Democrats stood for nothing and fell for anything

November 3, 2010 by · 11 Comments 

Over the course of two years, President Obama and the Democratic Party achieved a remarkable feat: they passed significant, in some cases historic, legislation, yet managed not to tell the America public what they stood for and why they stood for it.

What’s worse, elected to be the anti-Bush, Barack Obama took page after page from the Bush playbook, on war, civil liberties, gay rights, executive power and women’s reproductive rights, among several other things.

A perfect example is the shameful spiking of the BP spill, a craven political ploy that backfired terribly: as Democrats were getting trounced at the polls, BP was reporting a return to profitability.

No one can deny that the Obama White House and Democratic leadership racked up important accomplishments during the past two years, but voters don’t care what you do if they think you don’t stand for anything. I’ve written about Democrats’ lack of moral authority:

What is moral authority? Broadly speaking, it is the respect and power of suasion conferred on a person who is true to inviolable ethical principles. It is the ability to influence by setting an example of virtue and good character rather than through coercion.

Most politicians campaign using the language of right and wrong, tapping into the power of morality to persuade and sway voters. Once in office, the rhetoric is toned down as grand promises meet the reality of legislating and deal-making. That doesn’t mean that right and wrong cease to matter.

The astounding collapse of Democrats and the rightwing resurgence of 2009 and 2010 is a direct result of the squandered moral authority of Barack Obama and Democratic leaders. I say “squandered” because it is something Obama possessed during the campaign and something Democrats prioritized as the antidote to Bush and Cheney’s radicalism.

I keep hearing the retort that it’s all about jobs, that if the unemployment rate were 6%, Obama would be riding high and none of this would be an issue. I don’t buy it. All things being equal, when you cede your moral authority, when you telegraph to the public that you won’t stand your ground in defense of your principles, when you allow your opponent to step into the vacuum and frame your actions for you, you lose the connection to the people, you squander the ability to explain your actions, to buy time when things are going poorly, to earn trust during hard times.

In this case, Democrats collapsed in the face of an obstructionist Republican Party and the Tea Party, an overhyped, media-magnified phenomenon fueled by misinformation from think-tank generated soundbites disseminated by millionaire radio hosts and media moguls and stoked by wealthy conservative interests.

Had the White House laid out a set of core beliefs and values that they vowed to adhere to and that they framed their policies with, Democrats could have kept the American public on board with them through a tough economy. Instead, they flailed from inane attack to inane attack, never telling America what they stood for and why they stood for it, never demonstrating the strength of character and resoluteness essential to viable leadership.

So the “hope and change” of 2008, the singular moment where America recoiled from the disastrous Bush era, has given way to the triumph of the rightwing noise machine, a lumbering, well-greased behemoth anchored by Fox News and talk radio, amplified by blogs and chain emails and juiced by the Drudge Report, cranking out simplistic soundbites that dominate the national discourse: “big government,” “socialized medicine,” “judicial activism,” and “tax and spend.”

The Tea Party isn’t some sort of new, inspiring movement in America politics, it’s just another example of what happens when you feed endless, unrebutted streams of rightwing propaganda to a low-information nation:

Liberals are worse than terrorists — Global warming is a hoax — Obama is a Kenyan socialist — Gays are trying to corrupt our children — “Big government” is oppressing us — All Muslims are bent on our destruction — “Activist judges” are trying to undermine the Constitution – The Constitution’s two main tenets are that everyone should have the right to carry assault weapons and that America is a Christian nation.

Pushed to give an instant reaction to the question, “What do Democrats stand for?”, I’d wager that most people would repeat Republican talking points. There’s simply no clear, captivating summary of Democratic values. Nor is there any sense that there are unwavering values Democratic leaders will fight for.

So what now? As election results rolled in, I suggested that Obama listen to progressive bloggers, not because they’re all policy experts, not because they have all the answers, not because they can magically cut the unemployment rate, but because they learned one thing in the trenches during the Bush years: If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.

The unbearable lightness of being a Tea Partier [Updated]

October 29, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Anecdotal evidence continues to mount that the Tea Party is another manifestation of a rightwing phenomenon whereby carefully crafted talking points are force-fed to the public through Fox, talk radio, chain emails and other communication mechanisms, then regurgitated in the form of deeply-held convictions.

I say “force-fed” because if you tune in to these outlets, it’s a relentless stream of indoctrination:

Liberals are worse than terrorists — Global warming is a hoax — Obama is a Kenyan socialist — Gays are trying to corrupt our children — “Big government” is oppressing us — All Muslims are bent on our destruction — “Activist judges” are trying to undermine the Constitution The Constitution’s two main tenets are that everyone should have the right to carry assault weapons and that America is a Christian nation.

A fundamental characteristic of Tea Partiers’ views is the vehement embrace of ideas with little or no grounding in knowledge or comprehension and the parroting of Fox-style soundbites as though they were carefully considered positions. Following are a number of examples.

On Climate:

At a candidate forum here last week, Representative Baron P. Hill, a threatened Democratic incumbent in a largely conservative southern Indiana district, was endeavoring to explain his unpopular vote for the House cap-and-trade energy bill. It will create jobs in Indiana, reduce foreign oil imports and address global warming, Mr. Hill said at a debate with Todd Young, a novice Republican candidate who is supported by an array of Indiana Tea Party groups and is a climate change skeptic. “Climate change is real, and man is causing it,” Mr. Hill said, echoing most climate scientists. “That is indisputable. And we have to do something about it.”

A rain of boos showered Mr. Hill, including a hearty growl from Norman Dennison, a 50-year-old electrician and founder of the Corydon Tea Party. “It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.”

Skepticism and outright denial of global warming are among the articles of faith of the Tea Party movement, here in Indiana and across the country. For some, it is a matter of religious conviction; for others, it is driven by distrust of those they call the elites. And for others still, efforts to address climate change are seen as a conspiracy to impose world government and a sweeping redistribution of wealth. But all are wary of the Obama administration’s plans to regulate carbon dioxide, a ubiquitous gas, which will require the expansion of government authority into nearly every corner of the economy.

“This so-called climate science is just ridiculous,” said Kelly Khuri, founder of the Clark County Tea Party Patriots. “I think it’s all cyclical.” “Carbon regulation, cap and trade, it’s all just a money-control avenue,” Ms. Khuri added. “Some people say I’m extreme, but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too.”

On Government:

A new study by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows that most Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare “very important.” They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role in regulating health care.

The study suggests that come January, politicians in both parties will confront a challenging and sometimes contradictory reality about what Americans really think about their government. Although Republicans, and many Democrats, have tried to demonize Washington, they must contend with the fact that most major government programs remain enormously popular, including some that politicians have singled out for stiff criticism.

On 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.

No single group should ever presume to claim special ownership of the founding fathers or the Constitution they wrought with such skill and ingenuity. Those lofty figures, along with the seminal document they brought forth, form a sacred part of our common heritage as Americans. They should be used for the richness and diversity of their arguments, not tampered with for partisan purposes. The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl once famously asserted that history was an argument without an end. Our contentious founders, who could agree on little else, would certainly have agreed on that.

These clips hammer home the reality of a low-information nation:

The point is not to denigrate or minimize people’s views, but to demonstrate that the views are often based on erroneous information, misinformation or outright lies delivered by cynical millionaires like Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

If you’re going to ‘defend’ the Constitution or deny global warming or reject “big government”, you might want to do your own research before taking the word of Constitutional scholars and climatologists like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Christine O’Donnell.

Or as I put it recently: Only in the Tea Party can you defend a Constitution you haven’t read, deny climate change you’re causing and slam government programs you support.

UPDATE: Further evidence of the disconnect between beliefs and facts:

A Bloomberg National Poll finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered.

The facts: The Obama administration cut taxes for middle-class Americans, has overseen an economy that has grown for the past four quarters and expects to make a profit on the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to rescue Wall Street banks.

Said pollster Ann Selzer: “The public view of the economy is at odds with the facts, and the blame has to go to the Democrats. It does not matter much if you make change, if you do not communicate change.”

Democrats getting played: O’Donnell successfully shapes dialogue about First Amendment

October 19, 2010 by · 6 Comments 

In a post titled The glaringly simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate, I wrote:

There is a simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate, even when Democrats are in charge: move the conversation as extreme right as possible, then compromise toward the far right. Negotiation 101. And it’s completely lost on Democrats.

It’s no accident that in 21st century America, torture has been mainstreamed, climate denial has taken firm hold, book burning, racial dog whistles and brazen religious intolerance are part of our discourse and par for the course. This is how the right plays the game, using Limbaugh, Hannity, Fox, Drudge, blogs, chain emails, talk radio, etc. to shamelessly and defiantly drag the conversation as far right as possible.

Christine O’Donnell’s gaffe about the First Amendment is anything but a gaffe. It’s a successful reframing of the conversation about the separation of church and state, injecting a rightwing talking point into the national bloodstream:

O’Donnell is getting a massive amount of attention today because during a debate with Chris Coons, she asked: “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” But Sharron Angle said something very similar a couple months back and it got almost no national attention. During an interview with Jon Ralston, he confronted her over her 1995 statement that excluding religious schools from Federal funding is un-American and that the separation of church and state is an unconstitutional doctrine. Then this exchange ensued:

RALSTON: The separation of church and state arises out of the Constitution.

ANGLE: No it doesn’t, John.

RALSTON: Oh, it doesn’t? The Founding Fathers didn’t believe in the separation of church and state?

ANGLE: Thomas Jefferson has been misquoted, like I’ve been misquoted, out of context. Thomas Jefferson was actually addressing a church and telling them through his address that there had been a wall of separation put up between the church and the state precisely to protect the church from being taken over by a state religion. That’s what they meant by that. They didn’t mean we couldn’t bring our values to the political forum.

More from Candace Chellew-Hodge:

After watching the video, I don’t think O’Donnell was surprised in the least by the contents of the First Amendment, but was instead sending a signal to her right-wing base. Her facial expression is a dead giveaway. She raises her eyebrows, widens her eyes, slowly nods her head, and turns her mouth down into a “hmmm” expression. It’s the same expression my partner gives me when I’ve said something completely stupid or ridiculous.

Instead of being mystified that perhaps the First Amendment would say something about religion, I believe O’Donnell was simply signaling to her base that she tows the well-worn right-wing line that while the First Amendment may guarantee freedom of religion, it does not create a wall of separation between church and state. That phrase, of course, is not in the Constitution, but was used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.

Her expression and the knowing nod showed that she thought Coons was the idiot for thinking that the language of the First Amendment automatically grants “separation of church and state.” The religious right has long propagandized that such a separation was never intended by the framers of the Constitution and has only been affirmed by “activist judges” throughout the centuries. Bryan Fischer at the American Family Association has even equated the separation of church and state as being “straight from the mind of Hitler

Democrats should see this for what it is: another successful attempt to move the national discourse into fringe rightwing territory. Here’s the clip:

Low-information nation: What do Americans really know about “big” government?

October 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Information is the currency of democracy. –Attributed to Thomas Jefferson
Get a brain! Morans –Sign displayed by conservative protester

In Low-information nation: Palin, Beck, Tea Partiers and American ignorance I wrote about myths and misunderstandings surrounding health reform:

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?

…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.

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 Low-information nation: Whose Constitution is it? I focused on the much talked about but little-read U.S. Constitution:

Two new opinion pieces explore the Tea Party’s professed reverence for the Constitution.

Ron Chernow:

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. 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. … 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.”

Lexington:

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. … 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.

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.

“Defending the Constitution” may be one of the most overwrought and misused political phrases, but it is eclipsed by the ubiquitous rightwing talking point about “big government.”

Paul Krugman:

Here’s the narrative you hear everywhere: President Obama has presided over a huge expansion of government, but unemployment has remained high. And this proves that government spending can’t create jobs.

Here’s what you need to know: The whole story is a myth. There never was a big expansion of government spending. In fact, that has been the key problem with economic policy in the Obama years: we never had the kind of fiscal expansion that might have created the millions of jobs we need.

Ask yourself: What major new federal programs have started up since Mr. Obama took office? Health care reform, for the most part, hasn’t kicked in yet, so that can’t be it. So are there giant infrastructure projects under way? No. Are there huge new benefits for low-income workers or the poor? No. Where’s all that spending we keep hearing about? It never happened.

WaPo:

If there is an overarching theme of election 2010, it is the question of how big the government should be and how far it should reach into people’s lives. Americans have a more negative view of government today than they did a decade ago, or even a few years ago. Most say it focuses on the wrong things and lack confidence that it can solve big domestic problems; this general anti-Washington sentiment is helping to fuel a potential Republican takeover of Congress next month.

But ask people what they expect the government to do for themselves and their families, and a more complicated picture emerges. A new study by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows that most Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare “very important.” They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role in regulating health care.

The study suggests that come January, politicians in both parties will confront a challenging and sometimes contradictory reality about what Americans really think about their government. Although Republicans, and many Democrats, have tried to demonize Washington, they must contend with the fact that most major government programs remain enormously popular, including some that politicians have singled out for stiff criticism.

In a nutshell, many Americans who rail against big government do it because they’ve heard the soundbite and it sounds right, not because they’ve carefully analyzed the role of government in their lives.

Meet David Barton, Glenn Beck’s historian and Tea Party favorite [Updated 10.6.10]

October 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

For Democrats, it’s always useful to get to know the opposition:

Senate candidate Marco Rubio revved up a crowd of about 200 supporters at the Alaqua Country Club Wednesday, but Rubio had a little help from the guy who introduced him.

David Barton primed the pump with his brand of America first, last and always political/religious revivalism. If you’ve not yet heard of Barton, named in 2005 as one of Time’s most influential evangelicals, there’s a good chance you will soon. He’s a favorite of the Tea Party movement and has emerged as Glenn Beck’s go-to-guy for all things historical.

Barton’s primary message Wednesday – and most days – is that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, was intended to be a Christian nation and would be a whole lot better if everyone started buying into that. Barton traces a number of social ills, for example, back to the prohibition of compulsory prayer in public schools.

Barton is an engaging ball of energy, riffing on the Founding Fathers and proclaiming “American Exceptionalism” – a staple of Rubio’s stump speech. Trouble is, many historians and religion researchers say Barton’s scholarship doesn’t match his salesmanship.

… Barton, for example, has declared the separation of church and state to be mythical, claiming that Thomas Jefferson, when he coined the phrase, meant for the wall to be “one-directional” – designed to protect the church from government interference but never intended to remove Christianity from government. Most historians dismiss his interpretation as badly off the mark.

Wednesday, Barton’s penchant for absolutes was on display. He told his audience that of the 192 members of the United Nations, America stood alone as a beacon of stability. “We’re a very blessed nation,” he said. “We happen to be the only nation that does not average a revolution every 30 to 40 years. Of 192 nations, we’re the only one with that type of stability.”

You might remember Barton from his role in the Texas Textbook Massacre:

Barton has twice addressed white-supremacist organization with ties to neo-Nazis, but both times has done so accidentally, he says. He has also been a leader in the movement to rewrite American history to remove Civil Rights leaders and knock down the wall separating church from state, arguing that it is a myth. He led the recent effort to rewrite Texas textbooks to describe America as a Christian nation.

People like Barton are the reason I caution against mocking Christine O’Donnell. If anything, Democrats need to do some serious soul searching about why such extreme views are dominating the public discourse.

UPDATE: From TPM:

David Barton, an evangelical and social conservative well known for his somewhat revisionist history and appearances on Glenn Beck’s show, yesterday took the opportunity on his radio show to ask that age-old question: “Why don’t we regulate homosexuality?”

Barton was talking about the government’s involvement in the health of the American people: “We have a Department of Health and Human Services; we have health care bills; we have health insurance and we’re trying to stop all unhealthy things so we’re going after transfats and we’re going after transparency in labeling to make sure we get all the healthy stuff in there.”

He continued:

So if I got to the Centers for Disease Control and I’m concerned about health, I find some interesting stats there and this should tell me something about health.Homosexual/bi-sexual individuals are seven times more likely to contemplate or commit suicide. Oooh, that doesn’t sound very healthy.

Homosexuals die decades earlier than heterosexuals. That doesn’t sound healthy.

Nearly one-half of practicing homosexuals admit to 500 or more sex partners and nearly one-third admit to a thousand or more sex partners in a lifetime.

So, he concluded: “I mean, you go through all this stuff, sounds to me like that’s not very healthy. Why don’t we regulate homosexuality?”

Full transcript and audio here.

Low-information nation: Whose Constitution is it?

September 25, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

In a post titled Low-information nation: Palin, Beck, Tea Partiers and American ignorance, I argued that the single most under-appreciated and understated aspect of American life, the 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.

I posited health insurance reform as an example:

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.

Ron Chernow:

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.

Lexington:

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.

UPDATE: If the Tea Party is so interested in defending the Constitution, let them start here:

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.

More from Digby:

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.

When you’re mulling a (weak) strategy less than 45 days out, you’re losing

September 20, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

NYT:

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.

It’s not hard to see why Democrats are relying on what Maddow called this “soul-sucking” tactic.  With no end in sight to the unemployment crisis, almost no real benefits yet in effect on their central legislative achievement (health care), a high likelihood of Social Security cuts following the election, few of the promises kept on the issues most important to their core base, and even hardcore Democratic pundit-partisans now finally — and angrily — acknowledging that Obama has continued the vast bulk of Bush/Cheney civil liberties/executive power abuses (ones which drove many progressives to remove the GOP from power), what else can they do to motivate people to vote for them besides try to scare people into thinking about the Sarah Palin menace?

…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.

Finally, this is yet another example of Democrats’ chronic habit of projecting weakness:

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.

Barney Frank explains the root cause:

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.

Quick, what do Democrats stand for? What does the Tea Party stand for?

September 17, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

I’d wager that the first thought that comes to mind is:

Democrats stand for higher taxes and big government.

The Tea Party stands for protecting the Constitution and taking back America.

Obviously simplistic and false, but this is what America is led to believe through the relentless pounding of well-crafted soundbites designed as a substitute for critical thinking.

Here’s what the Tea Party really stands for.

Until Democrats deal with this information imbalance, their sinking fortunes won’t improve.

Obama questions grassroots power of Tea Party – says big money is driving elections

September 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

During  remarks in Greenwich, CT, President Obama discussed the current political climate:

Partial transcript:

All across the country, special interests are planning and running millions of dollars of attack ads against Democratic candidates. … Millions of dollars. And the groups are benign-sounding: Americans for Prosperity. Who’s against that? Or Committee for Truth in Politics. Or Americans for Apple Pie. Moms for Motherhood. I made those last two up. None of them will disclose who’s paying for these ads. You don’t know if it’s a Wall Street bank. You don’t know if it’s a big oil company. You don’t know if it’s an insurance company. You don’t even know if it’s a foreign-controlled entity.

In some races, they are spending more money than the candidates. … They’re spending more money than the parties. They want to take Congress back and return to the days where lobbyists wrote the laws. It is the most insidious power grab since the monopolies of the Gilded Age. That’s happening right now. So there’s a lot of talk about populist anger and grassroots. But that’s not what’s driving a lot of these elections.

Age of Denial: win or lose chambers in November, it’s soul searching time for Democrats

September 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

Yesterday I posted what I believe is the photo that defines our age of denial, a Biblical image of dead sea life:

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.

« Previous PageNext Page »