Dynamics in Contemporary American Politics
Mr Michael A Ceurvorst, Former International Chair of Democrats Abroad and Retired US Consul-General, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 19 April 2011. Below is a condensed synopsis of his talk.
America, neither simple nor static, is troubled, agitated, and in conflict. The American polity is disenchanted, partly disenfranchised, and fracturing.
Defeat of Optimism?
The picture is complicated. I can touch here briefly on only some important dynamics in play: technologies' sweeping changes, fracturing political parties, confusing and globalizing economics, and vastly divergent understandings of what America is about in the 2012 election cycle. So far the cycle is driven by an inadequately recognized agenda of the far right, both libertarian and anti-governmental. Predictably, the health of the domestic economy and jobs will massively influence the outcome of this election cycle; as will monies of vested interests untied from legal disclosure requirements or even from the human person. Welcome, corporations registered in America!
Corporate money, unfettered by the January 21, 2010, Supreme Court Citizens United vs. Clinton decision, threatens to distort, even deeply wound American popular democracy. It has already damaged it severely, by derailing campaign finance reform. Cash is king.
Libertarianism in the service of right-wing interests with state-specific agendas through the American Legislative Exchange Council and tea parties, funded in significant part by the wealthy and stealthy Koch brothers, insurance companies, big Pharma, and big tobacco, are re-shaping political agendas and maps through a concerted ghost-drafting of state-level challenges to corporate interests and regulation. There is also in motion an attempt at state levels to limit the franchise via documentation to cut into Democratic voting strength among the poor and undocumented youth and aged, native American populations.
In 2009, for instance, ALEC produced 826 bills, and 115 were enacted into law, including in Arizona immigration legislation, and in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana. ALEC invites legislators and families to nice weekends at almost no cost, and then conducts study sessions with ready-made legislation handed out at the end with fill-in the blank spaces for your own particular state. This is a highly successful states-rights challenge to any federal legislation that goes against the interests of the major corporate supporters of ALEC, including the Koch brothers.
Who knows what might emerge through the 2012 campaign beyond Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, etc.? Privacy is now quite relative, and we are all soon on someone's mailing list, with many preferences manifest.
In 2012 Obama may be defeated or he may win, but transparency for now seems effectively stymied by the right flank of American moneyed-politics. This development endangers democracy and the democratic process of choice. Do we choose or are we packaged? Politics in America has since 1980 increasingly become a one-sided blood sport, not of parties, which are waning in influence, but of interests.
Transformative Technologies - the Big Picture
Spaceship earth as a limited and interconnected environment needing sustenance and nurture has not yet competed with the current raw capitalistic model of exploitation yields benefits to those who get there first. The politically potent faith communities in America so far have sided with the exploitative model, but enough massive suffering is developing globally to shake the ties, and besides, the world did not end on May 21. The 21 million copies of the Rapture series have many American readers with time on their hands.
Technologies are exponential drivers. From the General Agreement in Trade and Tariffs (1948) to its successor, the now floundering World Trade Organization (Jan 1995), global institutions lag behind. Technologies reshape and unify how everyday is lived for billions in what used to be termed the First, Second, and Third worlds. Technologies are very rapidly changing how politics, war, education, and trade are perceived and practiced. Many of the earth's inhabitants belong to the "left behind."
Dynamics 1. America the Idea.
Dynamically, this ideal of America, an idea, a work in progress and so often in failure, constitutes a tectonic plate in friction within American and with other forms of government -- totalitarian, dictatorial, plutocratic, and reviving fascist.
Core ideals of America also conflict with entrenched perversions of humanity such as slavery, human trafficking, genocide, war profiteering, drugs and money trafficking. These also enabled by technologies to grow in scale and to globalize, setting new parameters and agendas for domestic and foreign policy.
So newer technologies will bring essential conflicts to the surface more quickly than before. Awareness of problems and possible solutions will come quickly on each other's heels, and be shared by an ever wider set.
Technology changes the manner and meaning of warfare as well. See, for example, joystick-flown drone missiles precision guided thousands of miles away from targets irrespective of international borders. What is international law when borders don't count if you say they don't because your enemy is over there?
So you don't need to be looking into your enemies' eyes, or even verify who it is, to kill someone. Surprisingly, there is little legal or moral debate in America on this capability, though the governments and populations of Afghanistan and Pakistan do issue cease-and-desist demands from time to time.
America is internally conflicted and adjusting unevenly to huge tensions in living standards and narratives, diverging ever more widely.
Hope and change, the summoning theme of Barack Hussein Obama's Presidential election in 2008, have been debased in popular parlance, and relentlessly targeted by the right, from Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck. They will not constitute a worthwhile coinage for votes in 2012 without more meaningful progress that is not being rolled back or dissed.
The idea and ideal of America have become even more universally transformative via internet, itself a history-changing invention from America. See the Jasmine Revolution, which owes something to the idea of the consent of the governed, to the demand for expression and participation, and to sky-rocketing unemployment due, in part, to new technologies and global trade that make local employment superfluous in many traditional trades.
Technology is a key driver for all of us, crossing cultures and enabling shared discourse. The world in which the seven billionth human is born this year is one of ever more rapid change, opportunity and disaster. Crises are no longer merely national or regional; they are of global import, whether Fukushima's triple disaster or changing weather patterns and crop yields contingent on continental weather patterns, pollution and energy usage, or Osama bin Laden's killing.
Are there ways to save the American banking and housing conglomerate and keep investment banking separate from moral hazard? The Dodd-Frank legislation is being fought tooth and nail before it can be implemented.
Despite the spike in gold prices, indicative of older insecurities, money is in fact being redefined into strings of electronic zeroes and ones, without noble metal attached. If not even accounting standards are global, though trade and commerce are, what are the odds for regulating, and what authorities can do it? See how even the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is being scuppered by GOP objections and changes before it even commences, for a few billion more in debit card fees!
Not only legislation and regulation, but Conventions and institutions need revamping that is now being stymied. There is no guarantee we can escape being pulled by greed back into the vortex.
From a wider perspective, between the British or Dutch East Indies and Goldman Sachs and other systemically important financial institutions ((SIFIs) lie not just 350 calendar years but a whole light year of added complexities. The few who come close to understanding what is transpiring are busy profiting, and little room is left for coordinated and rational systemic evolution. Time is shortening for all of us, because everything is going faster, and with less governance.
Scale and magnitude are changing. What once were thought of as kingly ransoms are traded, won, lost, or perhaps occasionally earned, through human-assisted mathematics within minutes or even seconds -- by some. A class of billionaires puts the formerly elite class of millionaires to shame, and fewer people control more of the wealth not only within the bellwether U.S. but around the planet. Wealth concentrations are undermining political stability.
As SIFIs shed their national skins, laws and regulations fail; new ones are sought. Rules and even accounting practices are being tested across economic spheres against the realities of wealth transfer and capture, investment, and resource allocation mechanisms. Modeling and mathematics outpace ethics and ethos.
The U.S. of A., a country that produced in the previous century an ever-widening solid middle class through extractive, processing and manufacturing inventiveness and marketing, also developed and distributed energy resources, wars and defense industries. America achieved educational and scientific progress amid halting racial and cultural integration. America was on the move.
Since the 1980s America's financial and manufacturing roots have sought other ground. Decision-makers in transnational corporations follow profit and favorable tax treatment to make investment decisions that entail employment allocation. There is no national loyalty in the bottom line.
Consumers constitute 70% of today's U.S. economy, it is alleged, encouraged by financial services and government to spend, not save. Having became more important than doing.
Yet America's capital increasingly comes from abroad, particularly Asian nations, and her increasingly regressive tax revenues shrink under a GOP-"Reagonomics" and Ayn Rand style libertarianism, a la Alan Greenspan through Paul Ryan's budget that removes the safety net of social security and medicare put in place in the 1930s Great Depression. President Obama correctly characterized the Ryan, now GOP budget as tearing up America's social contract.
America's productivity newly comes from financial services and service sector employment, trimmed by intelligent and inventive technologies to the point that youth unemployment is a problem endemic to developed and developing nations. Capital is no longer national, nor are services, nor is unemployment.
Uncertainties, disasters, and failures of post-World War II systems to avert genocides, economic crashes, and militant ideology made it easier for a politics of fear and go-it-alone-ism to trump politics of steady economic progress and equitable distribution.
The tug-of-war in American politics may be seen as the push-and-pull of targeted advancement of economic interests striving to break free of constraints and the common good secured by a regulatory framework backed by an impartial rule of law.
With capital flows of such dimensions and no single governing authority, some try to convene the G-7, G-8, and G-20, while others debate the leap from Basel II to Basel III to find balancing voluntary agreements.
Debates over core Tier one capital requirements reverberate in the halls of Congress. The dicta of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund claim guiding relevance but gain little sway.
Others call for a basket of currencies to balance or even replace the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency. Stability, anyone?
While capital flows both legally and illegally, and commodities too are facilitated and managed by the Glencores of the world, labor is essentially immobile, except in services. Billions of our seven billion humans remain uneducated, poor and legally at others' mercy. Europe and the Americas fight against unavoidably huge pushes of economic migrations that involve culturally, religiously and linguistically diverse groups. Trouble brews.
Even worse, the continental shelves of our oceans are being fished out and polluted. The air we breathe circulates climate-altering chemicals and pollution, as deforestation and development put great pressures on eco-systems. The two-degree rise in global temperature predicted for 2020 with potentially irreversible warming meets climate-change deniers in American politics in 2011, funded by the Koch brothers and the petro-chemical industry.
Ethics are not keeping pace. Models of exploitation -- of resources and people -- still prevail over a sense of urgency in preserving vital resources such as water, and long-term systemic viability.
Those themes resonate ever more widely, from green ads by energy companies to pamphlets that promote eco-tourism.
In assessing the persons, movements, and interests active in the politics of America today, intersections and disconnections are important.
Unforeseen events such as the earthquake deep in the Pacific off Japan will likely alter policies such as energy. These are therefore provisional observations.
Technology's astounding advances are stretching the fabric of social, economic, political, medical, educational and cultural constructs. The savvier adapt sooner.
Seemingly, the glue of ethics in America is attenuating, rendering even more vulnerable the less keyed in and those of lesser means.
The American gospel of a fair chance for everyone regardless of station at birth -- a shared belief in possibility and exemplary values -- rings more hollow the longer one stands in an unemployment line, or the less justice seems to be served. Haves are growing fewer and richer in America (and across the globe), while have-not's are growing bitter and angry. America has been in worse straits and come through. She may yet rise to the challenges self-imposed and conceptual.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is a very wild card, competing with Congresswoman Michele Bachman for the right and the tea-party support. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich never engenders loyalty, and while very intelligent and a history-didact, he lacks staying power in constituency building. Three-time candidate Ron Paul is the perfect expression of a doctrinaire but experienced libertarian, who arouses passion in about one tenth of the electorate. Real estate tycoon Donald Trump and pizza-chain ex-CEO Herman Cain think themselves serious candidates, a perception not widely shared.
What unites the candidates is a desire for Mr. Obama's office and the desire to ensure he doesn't hold it for a second term.
Economic factors will determine the election, and the adequacy of an overarching narrative.
The Obama Presidency, never accepted by a swath of influential figures and interests, including key GOP present and past leaders, continues to re-shape and adapt, engaging with no sharp elbows thrown even while using competition metaphors.
Tactics and strategy.
Some accomplishments -- the Recovery Act, health insurance reform, banking and financial reforms, 25 tax cuts, repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell regarding gays in the military, -- and many failures continue to shape Obama's prospects in 2012 and the direction of America.
Egregious failures include
The Better Narrative.
Barack Obama the President like Barack the candidate never gives up, neither on universal health care with single payer option nor on uniting the country, no matter how recalcitrant the opposition. The elections of November 2011 emboldened the GOP to double-down on thwarting Obama and rolling back his initiatives.
American politics currently center in the conflict between President Obama's determination to chart the future in jobs, education, invention, and engineering, on the one hand, and moneyed efforts to establish a permanent Republican majority under the simplistic banner: "cut taxes! cut regulations! cut government!" That's a poor narrative but gosh is it easy to remember!
The current favored - and coordinated -- tack is, "cut spending! gut unions! privatize!" The focus in key electoral states is to gut unions, cut government workforce, and tighten voting documentation requirements as part of the defeat Obama campaign in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, with New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Maine in tow. Other key testing grounds are Arizona, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
GOP and divisively libertarian moneyed interests targets include progressive achievements since FDR, from removing labor rights to privatizing social security pensions to de-funding agencies that regulate business, commercial, and corporate reach, as well as public education.
Obama the candidate called for people to believe in the change they could bring to Washington.
Obama the President focuses instead on incremental though definite change on a voluntary basis. Hence, there is widespread disappointment in his presidency because he has not succeeded.
See Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Indiana, possibly Pennsylvania, and Michigan as examples and battlegrounds re workers' rights, and as also clarifying the ideological and financial game plan of some formerly quiet billionaires, the Koch brothers, David and Charles, who together would be the third richest individual in the U.S. and second richest private corporation after Cargill. [Their father was a co-founder of the John Birch Society of the 1960s.]
Wealth is not a crime, nor is stealth a virtue, but stealth with wealth is unfair and was, until Citizens United, illegal, for good reason. At Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity or Keep Fear Alive last summer, I captured the poster that said it all:
The brothers have funded multiple institutes and organizations to further their libertarian views and to shape political and legislative agendas through those organizations, e.g., Gov Walker's union-busting but also his no-bid move for a major pipeline through the state. The Koch Brothers fund others to argue that climate change is not real and that the EPA should be defunded and disbanded, which suits their oil and pipeline interests, including the Keystone project for pipelining the Candadian (Alberta) tar sands extracts through the plains states to refineries, at huge environmental costs but at great profit.
Lives of the Parties
Not coincidentally, Atlas Shrugged" was just reborn as a movie. It opened on April 15, the annual tax day, again dramatizing Ayn Rand's anti-government libertarian individualism as ideal.
In 2011, Rove, Gillespie, and other GHW Bush and GW Bush hands, moved for the ouster of Chairman Steele, successfully.
The overlap between traditional GOP and tea parties is partial only. Some in the tea parties threaten to throw out anyone who votes to raise taxes or the debt ceiling, regardless of party. The degree to which the groups are truly grass roots varies widely, and so uncertainty is the outcome. Few traditional moderate Republicans survive, and even the venerable and much respected Sen. Richard Lugar faces a possible primary challenge because he worked with Obama toward ratification of the new SALT treaty with Russia. The Tea Parties are mostly ignorantly nationalistic.
Watchdog Media or Media Dogs?
Media developments around the Fox News Corp juggernaut in burgeoning duopolies (cross-media within a single market) affect politics, with five potential GOP presidential candidates on (or recently off) the Fox payroll. It is a GOP and right wing attack-Obama machine, with former GOP head Roger Ailes as President. Rupert Murdoch's million dollar campaign contributions to the Republican Governors Association and to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's anti-Democratic lobbying arm have stirred ob jections from the normally compliant shareholders… whose money is it and who's to decide what politics are good for NewsCorp?
The leader of the party, Barack Obama, worked very hard as Chief Executive to be President and de-emphasized party differences in policy and priorities, for the sake of re-integrating the divided country.
In contrast in Congress, Speaker Pelosi was quite successful in passing bill after bill that reflected the promises of the 2008 campaign, but most of those died in the U.S. Senate, undercut by Senate rules that could be but have not been rewritten in the new Congress. The failure to change the Senate rules in January 2011 guarantees further roadblocks and legislative stagnation.
Democrats lost in 2010 for several reasons, chiefly the economy and because they surrendered the narrative. The party strategy switched from Howard Dean's party-building "fifty state strategy" to Tim Kaine's Obama for America grassroots efforts.
Recently, a third party chair has taken over, south Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, whose approach and strategy are unclear. It seems that she will work for and with theWhite House-installed DNC Executive Director Patrick Gaspard on a continuation of the 2008 victory strategy, banking on retaining a majority of first time 2008 voters and the firsttime 2012 voters using social media and peer outreach methods that won Obama the White House.
I think to win the Democratic Party must consolidate the gains of 2006-2008 and rely as well on local party grassroots veterans. I see some success to date, but not enough to secure victory.
Can the President sell his vision of America as a nation of those who do big things, who help others, who support and value their government and use it to out-educate, out-innovate, out-build the rest of the world?
From 2008-2010 Democrats did not press their advantages with determination, which suited the GOP just fine. In my view, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (2008-2010) was a highly aggressive but divisive figure who rode roughshod over cabinet members and policy initiatives, resulting in dispirited teamwork.
Interestingly as a 2010 election footnote, half of the "Blue Dog" or fiscally arch conservative Democrats elected in 2008 lost their seats in 2010, especially those that voted for Health Care Reform Act pilloried by the GOP as "Obamacare". Still ongoing, 26 Republican states attorney general have filed suit to have the signature piece of Obama's first two years overturned as a Constitutional overreach in interpreting the power of Congress under the Commerce clause to penalize those who don't participate in insurance programs. The Courts are still out on this, which final decision could prove pivotal for the 2012 elections.
In 2010 elections, many independents were not responding and many Democrats not voting. Actual turnout dropped significantly in rough parallel to earlier midterms, and Democrats lost big.
New RNC (only 168 members) chair Reince Prebius claims tea-party backed credit for a sweep of all power centers in Wisconsin and vows a mega-money campaign to "Defeat Barack Obama 2012". The machinery is set.
The role of State governments and how far the federal arm may reach ("Obama is a socialist") are again issue-obscuring debate fodder. Indirection and confrontation roam the halls of Congress as 87 freshmen demand spending cuts and real roll-back in programs. Earmarks are threatened. Will subsidies, e.g., ethanol and other agricultural as well as oil and natural gas subsidies, be extended? Will individual taxes be lightened or the whole code overhauled, as Obama prefers? A lot hangs on which answers emerge.
Democratic silence re campaign finance reform after Citizens United is yielding the specter of out-of-control money...
The RNC's initially announced $100 million goal for GOP was trumped by Karl Rove's American Crossroads pledges to raise another $120 million to defeat Obama, not counting the Crossroads GPS undisclosed donors. A White House source said Democrats would raise a $1 billion for the White House 2012 campaign, a figure that is no longer repeated in public.
These amounts will prove unsustainable in Democratic circles and likely guarantee greater shifts to corporate power.
Tea Parties phenomena may wane or grow, depending on details and what happens as the GOP tries to digest the stubbornly simplistic demands.
Born of a protest spirit, - "taxed enough already," claims one bag - the various parts lack a sense of cohesive national direction. Mormons Sen. Orrin Hatch (listening?), former Governor Mitt Romney (health care), outgoing Ambassador to PRC Jon Huntsman, Jr. (cap and trade) are criticized in Mormon home state Utah as not conservative enough!
Checks and Balances or Immobilizing Strains?
The assertively right-tilted Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United vs. Clinton case allowed corporate funds to be used politically as an interpretation of unrestricted free speech, overturning decades of precedent and the specific law that was violated in the 2008 elections.
Questions about Justice Clarence
The Court's rightward thrust is also evident in a DC case involving the Second Amendment. The Court re-interpreted the right to bear arms as an individual right, independent of a state-organized militia. Both decisions were 5-4 and rankle many in both the Executive and Legislative branches.
NRA, powerfully Republican but also just powerful, is almost untouchable as a force against gun control, with ED Wayne LaPierre snubbing President Obama's invite to talk next week with advocates of control under Department of Justice auspices.
This month, with the shooting of Congresswoman Gabbie Gifford still fresh, the AZ legislature legislated that guns, both open and concealed, could be carried on university campuses. Is this madness or disruptive purpose? The country is getting edgier and edgier.
Congress is checking the Executive's scope of action by routinely blocking appointments, filibustering legislation, and via hearings and subpoenas, especially active are oversight committees featuring ideological Congressmen Darryl Issa and Dana Rohrbacher. The Executive is tamely challenging Congress to discipline itself re lobbyists and legislation written by interest groups, but this time the megaphone seems without power.
Politics with a growing underclass
The interests of these groups overlap only in positive solutions, they can also be played off against each other. That is why Obama is still playing the "yes we can" card but fewer people seem to believe him. He still out polls Congress.
In his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama summoned America to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world in order to win the future. He staked out a number of specific targets, most of which require legislative cooperation to achieve. He showed a program, and the GOP went ballistic on the federal budget first and the federal deficit second, insisting on cuts that will stop any sense of progress.
Whether the President can reclaim the narrative and Congressional actions will be the second most important factor for re-election. The economy and jobs remain number one. Mr. Obama, and America, can easily lose in 2012.
What seems clear, however, is that America's direction and global leadership hang delicately in balance. Who prevails in the contest of the conflicting and competing narratives about the function and purpose of government will have immense consequences far beyond America.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.