It’s hard to imagine an election season filled with more sideshows, motley characters and bizarre statements. This story (courtesy of Greg Sargent) combines just enough outlandish elements to sum it all up:
Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle told a crowd of Tea Party rally-goers last week that two cities — Dearborn, Michigan and Frankford, Texas — are under Sharia law, the sacred law of Islam. “We’re talking about a militant terrorist situation, which I believe isn’t a widespread thing, but it is enough that we need to address, and we have been addressing it,” Angle said according to audio of the rally obtained by the Washington post. “My thoughts are these. First of all, Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas, are on American soil, and under Constitutional law. Not Sharia law. And I don’t know how that happened in the United States.” The problem? Well, Frankford, Texas doesn’t really exist.
This is Frankford, TX:
The strangest part of this story is that Angle may actually win.
If policy wonks and political professionals vehemently disagreed about various provisions and outcomes, how could a non-expert citizen, overwhelmed with the demands of daily life, fully comprehend the complexities of the health insurance overhaul? When media outlets and pollsters trumpeted the public’s support or opposition to the bill, what were they polling? Genuine knowledge or vague impressions? Analytical conclusions or parroted soundbites?
That’s obviously not to say that citizens need to be experts to have legitimate opinions, but that if the opinions are based on a lack of understanding, or in some cases utter misunderstanding, shouldn’t the first order of business be to better explain the issues and educate the public rather than use erroneous views as evidence of the inherent value of the proposed policy?
I posted three clips to illustrate my point:
I said we should eschew value judgments and assume good faith:
Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, the vast majority of participants in our national debate genuinely believe they possess the necessary facts and have reached a fair judgment. It’s a mistake to attribute bad faith to a wide swath of the population. So when a Tea Party member sounds off about “defending” the Constitution, it’s perfectly plausible to assume they know little about the document but authentically believe they are expressing fealty to it. Still, we can’t settle for a national dialogue disconnected from facts and truth.
I cautioned that lack of knowledge and information was not partisan:
Pew tells us that “Republicans do somewhat better than Democrats on the knowledge quiz,” so this isn’t about left or right, but about the kind of misinformation fueling political passions.
Finally, I explained why I believe the Constitution can’t be reduced to facile soundbites:
Politics is the one discipline where we’re all expected to be knowledgeable enough to make decisions that affect our shared future. Unless we’re doctors, no one expects us to give medical advice; unless we’re architects no one expects us to design buildings. But if we’re going to debate the future of our country, there has to be some basis in fact, rationality, in knowledge and information.
It’s daunting to realize how much we don’t know and how our most serious decisions are often based on the flimsiest of information and understanding. No matter what the field, it takes a huge investment of time and effort to develop anything close to a detailed understanding – and there’s always more to learn.
This, of course, applies to politics and policy. Interpreting the Constitution is a major intellectual and moral undertaking. It’s not something you do through bumper-sticker slogans. When Glenn Greenwald warns that President Obama is undermining the Constitution by authorizing the assassination of US citizens without due process, it’s a debate we should have. When Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck reduce the Constitution to handy jingoistic soundbites, it precludes a real debate.
Two new opinion pieces explore the Tea Party’s professed reverence for the Constitution.
The Tea Party movement has further sought to spruce up its historical bona fides by laying claim to the United States Constitution. Many Tea Party members subscribe to a literal reading of the national charter as a way of bolstering their opposition to deficit spending, bank bailouts and President Obama’s health care plan. A Tea Party manifesto, called the Contract From America, even contains a rigid provision stipulating that all legislation passed by Congress should specify the precise clause in the Constitution giving Congress the power to pass such a law — an idea touted Thursday by the House Republican leadership.
But any movement that regularly summons the ghosts of the founders as a like-minded group of theorists ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history.
The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything. Never has the country produced a more brilliantly argumentative, individualistic or opinionated group of politicians. Far from being a soft-spoken epoch of genteel sages, the founding period was noisy and clamorous, rife with vitriolic polemics and partisan backbiting. Instead of bequeathing to posterity a set of universally shared opinions, engraved in marble, the founders shaped a series of fiercely fought debates that reverberate down to the present day. Right along with the rest of America, the Tea Party has inherited these open-ended feuds, which are profoundly embedded in our political culture.
Wouldn’t it be splendid if the solutions to America’s problems could be written down in a slim book no bigger than a passport that you could slip into your breast pocket? That, more or less, is the big idea of the tea-party movement, the grassroots mutiny against big government that has mounted an internal takeover of the Republican Party and changed the face of American politics.
… Conservative think-tanks have the same dream of return to a prelapsarian innocence. The Heritage Foundation is running a “first principles” project “to save America by reclaiming its truths and its promises and conserving its liberating principles for ourselves and our posterity”. A Heritage book and video (“We Still Hold These Truths”) promotes the old verities as a panacea for present ills. America, such conservatives say, took a wrong turn when Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt fell under the spell of progressive ideas and expanded the scope of government beyond both the founders’ imaginings and the competence of any state. Under the cover of war and recession (never let a crisis go to waste, said Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel), Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and now Mr Obama continued the bad work. Thus has mankind’s greatest experiment in self-government been crushed by a monstrous Leviathan.
Accept for argument’s sake that those who argue this way have identified the right problem. The constitution, on its own, does not provide the solution. Indeed, there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century. Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts. He calls it “constitutional idolatry”.
It’s encouraging when citizens take pride in our founding documents and in the noble principles that undergird our democracy, but it’s dangerous to adopt passionate, often dogmatic, political views based on something you don’t understand, to lay claim to a shared Constitution you’ve barely read, to falsely attribute values to our founders then demonize political opponents for undermining those values, or to insist that your reading (or lack of reading) of the Constitution is definitive and inviolable.
As a Democrat and a progressive, I don’t want to discourage my fellow citizens from basing their views on a shared set of ideals and a common history — that’s what makes us all Americans. But I certainly don’t think we can have an honest debate if those shared ideals and principles are distorted, misconstrued or hoarded by one side.
At this point, I didn’t believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record. In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki’s father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration last late night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims. That’s not surprising: both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality. But what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”: in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate its legality.
The Obama administration’s overnight assertion that presidential assassination orders of American citizens should be treated as a state secret, and thus not reviewable by any court anywhere, the most shocking assertion of unfettered presidential power we’ve seen since John Yoo argued that presidents have the right to order torture as long as they don’t cause pain equivalent to organ failure. As Greenwald says, when Cheney worshiping neocon headcase David Rivkin thinks you’ve gone too far with the executive power, there’s not much more to say… Back when everyone naively thought that electing a Democrat would end these obscene royalist decrees, it was argued by a few of us that once given, these powers are rarely given back. But I don’t think anyone expected the Democratic constitutional scholar would actually double down on the dictatorial powers. I confess, I’m fairly gobsmacked.
President Obama’s political advisers, looking for ways to help Democrats and alter the course of the midterm elections in the final weeks, are considering a range of ideas, including national advertisements, to cast the Republican Party as all but taken over by Tea Party extremists, people involved in the discussion said.
“We need to get out the message that it’s now really dangerous to re-empower the Republican Party,” said one Democratic strategist who has spoken with White House advisers but requested anonymity to discuss private strategy talks.
Democrats are divided. The party’s House and Senate campaign committees are resistant, not wanting to do anything that smacks of nationalizing the midterm elections when high unemployment and the drop in Mr. Obama’s popularity have made the climate so hostile to Democrats. Endangered Congressional candidates want any available money to go to their localized campaigns.
Several things about this should trouble Democrats:
First, the contours of the midterms have been in place since last summer, when the rightwing attack machine drove a truck through Democrats’ messaging and vision vacuum and framed Obama’s presidency as a socialist takeover. Publicly debating your strategy in late September doesn’t inspire confidence — it tells the public you’re confused and flailing. By contrast the GOP strategy has been simple: NO.
Second, trying to convince voters that your their opponent is crazy (the “nutcase defense“) rather than laying out a simple, compelling vision for the country won’t change Democratic fortunes, as Glenn Greenwald explained recently:
I personally find it hard to believe that large numbers of voters will be motivated by a fear-mongering campaign centered around people who do not currently wield power, do not occupy any positions, and are not even running for office. But the more significant point is what this tactic says about the Democratic Party. They have controlled both houses of Congress for almost four years and the White House for almost two. Yet rather than run primarily on affirmative accomplishments (some Democrats are even running against them), they’re reduced to this not-very-inspiring or hope-laden message: at least we’re not as bad as Sarah Palin.
…That the Right has become an even more twisted, malicious and primitive version of what they were during the Bush years is unquestionably true. And it’s perfectly legitimate to point out the flaws and excesses of one’s political adversaries. But the expectations which large numbers of Obama voters had — based on the promises made — are not going to be forgotten with these distracting, divisive strategies.
Third, to suggest that Democrats are afraid of nationalizing an election is to telegraph how out of touch they are: this election was nationalized the day Barack Obama took office and the right set out to destroy his presidency.
Bush’s bluster, born of narrow-mindedness and jingoism, led America to near ruin. But even if it was an act, transparent and loathsome to his detractors, it left an indelible impression – and I stress “impression” – of a resolute man with the courage of his convictions, no matter how terribly wrong-headed those convictions. By contrast, Barack Obama and most Democratic officials are chronically unwilling to speak in moral absolutes, to frame Democratic policies in the language of right and wrong, to project an unshakeable faith in core ideals. And far too often, the reluctance to speak with moral courage is coupled with a failure to act.
Democratic weakness, real or perceived, is a self-inflicted function of the inability to project moral authority, even in cases where they possess the unequivocal high ground. Religious liberty. Torture. A war based on lies.
President Barack Obama is afraid of acting in a way that would spur voters to view him as weak on defense, a top Democrat charged Wednesday. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said the president was “intimidated” by certain issues, particularly an effort by Frank and a few other lawmakers in both parties to rein in defense spending. “It’s the one area where I’m disappointed in the president,” Frank said Tuesday evening during an appearance on MSNBC. “I think he gets intimidated by this notion of, ‘Oh, you’ll look weak on defense.’”
It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democrat politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process.
UPDATE: Apparently, the White House denies the Times story:
–The West Wing remains unsatisfied. A White House official: “The Times is just flat-out, 100 percent wrong. The first time Obama’s advisers heard about a national ad campaign is when the story showed up on The Times’ website last night.”
–Times Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet responds: “The piece is accurate.”
Democrats should hope that the story is a fabrication.
Christine O’Donnell’s victory in the Delaware Republican Senate primary had Democrats exuberant – cheering victory by the ‘crazy Tea Party candidate.’ But when your electoral strategy is “let’s hope the lunatic wins cause we can’t beat a sane Republican,” it’s time for some serious soul-searching.
Nate Silver injects a dose of realism into overblown prognostications about a GOP landslide:
There’s the possibility that Republicans end up with a lot of half-loaves: independent voters get them almost close enough in some states and districts, base voters in some others, but they come up a few points short in a lot of key races and wind up winning “only” 30 House seats and 4 or 5 Senate seats. Or, just the opposite could be true. Independent voters rally them to surprising wins in some blue-leaning states, while base voters shore up the home front, and allow them to roll back the gains that Democrat made into Republican territory in 2006 and 2008.
He’s absolutely right – anything can happen on Election Day and expectations are beginning to get out of hand for Republicans. Unfortunately, if Democrats lose badly but retain the House and Senate, it will be hailed by the White House and pundits as a victory, perhaps a great victory, dampening the urge for introspection, the self-awareness needed to battle a dangerous radical rightwing resurgence.
Of course, it will be anything but a victory. The whiplash-inducing right turn America has taken since 2008, the deflation of hope, compel a sober and serious look at what Democrats have done wrong. We can take solace all we want in previous presidential poll numbers, we can say this is a normal cyclical dip, but that doesn’t explain or excuse this:
George W. Bush is steadily and surely being rehabilitated and now the question is how much gratitude we owe him.
Sarah Palin can move the public discourse with a single tweet, promoting a worldview consisting of unreflective, nationalistic soundbites.
Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox are dominating the national conversation, feeding a steady stream of propaganda packaged as moral platitudes to tens of millions of true believers.
In the face of overwhelming evidence, climate deniers are choking the life out of the environmental movement and willfully condemning humanity to a calamitous future.
From ACORN to Van Jones, liberal scalps are being taken with impunity.
Feminism is being redefined and repossessed by anti-feminists.
Women are facing an all-out assault on choice.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is being co-opted by a radio jock.
Schoolbooks are being rewritten to reflect the radical right’s anti-science views.
The rich-poor divide grows by the minute and teachers and nurses struggle to get by while bankers get massive bonuses.
We mark the end of a war based on lies with congratulations to all, and we escalate another war with scarce resources that could save countless lives.
An oil spill that should have been a historic inflection point gets excised from public awareness by our own government and disappears down the memory hole (until the next disaster).
Bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, against Muslims, against gays and lesbians is mainstream and rampant.
The frightening unconstitutional excesses of the Bush administration have been enshrined and reinforced by a Democratic White House, ensuring that they will become precedent and practice.
Girls and women across the planet continue to get beaten, raped, ravaged, mutilated, and murdered while sports games induce a more passionate response.
O’Donnell’s shock victory is part of this larger picture. Granted, it may imperil GOP chances to grab one more senate seat, but if you see it as a loss leader, as one more huge step to the right, it’s cold comfort to those who have fought the radical right’s takeover of our national discourse.
When things like this are happening before our eyes and we can’t muster the will to do something dramatic to fix it, when Democrats seek comfort in radicals winning primaries, when a great nation abruptly reverses course and barrels headlong toward the 19th century, we have no choice but to dig deep and ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong.
Die-hard Obama supporters demand incessant cheerleading, but their blinders are part of the problem not the solution. As citizens, we’re tasked with making sure elected officials do their jobs. If Democrats and progressives are satisfied with the direction we’re heading, it’s their prerogative. Some of us are not in denial and we’ll keep speaking out until there’s a legitimate reason to believe that we’re righting our ship, reclaiming the moral high ground and making actual – not imagined – progress.