The retarded state of American politics

With Republicans pandering to the hard right and Democrats labelling their liberal critics ‘retards’, the US political scene is in a weird state of stasis.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

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Taken seriously, politics can break your heart.

These days, black humor is a much better refuge than hope. Otherwise, resignation, if not despair, seem the only rational responses to a degraded American political system that’s unable or unwilling to right the economy, restore civil liberty and the rule of law, or reform unaffordable, inefficient, and inadequate healthcare institutions (to name just a few major challenges.)

The Democratic majority is splintered, unable or afraid to govern, often lacking the courage of its professed convictions. The Republican minority is in thrall to angry, far-right ignoramuses: two-thirds of self-identified Republicans believe or are open to believing that Barack Obama is ‘a racist who hates white people’; more than half believe or are open to believing that he ‘wants the terrorists to win’, according to a recent poll.

Meanwhile, the crucial independent voters to whom both parties pander are fickle and volatile: with no partisan attachments or any appreciable understanding of policy choices, much less legislative processes, many of them shift allegiances unpredictably from right to left out of anxiety, impatience, or naivete. Independents are among the least politically engaged of voters and the most sceptical (according to the Pew Research Center); and scepticism combined with disengagement, which fosters ignorance, can easily devolve into nihilism and gullibility. As Hannah Arendt observed, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, when people are ‘ready to believe the worst’ and also believe that ‘every statement is a lie anyway … one could make (them) believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism.’

This is not a political climate conducive to the bi-partisanship for which so many claim to strive. If Democrats devised a cure for cancer, Republicans would oppose it. Barack Obama would vainly try to reason with the opposition and push for compromise, offering to cure some cancers but not others. (He seems to have discovered only recently that he is no longer president of the Harvard Law Review.) Fox News would denounce the Democrats’ proposed cancer cure and any compromise as a soft-on-terrorism, big-government, socialist plot, and every single Republican in the Senate, (including a few who ‘negotiated’ with Democrats) would derail the cancer cure merely by threatening a filibuster. Thanks to Senate rules and Democratic haplessness, a minority of Republicans have repeatedly defeated the majority’s bills by merely threatening a filibuster; they have not had to bother actually engaging in one. (The tyranny of the minority in the Senate is exacerbated by the fact that the 41 Republicans, out of 100 senators, who have power to obstruct legislation represent a little more than a third of the population nationally, since every state elects two senators: Wyoming, home to a little over 500,000 people, enjoys the same representation in the Senate as California, pop. 36,756,666.)

So by voting as an impenetrable bloc, a minority of Senate Republicans representing a minority of voters have managed the effective shutdown of Congress, while shifting the blame for legislative stasis (and the failure of bipartisanship) to Democrats, who are at least nominally in charge. Consider this report from the reliable James Fallows at theatlantic.com, of an exchange between two congressman discussing the stimulus bill:

GOP member: ‘I’d like this in the bill.’

Dem member response: ‘If we put it in will you vote for the bill?’

GOP member: ‘You know I can’t vote for the bill.’

As Fallows notes (quoting his source): ‘There’s really nothing to be said about “why no bipartisanship”, once one recognises the GOP party discipline.’

Obstructionism does seem like a reliable path back to power for Republicans. Democrats have lost three major elections in the past year: governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey and a staggering, entirely unexpected loss in the recent Massachusetts election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat – a loss that deprived Democrats of the shaky 60-vote supermajority they need to enact legislation in the face of implacable Republican opposition. Each of these defeats reflected local idiosyncrasies that don’t necessarily portend doom for Democrats nationally in 2010. In Massachusetts, for example, the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, ran one of the worst (and one of the laziest) campaigns in recent history, while her previously obscure opponent (now Senator Scott Brown) ran one of the best. In New Jersey, Republicans defeated an unpopular incumbent governor after a scandal (not implicating the governor) crippled the state Democratic machine.

In the wake of these defeats, Democrats are promising to expose Republican obstructionism, by forcing votes – and perhaps actual filibusters – on popular measures that Republicans have previously supported. As Obama has stressed, his proposal for a bi-partisan commission on the deficit was just defeated in the Senate (having gained the support of a small 53-vote majority instead of a 60-vote super-majority). Among the senators who voted against a deficit commission were six Republicans who had previously co-sponsored a bill establishing one.

Or consider the Obama Administration’s commitment to repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policies prohibiting gays from serving openly in the military. (A majority of Americans agree that openly gay and lesbian people should be allowed to serve.) Three years ago, when preparing for a presidential run, Republican senator John McCain announced that he would support repeal of DADT when military leaders supported it. That was then; a few days ago, when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defence called for loosening or repealing DADT, McCain reversed himself, announcing his opposition to repeal and his disappointment in the testimony of military leaders.

McCain may be acting partly out of pique at losing the presidential race, but it’s only fair to note that he is up for re-election and facing a primary challenge from the hard right, where homophobia is rampant. (Only 26 per cent of Republicans recently polled believe that openly gay people should be allowed to serve in the military; a mere eight per cent believe they should be allowed to teach in public schools.) Right-wing discourse about homosexuality would be laughable if it did not exert disproportionate influence in Congress: one Republican congressman opines that repealing DADT would introduce ‘hermaphrodites’ into the military. A Senate Republican warns that opening the military to gay people would result in ‘alcohol use, adultery, fraternisation, and body art.’ (Apparently, heterosexuals indulge in none of these activities.)

But while Republicans play to their right-wing base, out of electoral necessity, convenience or actual conviction, Democrats insult their base on the left. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (wildly unpopular on the left) recently had to apologise for calling liberal critics of White House strategies ‘retards’. (He didn’t apologise for attacking liberals; he apologised for uttering a politically incorrect word: ‘retards.’) Obama and congressional Democrats have dismayed civil libertarians by continuing abusive, questionably effective Bush/Cheney policies in the war on terror: the administration has announced its intention to detain some terror suspects indefinitely, without trial. It has declined even to try to hold Bush administration officials accountable for torture and other lawlessness and is retreating from the commitment to try alleged 9/11 conspirators in criminal court, instead of military commissions. It has failed to close Guantanamo – and Republicans, like John McCain who once supported closure, now oppose it. (Glenn Greenwald, at salon.com, has faithfully chronicled the civil liberties abuses of Democrats and Republicans and the Obama Administration’s adoption of Bush Administration policies. See, for example, this column.)

So, while Republicans condemn Obama as a socialist, to liberals and progressives he’s a moderate, corporatist, centrist, quick to compromise with Republicans who have no intention of compromising with him. As liberal, California senator Barbara Boxer recently remarked to the president, her constituents ‘really want to see a fighting spirit from us’. After a disastrous first year, many Democrats are insisting it’s time for Obama to take charge – if his temperament permits him to do so. Sometimes, Obama’s strengths – his talent for mediation and his clarity and cool in the midst of chaos – look or function more like weaknesses. He’s someone you want in charge during an emergency (or a debate), but not a knife fight – unless he proves to be a master of jujitsu.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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