Saturday, April 17, 2010

What the Tea Partiers don't get about Democracy

Part of me wants to like the Tea Party movement. After all, for an American historian, a group that looks to American history for inspiration is at least showing some of the correct instincts.

Reading an account in the local newspaper about the Tea Party meeting in Boiling Springs, SC, I found a few things that seemed in the spirit of the Sons of Liberty from the early 1770s: for example, a casket with a sign saying "Life, liberty and property" and "Rest in Peace." That sounds like something the Sons of Liberty would have liked.

Many observers, including the president, have pointed out the irony of the anti-tax protests on tax day given the fact that for most people, their taxes have not increased, and in fact have gone down. But in reading up on the original Tea Party, I found that the Tea Act, which led to the dumping of the tea in Boston Harbor, also did not raise the tax on tea. What it did was reassert Parliament's right to tax the colonists, and that's what prompted the protest. So there's actually a nice parallel there.

The Boiling Springs protest made references to tyrannical government, of course, and certainly the rabble-rousers of 1773 did that too. But that's ultimately where today's Tea Partiers go wrong. One Republican precinct leader from here in Spartanburg said: "We are faced today with a tyrannical government that is going to tax us, tax our children, forever."

Note the offense--taxing, in and of itself, is tyrannical. Anyone with even the most superficial understanding of the American Revolution should know that the dispute the American colonists had with the government back in London was not that governmental taxation was tyranny. The catch phrase was, of course, "No taxation without representation." For today's Tea Party supporters, however, that last part is strangely missing--or perhaps not so strangely. To remember that the crux of the disagreement in the 1770s was having a voice in how you were taxed is to demolish the source of today's outrage. These are people angry that they are taxed. This is a political temper tantrum. Their argument is not with the process, but with the outcome. Their anger springs not from a lack of a voice in government, but from their perception that they have not gotten their way.

This is a profoundly anti-democratic sentiment, one that has become far too common in conservative circles in the last 20 years. The essence of democracy is commitment to the process, not the outcome. One of the Tea Party protesters captured this outcome-oriented perspective perfectly: "The message is 'Remember in November.' We have to take this country back, and if we don't do it by the end of 2010, it's a lost cause." Aside from the alarmist and apocalyptic tone, so far so good: you have a grievance, so you engage in the process, you organize and vote. But what he said next revealed the fundamental (and frightening) flaw in his thinking: "I'm not calling people to arms, yet. But that may be what it comes down to at the end of 2010."

This man's view of democracy is entirely tied to results. If the mid-term elections in the fall produce a result he likes, great. If not, it may be time to take up arms. This is an alarmingly corrosive concept, one that reveals a basic misunderstanding of the American system of government. In this warped view, tyranny is defined by one's political opponents being in the majority. Losing an election becomes a cause for armed rebellion.

I don't take this person seriously, nor do I take seriously the idea of armed rebellion. But the man's words do reveal something seriously wrong at the heart of this movement. An ostensibly serious candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in South Carolina, Attorney General Henry McMaster, also spoke to the rally, and compared the federal government to America's cold war opponent: "We fought the Soviet Union. But ladies and gentlemen, the enemy is now in the room. The enemy is in Washington, D.C."

This is terribly irresponsible rhetoric. Comparing our own government to that of the Soviet Union is beyond the normal hyperbole we expect in politics. Calling our duly-elected government "tyrannical" is absurd and, even worse, dangerous. In another rally, Rep. Michelle Bachmann continued to discredit herself and this movement by referring to the "gangster government" in Washington. As former president Bill Clinton rightly noted, "They are not gangsters. They were elected. They are not doing anything they were not elected to do."

Unfortunately, for this uninformed and undemocratic movement of self-described "patriots," that's sin enough.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Whose Debt is it, Anyway?

Paul Krugman's recent column on the Greek economic mess contained a detail that I'd either never realized or had forgotten. In discussing the extent of Greece's national debt, Krugman notes that the U.S. "in 1946 ... had a federal debt equal to 122 percent of G.D.P." That high level of debt, he notes, did not doom the American economy. Due to steady economic growth, the debt "as a percentage of G.D.P. continued to fall in the decades that followed, hitting a low of 33 percent in 1981."

That latter date struck me--the post-World War II historic low of the American national debt was reached in the first year of the Reagan administration. Over the next decade, it would rise to 55.9 percent, and reached a height around 70 percent in the middle of the Clinton administration, before declining in the final Clinton years as the budget ran a yearly surplus and debt was retired.

Why is this significant? Because it puts today's ostensible outrage over the national debt into some historical perspective. While conservative Tea Party supporters would have us believe that liberalism is the problem, the debt numbers give the lie to that claim. The national debt went down throughout the post war period, during the years when the New Deal coalition still dominated American politics--despite the continuation and expansion of the New Deal, despite JFK's New Frontier and LBJ's Great Society (which significantly increased the role of the federal government), despite almost uninterrupted Democratic control of Congress. Through all of that, the national debt went down as a percentage of G.D.P. It only increased with the advent of the Age of Reagan. Since Reagan, every president has overseen an increase in the national debt as a percentage of G.D.P., with one exception--Bill Clinton. Yes, that's right right. The only Democratic president of the Age of Reagan is also the only president who oversaw the reduction of the national debt.

That might be something to keep in mind, as today's G.O.P. continues to peddle the idea that tax cuts will solve all of our problems.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Good News, Bad News

After writing two posts on the overheated rhetoric of recent months, I was pleased to see this story today. When Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma held a town hall meeting and the crowd booed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Coburn gently chided the booers: "Come on now ... how many of you all have met her? She's a nice person.... Just because somebody disagrees with you, doesn't mean they're not a good person."

I've previously seen little in Coburn's politics to admire, but this was precisely the right tone. Good for him. May others follow his example.

On a similar note, I had another encouraging experience along these lines myself last night. Wofford College hosted a talk on health care reform by Rep. Bob Inglis, who represents my South Carolina district in Congress. I had never heard Inglis speak before, and I knew that he (like every Republican) had voted against the recently passed bill. So I didn't expect to like much of what I was about to hear.

I was pleasantly surprised. There was no doomsday rhetoric, no hysterical hyperbole, just a reasoned and reasonable explanation of the problems he saw with the bill. As I expected, he was critical of the individual mandate, but not for the reason I expected. Rather than condemn it as an attack on liberty, as so many of his colleagues have, Inglis argued that it was too weak. The financial penalties in the bill, he argued (rather persuasively, I thought) were too small to really create a strong enough financial incentive for the uninsured to buy insurance. And he showed that, unlike most members of his party, he understood that banning insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions necessitates a strong individual requirement to buy insurance.

Inglis strongly supported the idea that there should be universal coverage, that everyone should pay into the system, and that it was a federal responsibility to make this happen. While he repeated what he himself called the Republican orthodoxy (state competition, limiting malpractice), he made it clear that those ideas were not enough, and that he has no philosophical aversion to at least some of the aspects of the health care law that was recently passed.

That's the good news. Here's the bad news. This kind of reasonable approach, which I came away believing is the product of a sincere desire to work in a bipartisan fashion to find solutions to problems, has put him in the Tea Party crosshairs. He is being challenged in the Republican primary by a self-identified Tea Party candidate whose radio ads say "Bob Inglis has sold out South Carolina conservatives" because of such things as "pushing the global warming myth," and whose web site posted the following question: "Do you want a Congressman or woman who will really speak out against the pro-socialist, anti-American regime that has captured our government?"

In a less polarized time, a Republican like Bob Inglis could have worked with the majority Democrats to forge a better health care bill. In times like these, however, he had to adhere to the party line, and has to guard his right flank against people who use this kind of intemperate, irresponsible rhetoric.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Newt's Kids, Continued

I wrote my last post on Friday, and then on Sunday, like a basket of chocolates from the Easter Bunny, arrived further evidence of my point in the morning paper.

Cal Thomas turned his column over this week to Newt Gingrich, who said the following when asked if overheated rhetoric might lead to violence: "For the mugger to complain that people are objecting to being mugged ... is an act of chutzpah on a grand scale." To be clear, the muggers he's talking about are the Democrats, the party that won the congressional elections in 2006 and 2008, as well as the presidency in 2008. The mugging is that they then had the gall to pass the health care bill, which they campaigned on in the last election.

How does Newt justify calling the predictable outcome of free, fair and democratic elections a "mugging"? "For any of these people who have deliberately bullied, bribed and abused the system to impose their will against the country to now be shocked that the country is unhappy with the machine, I think, is a further act of arrogance." And there you have it: an outcome Newt doesn't like is, by definition, illegitimate and "an act of arrogance." Lest you think that the "mugging" metaphor was a mistake or just a passing comment, Gingrich drove it home. The Democrats, he said, "would like to mug you routinely while you quiescently thank them for the privilege of being mugged." He knew exactly what he was saying--the Democrats are like violent criminals. And, well, you do what you have to do to defend yourself against violent criminals.

To hear Newt tell it, the health care outcome was not truly democratic. The other side got its way because it "deliberately bullied, bribed and abused the system," not because the Democrats were the majority party. Gingrich cannot accept that duly elected majorities in both houses voted for the health care bill. Somehow that becomes "abuse," because, you see, in Newt's world, the Democrats are not the real majority. He believes the U.S. is a "center-right" country, and that what we have now is "70 percent of the country being misgoverned by a militant minority."

Where does he get this number? As best I can tell, it is from the most recent Gallup poll on party affiliation, which shows 30% of Americans identify themselves as Democrats. What he fails to note is that 29% identify as Republicans and 39% as independents. So what Gingrich does is simply claim all of the independents as part of his "center-right" coalition.

This is intellectually dishonest. This same poll shows that when "including 'leaners'" the numbers are 45% Democrats and 44% Republicans. The country is split right down the middle. But Gingrich glibly ignores that fact in trying to paint the Democrats as a "militant minority" that is "mugging" the country. Well, what do we call it when a militant minority mugs the country? Newt knows--that's tyranny. And we know what happens to tyrants, don't we?

The former speaker is once again playing a cynical, dishonest and dangerous game. And it needs to stop.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Newt's Kids

Since hearing about the epithets, death threats and violent acts directed at congressional supporters of the recently passed health care reform, I've been mulling a post on it, but haven't sat down to do it. The explanation may be simple laziness. But it was also due, at least in part, to a desire to avoid overreacting. After all, the subject itself was people overreacting. Better to let this one germinate and grow naturally.

My first thoughts were prompted by a question from my friend and colleague Tim Schmitz. He asked what I thought the closest comparison was in American history. My knee jerk answer was the 1960s--certainly a time of overheated rhetoric, with "music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air." But that didn't seem right. Anti-war protesters certainly rivaled today's Tea Partiers in their apocalyptic talk. But did party leaders then talk darkly about "Armageddon" the way Minority leader John Boehner did in the days before passage of health care reform?

I then jumped back to the 1850s, when the controversy over the expansion of slavery into the territories polarized the country like never before or since. But on reflection, that seemed wrong too. In 2009, a South Carolina congressman yelled "You lie!" at the president during an address to Congress. But in 1856, a South Carolina congressman nearly beat to death a Massachusetts senator on the floor of the Senate. Thank God, we're not there either.

So maybe there isn't a particularly good comparison to make. American politics has, since the days of the early Republic, lent itself to hyperbole. The supporters of Adams were wont to ascribe a treasonous affinity for the French to Jefferson's supporters, who in turn accused Adams of being far too fond of the perfidious British. There is, perhaps, an innate American tendency to overstate our political differences.

Still, I cannot shake the feeling that there is something inherently dangerous in the particular language being used today, especially when it is used by elected officials. It is bad enough when blowhards like Rush Limbaugh say "we need to defeat these bastards ... we need to wipe them out." No reasonable person expects anything better from that reckless demagogue. But it's another thing when political figures do the same. Rep. Randy Neuberger yelled "baby-killer" during Rep. Bart Stupak's speech on the House floor in support of the health care bill (Bill O'Reilly routined called abortion doctor George Tiller "baby-killer," and Tiller was eventually murdered in his church by a man who said he was saving lives). Former VP (and potential presidential candidate) Sarah Palin tweeted: "Don't Retreat, Instead--RELOAD." Rep. Michelle Bachmann said she wanted her constituents "armed and dangerous." Rep. Steve King told a crowd: "Let's beat that other side to a pulp. Let's take them out. Let's chase them down." When that kind of thuggish rhetoric becomes commonplace among politicians, an important line has been crossed.

Palin has of course said that her comment (and her website with a map of Congressional districts to target each shown in a gun's crosshairs) was meant to inspire political involvement and voting, not violence. One can only take her at her word. But the words we choose matter. The violent imagery sends the wrong signal to the public. It has the effect of "defining deviancy down," in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's memorable phrase. When public figures use such words, it normalizes the association of violence with political disagreements. If we're threatened with "Armageddon," what's a brick through a window?

But most disturbing of all was the Republican leadership's response to the death threats and acts of violence. John Boehner rightly said "violence and threats are unacceptable." If that had been all he said, I'd unreservedly compliment him. But he couldn't content himself with that simple, declarative statement. No, he had to introduce it this way: "many Americans are angry over this health care bill, and angry at Democrats here in Washington for not listening." In other words, they asked for it. This strikes me as the equivalent of saying that a man shouldn't have hit his wife, but she also shouldn't have provoked him and made him angry.

If this statement were the only one like it, I could dismiss it. But it isn't the only one. Rep. Devin Nunes similarly characterized the threats as at least understandable if not somehow justifiable: "when you use totalitarian tactics, people begin to act crazy." Bachmann just yesterday asserted that Nancy Pelosi, on the day of the House vote, "deliberately went through that crowd" of demonstrators "perhaps to try and incite something." So if someone called Rep. John Lewis the n-word, or spat at Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, well, they were asking for it. Minority whip Eric Cantor said he had "deep concerns" that by making these threats known, Democrats were "dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting these incidents be used as a political weapon." This is a classic example of blaming the victim.

How did we get to this point? As I said earlier, hyperbole is nothing new. But the current scorched earth political strategy of the right has a specific recent pedigree. I was reminded of that when I saw that Newt Gingrich had joined the "blame the victim" parade: "The Democratic leadership has to take some moral responsibility for having behaved with such arrogance." It was Gingrich who was the famous "bomb-thrower" in the House in the late 1980s, who argued that the House needed to be burned down before the Republicans could break the Democrats' control of Congress. Democrats had to be attacked as corrupt, their hold on power illegitimate. Gingrich brought down Speaker Jim Wright over an obscure book deal that in retrospect looks laughably in quaint in light of the annals of political corruption. He rode that success to become Minority leader, and in 1993, he pushed a strategy of trying to cripple Bill Clinton's presidency by opposing his health care bill. It worked. Health care died, and Republicans took over Congress in the 1994 elections, and remained in control of the House until the 2006 elections.

Now that they are back in the minority, that is the Republican play book once again. No cooperation. Delegitimize your political opponents. Tell the people they are losing their freedom. Smear the other side with focus-group-tested words and phrases designed to produce an emotional revulsion among the electorate. Gingrich is a smart man. He saw a path to power and he took it. But he let loose forces he could not and does not control. Limbaugh, Beck, Boehner, Bachmann, King, Nunes--they are all Newt's children. It's time for some adult supervision.