The contrast between events in the Middle East and the political reality here in America is striking: as the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere rise by the millions to protest injustice, and as governments from Jordan to Syria see the writing on the wall, the United States gives power to a political movement bent on reversing generations of progress.
The GOP and Tea Party, drifting ever rightward, want to strip away health coverage, undermine faith in science, deny the overwhelming consensus on the mortal threat of climate change, give tax breaks to the rich, increase record wealth disparities, abolish women’s reproductive rights, defund public radio, gut gun laws, curtail gay rights, inject religion into government, and much more.
Targeting scientists, academics, public broadcasters, unions, health care providers and women, among others, they willfully misinterpret the Constitution to make specious arguments in favor of reactionary policies and are whipped into a frenzy by millionaire radio and TV blatherers, whose sole mission is to demonize liberals and liberalism — to the point of inciting violence against them.
Democratic leaders, obsessed with wooing “independent” voters, and captives of a toxic Beltway mindset, barely make a stand in the face of this all-out assault.
If we fail to see the irony of a Mideast marching into the future while America races into the past, we will pay the price.
UPDATE: The GOP’s mission to deny women’s reproductive rights/freedom is exemplified by this:
One hundred members of Congress (so far) have cosponsored a bill introduced by far right Congressman Joe Pitts (R-PA) called the “Protect Life Act.” They want to “protect life” so much that they have written into the bill a new amendment that would override the requirement that emergency room doctors save every patient, regardless of status or ability to pay. The law would carve out an exception for pregnant women; doctors and hospitals will be allowed to let pregnant women die if interventions to save them will kill the fetus.
Heinous beyond words.
UPDATE II: More disturbing examples of America’s reverse trajectory…
Georgia State Rep. Bobby Franklin has introduced a 10-page bill that would criminalize some miscarriages, and make abortion in Georgia completely illegal and punishable by death. Basically, it’s everything an “pro-life” activist could want aside from making all women who’ve had abortions wear big red “A”s on their chests.
For nearly a year, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Virginia’s crusading Republican attorney general, has waged a one-man war on the theory of man-made global warming. Invoking his subpoena powers, he has sought to force the University of Virginia to turn over the files of a prominent climatology professor, asserting that his research may be marred by fraud. The university is battling the move in the courts. Now his allegations of manipulated data and scientific fraud are resonating in Congress, where Republican leaders face an influx of new members, many of them Tea Party stalwarts like Mr. Cuccinelli, eager to inveigh against the body of research linking man-made emissions to warming.
In 2010, for the first time in 15 years, more bank branches closed than opened across the United States. An analysis of government data shows, however, that even as banks shut branches in poorer areas, they continued to expand in wealthier ones, despite decades of government regulations requiring financial institutions to meet the credit needs of poor and middle-class neighborhoods.
Paul Krugman makes an excellent point today (when doesn’t he make excellent points?):
Democrats, declared Evan Bayh in an Op-Ed article on Wednesday in The Times, “overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession.” Many others have been saying the same thing: the notion that the Obama administration erred by not focusing on the economy is hardening into conventional wisdom.
But I have no idea what, if anything, people mean when they say that. The whole focus on “focus” is, as I see it, an act of intellectual cowardice — a way to criticize President Obama’s record without explaining what you would have done differently.
After all, are people who say that Mr. Obama should have focused on the economy saying that he should have pursued a bigger stimulus package? Are they saying that he should have taken a tougher line with the banks? If not, what are they saying? That he should have walked around with furrowed brow muttering, “I’m focused, I’m focused”?
The issue, says Krugman, is not the lack of focus, but the inadequacy of the White House’s economic plan. This is something Krugman has been hammering from day one and who knows where we’d be if Democrats had listened to him and others who were advocating for a more audacious stimulus.
This raises another point. I actually think Obama was smart to use the momentum of the 2008 campaign to pass a health insurance bill. My complaint – and that of many progressives – was that the administration was ceding too much ground in the debate, was flat-footed in response to the rightwing noise machine, was blithely negotiating away key bargaining chips, and was getting bogged down in appeasing a few centrist Democrats who appeared to be negotiating in bad faith. Remember, progressives were agitating for the threat of reconciliation long before Scott Brown’s stunning victory.
Still, the bill passed, and I don’t buy into the congealing conventional wisdom that Obama should have postponed tackling health care.
One of the most understated and important aspects of U.S. politics – of politics in general – is the fact that many voters hold strong views on issue they don’t fully comprehend, from ‘defending’ a Constitution they haven’t read to opposing policies they don’t understand to railing against “big government” in the abstract but supporting big government programs.
I’ve been writing about the topic under the header “Low-information nation” to flesh out what it means to govern and campaign in a country where true knowledge is a rare commodity:
Low-information nation: Palin, Beck, Tea Partiers and American ignorance
Low-information nation: What do Americans really know about “big” government?
Low-information nation: Whose Constitution is it?
In that context, here’s a great video that illustrates how the right tries to indoctrinate the public:
The defining battle between Obama and the rightwing attack machine was over health insurance reform. The summer of town halls and tea parties was the official descent into the bizarre reality we face today, with Quran burnings, mosque-free zones, disappearing oil spills, rampant climate denial, conservative ‘feminism’, the assault on women’s reproductive rights, legacy theft of Dr. King, rehabilitation of George W. Bush, and shunning of the left.
During the health care debate, one question loomed largest for me: what did Americans really understand about the issue? 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?
A January Pew survey examined what Americans know – and don’t know – about health care:
The public has consistently expressed strong interest in the health care debate, but relatively few Americans can correctly answer two key questions related to the Senate’s consideration of health care legislation. In the latest installment of the Pew Research Center’s News IQ Quiz, just 32% know that the Senate passed its version of the legislation without a single Republican vote. And, in what proved to be the most difficult question on the quiz, only about a quarter (26%) knows that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate and force a vote on a bill.
Pew’s findings apply not just to health care, of course, but to the entire range of important issues facing the country. What value do we assign to voters’ views on deficit reduction, for instance, when leading economists can’t get their thoughts straight? And how can Americans make determinations about politicians, parties and issues without at least a basic comprehension of the underlying policies?
Now, far from being a screed against the supposed ‘ignorance’ of the American public, this is meant to raise the question of how to better communicate and debate good ideas without having them mangled in a partisan media filter.
No matter how shallow their knowledge, people are programmed to believe they are right and will withstand a significant amount of cognitive dissonance before reason kicks in and alters their view, if ever.
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.
Pew tells us that “Republicans do somewhat better than Democrats on the knowledge quiz,” so this isn’t about left or right, but the following clips reflect the kind of misinformation fueling political passions.
I don’t find these interviews humorous, I find them scary. 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. As a former jazz musician, I’ve listened to countless hours of music, but it’s taken me years to realize what it means to fully appreciate the depth of the art form, the intricacies of tone, timbre, harmony, rhythm, improvisational originality, the interplay of instruments in an ensemble, the subtleties of syncopation and timing. 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.
The single most under-appreciated and understated aspect of American life, the proverbial elephant in the room, is that most Americans have little more than a cursory understanding of the issues and history on which they base their political beliefs and decisions.
In a moment of candor, outgoing Republican Senator Bob Bennett (Utah) recently said, “The public has “no understanding” of what Congress does.”
Another Pew survey finds:
Asked to name the current chief justice of the Supreme Court, and given four possible names, nearly one-in-ten Americans (8%) choose Thurgood Marshall, despite the fact that Justice Marshall left the Supreme Court roughly 20 years ago, and passed away in 1993. In fact, very few Americans can name the current chief justice in a Pew Research news quiz; just 28% were able to correctly identify John Roberts. Another 6% thought the recently retired Justice John Paul Stevens was chief justice, while 4% named Sen. Harry Reid. A majority (53%) admitted that they did not know the answer.
Ezra Klein points out the difficulty of campaigning in a low-information environment:
The auto bailout is a perfect example. By and large, it worked. The automobile sector stabilized. GM, Chrysler and Ford are all posting profits. Millions of workers who would’ve gone down with the car companies still have their jobs. America retains an automotive industry that’s both competitive in developing markets like China and starting to scrap with the Japanese and German automakers in the high-tech, green-car market. But the policy wasn’t popular. Few liked it. Some thought it socialism. Some thought it cronyism. Which presents, of course, a difficulty for the White House: Saving millions of jobs and the American auto industry at an ultimately very small cost to the taxpayer is the sort of major policy accomplishment you should be able to run for reelection on. But what if people don’t really understand that you did it, or that it worked, or that it didn’t cost them much?
Until we work to rectify the problem of a dumbed-down public discourse, we’ll keep spinning our wheels – or going backward.
UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer praises the Tea Party’s loyalty to the Constitution:
Indeed, it is among the most vigorous and salutary grass-roots movements of our time, dedicated to a genuine constitutionalism from which the country has strayed far.
How do you reconcile that with the anecdotal evidence in the clips above that Tea Party adherents have no familiarity with the document?