few decades after television began broadcasting play-by-play forecasts and results of elections, things were fairly predictable. The populace was much less mobile than it is today, and virtually all voters had land lines. In many precincts, the turnout and trends were so stable that pollsters could safely add data from the last election to the tally of the current one without being far off the mark. Votes were cast on a specific day at neighborhood polling places, so exit interviews with people who had just voted could result in fairly accurate estimates of which way a particular neighborhood was going swing. Add the survey results together, and voilĂ ! The result was sometimes a foregone conclusion long before the polls closed.

This predictability was problematic for a number of reasons and very likely skewed the results of some elections. Voters on the West Coast—not to mention Hawaii—often knew the results of national races long before the polls closed in their own state. In such cases, many didn’t bother to vote, knowing it would be a pointless exercise. Getting a mail-in ballot could be harder than it is today to file income tax, so those who couldn’t get to their local polling place on the appointed day, for one reason or another, often just didn’t bother. Without the deluge of ads and information on radio, television, and the Internet that inundates today’s voters, the voters of yesteryear tended to make up their minds earlier and change them less often.

Back in the day, “Gallop” and “polling” were synonymous. Today there are hundreds of polling companies, local and national, many of them dedicated to gathering information specifically for one party or the other. So prevalent have they become that there are now people who poll the pollsters, as well as numerous columns and blogs (such as fivethirtyeight) that do nothing but compare and analyze polling data.

The upshot of all this is that, in contrast to other historically significant elections, no one really has clue as to what will happen on November 2. That fact is undoubtedly giving many candidates serious heartburn.

For us spectators, however, it just makes the races all the more fun.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

She's Not a Witch

She’s us.

And you know what? I believe her.

Christine O’Donnell isn’t me, of course. Nor is she you. But, as she rightfully points out, she is us—plural: a typical American with strong opinions about things who doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what she is.

When asked about some of her more controversial remarks, such as her statement that she once dabbled in witchcraft, she neither denies the obvious facts (as McCain is famous for doing) nor makes excuses. She simply says, “I’m not twenty any more.” And who among us could claim to have said or done nothing in our 20s that we wouldn’t want broadcast on national television?

Of all the wing nuts the tea party has put forth this campaign season, Christine O’Donnell appears to me to be the most likable, as well as perhaps the most sincere.

She doesn’t torture the truth beyond recognition (like Sharron Angle, when she claims that Harry Reid “voted to give Viagra to child molesters”). Unlike Joe Miller, who wants to abolish Social Security and the minimum wage, she may—as she claims—have some empathetic understanding of the needs of ordinary people. And unlike the Mama Grizzly herself, Sarah Palin, she has a gentle, well modulated voice and conciliatory manner that makes it easy to listen to her—no matter how nonsensical her arguments may be.

I like her.

If I lived in Delaware, I wouldn’t dream of voting for her, of course. Being nice and ordinary hardly qualifies a person to be a Senator, any more than being bitchy, negative, and dishonest qualifies her to be Vice President.

Aided and abetted by Fox News, however, the Tea Party has convinced a good part of the American electorate that to be taken seriously, a candidate must be hostile, sarcastic, and positively bristling with Doomsday scenarios.

Sadly, it’s her lack of those negative qualities, and not her lack of common sense, that makes Christine O’Donnell the biggest long shot candidate in the midterm elections.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

American Churches and Pay-As-You-Go Politics

In Minnesota, a few short weeks before election day, the state’s Catholic archdiocese is mailing DVDs to all of its 800,000 parishioners.

Produced by the Knights of Columbus, the video is basically a slick political advertisement in support of a single issue: opposition to gay marriage. By urging political action in favor of the church’s position, the DVD essentially endorses one of the candidates in the state’s three-way gubernatorial election: the Republican, who has made an issue of his opposition to same-ex marriage.

The project is funded by an anonymous “large, private donation.” No telling who or what political entity might have thrown money, via the Church, at the Minnesota’s governor’s race—nor whether the motivation behind it is really social conservatism (as opposed to, say, an effort by business interests to undermine the campaign of another candidate).

Be that as it may, this is just one of many recent examples of intrusion by churches and church leaders into matters of public policy—from the involvement of the Mormon Church in California’s Proposition 8 controversy to lobbying by Catholic Bishops for certain specific language in health reform legislation.

American churches—from mainstream denominations to fanatical, one-of-a-kind sects—aren’t supposed to meddle in politics. But they do. Routinely.

Maybe that’s to be expected. After all—churches are composed of people, and people have opinions. However, that brings up a question: As tax payers, why should you and I subsidize the expression of those opinions by allowing churches to amass limitless amounts of money and property tax free? And why should we allow third parties—anonymous or otherwise—to launder large political contributions by disguising them as tax-deductible, “charitable” contributions?

It’s time we admitted the fact that churches in this country—which can turn out single-issue voters by the hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands to support their particular agenda—are a huge factor in American politics. Let’s just admit it.

Then let’s also admit that it’s ridiculous to continue the indefensible practice of granting tax-exempt status to churches. For those who are justifiably concerned about rising deficits and unmet public needs, church property represents countless billions of dollars worth of untaxed property. Church donations represent billions of dollars worth of income that churches—like the small businesses they are—should pay tax on, just like everyone else.

Those who defend the practice of continuing the tax-exempt status of organized religion in America often use the argument of separation of church and state: they say churches shouldn’t have to give money to the state.

Au contraire: Separation of church and state is one of several excellent arguments for ending the practice of granting special powers and privileges to churches—as well as tax-exempt status to any transactions allegedly conducted “in God’s name.”

Saturday, October 2, 2010

American Politics and the Insidious Influence of Religion

As a child, I watched my practical, rational grandmother disappear from time to time, replaced by a pietistic, emotional, slavishly devoted fan of Billy Graham whenever the evangelist came on television. I remember how she would skimp on groceries to send money for his “work”—the work of using the newly unleashed power of television to inspire more and more followers to send more money.

As a Catholic, I was enjoined from paying much attention to teachings of Protestants or the ravings of televangelists. I couldn’t have known at the time that I was seeing the first volleys of a culture war that would derail American progress, threaten the world economy, and even lead America (with a born-again president at the helm of the nation) into a war of aggression and other atrocities.

Frank Schaeffer spent most of his childhood at l’Abri, his parents’ religious compound in the Swiss Alps, which became a mecca for those seeking salvation through magical thinking and simple, absolute answers to every human question. Many who found their way there (including the indomitable Billy Graham) returned to America as founders of the “religious right”—the movement that, more than any other, has made America vulnerable to the influence of extremists and opportunists.

Schaeffer’s book is entitled Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. In it, he argues that the religious-right leaders who infiltrated American government during the last half of the twentieth century—and who exert enormous influence over it today—were not and are not just political “conservatives” but rather “anti-American revolutionaries.” Far from wanting their nation to succeed, these fanatics were (and are) “gleefully betting on American failure” in order to turn their own dire predictions into self-fulfilling prophesies.

“In the crudest form,” Schaeffer explains, “this was part of the evangelical fascination with the so-called end times. The worse things got, the sooner Jesus would come back. But there was another component: the worse everything got, the more it proved that America needed saving, by us!”

In a nutshell, this explains why the minority party in Congress today—who, with the exception of a few eccentric secular libertarians, almost universally profess to be “born-again Christians”—have been not only betting on the failure of American government but doing everything in their power to ensure that it happens. Under an administration that they can’t control, their only objective is to snatch back the reins of power so they can continue their “work”—the work of subverting religion to serve the interests of the rich and powerful: to make the rich richer and the poor subservient to the wishes of those who claim to know best (because God speaks to them directly).

After decades of secrecy, the influence of religious, right-wing extremism on American government is beginning to be exposed by a few courageous journalists and writers. Responsible voters will take heed and question the motives of any political leader who claims to speak for God.