Sunday, November 16, 2008

The myth of the center-right nation

Let's tackle part of the mythology tonight. As you might recall, I look at the mythology as a half-truth, albeit for reasons different from movement-conservative spinmeisters. We'll take a comparative look between the major parties and their governance in the US and much of the rest of the planet shortly. For now, I merely wish to look a bit closer at whether the American population is, in general, center-right in its ideology. That seems questionable.

Certainly, there is little reason to doubt that the outcomes of the mythology of movement conservatism, having been put into practice over the last three or so decades (culminating in the GOP "revolution" and the Bush II regime), have been largely repudiated over the last two electoral cycles. What the mythmakers are selling is that it's not the myth that was rejected, but the failure of the current GOP leadership (with the tacit and sometimes explicit cooperation of the Democrats) to stay true to the movement's "ideals." That makes for a convenient story until one begins looking at actual data.

Over the last several years, plenty of surveys have been published regarding US public opinion on a whole host of matters regarding domestic and foreign policy. Funny thing is that the results of those polls usually end up being much different from the center-right mythology. Instead, much more often than not, they end up looking something like this:
But the hard data back up the obvious. Let's review:
  • As Robert Borosage of Campaign for America's Future, wrote of the his group's poll (PDF), "When asked why they voted for Obama, the leading reasons were his proposals for withdrawing troops from Iraq, cutting middle class taxes first, providing affordable health care, and his commitment to invest in education and make college more affordable. When those who voted for Obama were asked about their doubts about McCain, picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin led the list, but fear that he would give tax breaks to the rich and big corporations came in second, followed by the notion that he would continue Bush's policies."
  • A number of polls in recent years have shown that Americans favor raising the minimum wage by about a 4 to 1 margin
  • A poll commissioned by Time Magazine in July, found that a "notable trend is the emerging popularity of environmental regulation as an economic imperative. Stricter pollution limits and tax credits for alternative energy development were supported by 84 percent of all respondents, the highest of any proposal. Increasing the minimum wage, expanding public works projects were nearly as popular, with 83 percent and 82 percent approval respectively."
  • It must have hurt the Wall Street Journal's editorial staff to report that 62 percent of Americans said "The government should tax the wealthy more." According to a Pew Poll, the same number favored either repealing all of Bush's "temporary" tax cuts, or at least those skewed towards the wealthiest. Only one in four said that Bush's cuts should become permanent.
  • Summing up the findings of a post-election report released by Public Citizen that found that there had been a net increase in Congress of at least 30 seats by "fair trade" supporters, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch division, said, "The 2008 election was a veritable tipping point for fair-trade issues, which just reinforces what polls have increasingly shown: The public has had it with the current race-to-the-bottom trade and globalization model, and they voted against those who support it and for those who say they will replace it."
  • A poll by Hart Research (PDF) found that voters in 7 crucial battleground states favored the Employee Free Choice Act -- pro-union legislation detested by the corporate right -- by nearly a 3 to 1 margin.
  • In response to the first round of 'center-right' country blather after the 2006 midterm sweep, Media Matters compiled a moutain of data on the issue, including:
    • By a 23-point margin, Americans say the government should "provide more services/ more spending" rather than "cut services/ cut spending."
    • By a 34-point margin, Americans agree that we "need strong government to handle complex problems" rather than believing the "free market can handle complex economic problems without government involvement."
    • Americans agree with the idea that "government should reduce income differences" by a 12-point spread.
    • According to a Gallup Poll taken last spring, 5 percent of Americans said corporate taxes were too high, compared with 71 percent who thought they were too low
    • According to a report from the nonprofit polling group Public Agenda and Foreign Affairs magazine, "When respondents were asked to rate a series of strategies for the degree to which they would strengthen the nation's security, the top-ranking moves were "Improving the effectiveness of our intelligence operations" (with 63 percent saying it would enhance our security a great deal) and "Becoming less dependent on other countries for our supply of energy" (55 percent). Only 17 percent said "Attacking countries that develop weapons of mass destruction" would enhance our security a great deal, the lowest-scoring strategy in the group. Forty-two percent said "Showing more respect for the views and needs of other countries" would enhance our security a great deal."
    • According to Gallup, on the question of military spending, "43 percent [of respondents] say we are spending too much, compared to 35 percent who say we are spending the right amount, and only 20 percent who say we are spending too little."
  • A Pew poll conducted just prior to the 2006 election found that, by "a 45% to 32% margin, more Americans believe that the best way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the U.S. is to decrease, not increase, America's military presence overseas."
  • According to an ABC News/ Washington Post poll conducted in June, Americans, by more than a 2 to one margin, thought "providing health care coverage for all Americans, even if it means raising taxes" was more important than "holding down taxes." According to a May poll by Quinnipiac University, 61 percent of Americans thought it "the government's responsibility to make sure that everyone in the United States has adequate health care," while 35 percent disagreed.
  • And, of course, as it has been since the program was launched by FDR, a significant majority of Americans like their Social Security just the way it is; a CNN poll conducted last month found that Americans opposed partially privatizing the program -- a key conservative proposal -- by a 26-point margin.
Center-right country, indeed. The reality is that if it weren't for the social issues and racist dog-whistles, conservatives would have a hard time running for dog-catcher outside of a few rock-ribbed regressive enclaves.
Basically, the bottom line is that outside of the Ozarks and Appalachians, Americans tend to be in favor of such things as organized labor, keeping the Social Security system as is, improved wages, higher corporate taxes, stronger government regulation of the economy, and are opposed to continued expansion of the military budget and military presence overseas. Neoliberal orthodoxy has, it would seem, never taken hold outside of the Beltway and Wall Street.

The problem, of course, is that no matter how much Americans may want a center-left government, the government and its corporate backers are bound and determined to prevent that from ever happening. I've talked about the disconnect between what we want and what we get (from both Dems and Repubs alike):
Something over at Lenin's Tomb that captures the essence of our situation:
The cost to the average working class American for this enforced dependency is therefore going to be enormous. And not only in their wallet. The attempt to control the oil spigot is going to involve the US army in an increasing number of interventions around the world, and almost every expert in the field anticipates that this will expose Americans to an increased risk of being targeted by militant groups.

Americans are increasingly aware of the consequences of those policies, and report growing support for different policies. The American government doesn't care, as why should it? It is not beholden to the fraction of the population that bothers to vote for it. Even where states try to research and implement alternatives, powerful lobbies block it. To move as fast as we would need to on environmental terms would involve a massive restructuring of the economy which, while certainly in the interests of working class Americans (as well as almost everyone else), would involve an unthinkable challenge to the interests and priorities of capital. Not only oil, oil-processing and car companies, but all derivative economies resist such moves. In fact, throughout the 20th Century, oil multinationals have worked extremely hard to roll back alternatives wherever they have emerged, often to the great detriment of the hated consumer, as when in 1940 GM, Standard Oil and Firestone acquired and dismantled electric rail links in parts of California. They also ripped up and dismantled the electric rail and car system in Los Angeles and motorised downtown - they were all convicted of criminal conspiracy in 1949, but fined so little that it hardly mattered. Now, Los Angeles has beautiful smog sunsets. Even on such piddling matters as Kyoto, the Global Climate Coalition - an axis of oil and car companies including Shell, Texaco and Ford - has been working overtime to block even the slightest shift, bribing politicians and parties to achieve this. This sort of thing is referred to as 'corporate greed': it is the competitive accumulation of capital and those who run the system couldn't do otherwise if they were self-abnegating puritans who preferred the lifestyle of ascetic monks.
In a recent book by Chomsky, the author lists a number of pieces of evidence that the US is at bare minimum a failing state - if not an outright failed state. For our purposes, the main point to highlight is the disconnect between the government and the very people whom the government is supposed to represent. When it comes to energy policies, health care, stewardship of the environment, and on and on we find ample evidence that the ruling elites who control the government have absolutely no interest in what the rest of their fellow Americans actually want. What Lenin cites is but one example.

If Americans can be accused of any sins, it's of complacency and naivete. These two sins seem to be in direct proportion to the extent that individual Americans accept the notion of American Exceptionalism - or the belief that we're somehow a special and benign giant doing God's will to make the world a better place. You believe something along the lines of exceptionalism, you'll believe about anything - such as changing who dominates the Congress will lead to an actual change in policies - in any substantive sense. I seriously doubt that the elites who run the Democrat party will be much more sane than the inmates currently running the asylum (perhaps a bit less paranoid and delusional - perhaps). As a good friend from my college days would periodically write in his zine, Pressure, "so, where's the change?" My guess is that for many Americans who really believe that this time things will be different, the disappointment come the next couple years will be palpable.

And I'll ask them once again, "so, where's the change?"
We've seen plenty of evidence of a disconnect, from a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to CEOs, to the bottomless War on Terra. In fact, I've gone so far as to characterize the government of the US as a "failing state" (a gone-but-not-forgotten dear friend of mine would be considerably less charitable). That characterization doesn't lead to much optimism for the foreseeable future, nor much reason to buy into the hope hype spun by the slightly "nicer" half of the center-right ruling regime. Again, here are some words written a couple years ago that may prove relevant both in terms of historical context as well as providing a foundation for understanding the present:

In some senses we've been down this road before. First a recap of the Katrina aftermath:
The National Public Radio news anchor was so excited I thought she'd pee herself: The President of the United States had flown his plane down to 1,700 feet to get a better look at the flood damage! Later, I saw the photo of him looking out of the window of Air Force One. The President looked very serious and concerned. That was on Wednesday, August 31, 2005, two days after the levees broke and Lake Ponchartrain swallowed New Orleans.

The President had waited the extra days to stop first at the Pueblo El Mirage Golf Course in Arizona. I'm sure the people of New Orleans would have liked to show their appreciation for the official Presidential photo-strafing, but their surface-to-air missiles were wet. I don't want to give the impression the President did nothing. He swiftly ordered the federal government to dispatch to New Orleans 18 water purification units, 50 tons of food, two mobile hospitals, expert search teams, and 20 lighting units with generators. However, that was President Chávez, whose equipment was refused entry to the disaster zone by the U.S. State Department.

President Bush also flew in generators and lights. They were used for a photo op in the French Quarter, then removed when the President concluded his television pitch. The corpses floating through the Ninth Ward attracted vultures. There was ChoicePoint, our friends from Chapter 1: The Fear. They picked up a contract to identify the bodies using their War on Terror DNA database. In the face of tragedy, America's business community pulled together, lobbying hard to remove the "Davis-Bacon" regulation that guarantees emergency workers receive a minimum prevailing wage.

The Rev. Pat Robertson got a piece of the action. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Web site encouraged those wanting to help victims to donate to the charities he controls. Within the week, the Navy penned a half-billion-dollar contract for reconstruction work with Halliburton. More would come. Our President, as he does in any emergency situation, announced additional tax cuts. He ordered immediate write-offs for new equipment used in rebuilding. That will likely provide a relief for Halliburton, but the deductions were useless to small New Orleans businesses which had no income to write off. The oil majors, the trillion-dollar babies, won a $700 million tax break. Don't think of hurricanes as horrors, but as opportunities. For the schoolchildren among the refugees, instead of schools, our President promised school "vouchers" on a grand scale. And there was a bonus. Louisiana had been a "purple" state- neither a solid Republican Red nor Democratic Blue. It was up for grabs politically. With a Democratic Senator and a new Democratic Governor, Louisiana was ready to lead the South out of the GOP. Louisiana's big blue Democratic splotch was enclosed within the city below sea level.

On August 29, this major electoral problem for the Republican party was solved. I'm not saying our rulers deliberately let New Orleans drown. But before they would save it, the lifeguards boarding Air Force One had to play a few more holes.
Now for our history lesson:
There is nothing new under the sun. A Republican president going for the photo op as the Mississippi rolls over New Orleans. It was 1927, and President Calvin Coolidge sent Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, "a little fat man with a notebook in his hand," who mugged for the cameras and promised to build the city a wall of protection. They had their photos taken. Then they left to play golf with Ken Lay or, rather, the Ken Lay railroad baron equivalent of his day.

In 1927, the Democratic Party had died and was awaiting burial. As depression approached, the coma-Dems, like Franklin Roosevelt, called for, of all things, balancing the budget.

Then, as the Mississippi waters rose, one politician, the state's electricity regulator, stood up on the back of a flatbed truck rigged with loudspeakers, and said, roughly, "Listen up! They're lying! The President's lying! The rich fat jackals that are drowning you will do it again and again and again. They lead you into imperialist wars for profit, they take away your schools and your hope, and when you complain, they blame Blacks and Jews and immigrants. Then they drown your kids. I say, Kick'm in the ass and take your share of the wealth you created." Huey Long was our Hugo Chávez, and he laid out a plan: a progressive income tax, real money for education, public works to rebuild Louisiana and America, Social Security old age pensions, veterans' benefits, regulation of the big utility holding companies, an end to what he called, "rich men's wars," and an end to the financial royalism of the One Percent.

He even had the audacity to suggest that the poor's votes should count, calling for the end to the poll tax four decades before Martin Luther King succeeded in ending it. Long recorded his motto as a musical anthem: "Everyman a King."

The waters receded, the anger did not, and, in 1928, Huey "Kingfish" Long was elected Governor of Louisiana. At the time, Louisiana schools were free, but not the textbooks. The elite liked it that way, but Long didn't. To pay for the books, the Kingfish levied a special tax on Big Oil. But the oil companies refused to pay for the textbooks. Governor Long then ordered the National Guard to seize the oil fields in the Delta.

It was Huey Long who established the principle that a government of the people must protect the people, school them, build the infrastructure, regulate industry and share the nation's wealth-and that meant facing down "the concentrations of monopoly power" of the corporate aristocracy-"the thieves of Wall Street," as he called them.

In other words, Huey Long founded the modern Democratic Party. FDR and the party establishment, scared witless of Long's ineluctable march to the White House, adopted his program, albeit diluted, called it the New Deal and later the New Frontier and the Great Society. America and the party prospered. What happened to the Kingfish? As with Chávez, the oil industry and local oligarchs had few options for responding to Governor Long's populist appeal and the success of his egalitarian economic program. On September 8, 1935, Huey Long, by then a U.S. Senator, was shot dead. He was 42. And now is the moment, as it was in '27.
You know your nation is a "failing state" when among other things the government simply through negligence and/or incompetence cannot act to help out its people in an emergency. I recall the lone physician who was there at the Convention Center in NOLA during the immediate days after Katrina had decimated the area commenting that 8-29 may very well have marked the day the nation started to fall apart. I would that the nation had been falling apart considerably before that day last year - it was only the footage from the devastated areas that made the rot visible for the first time. The ability of first responders to effectively handle a situation like the hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf Coast last hurricane season had been effectively hamstrung by severe budget cuts. That's been par for the course this decade so far. Poverty, which has, during my lifetime, increasingly plagued what is arguably the richest nation on earth was no stranger to the Big Easy - and the poorest of NOLA's residents tended to live in those areas most vulnerable to flooding. The decisions made by our federal government to neglect the state of the levees and to continue to neglect the coastal wetlands (which once upon a time served as a buffer between NOLA and hurricane-driven storm surges) were bound to affect these folks disproportionately. If one looks at the Lower Ninth Ward, as well as other coastal towns in Mississippi as well as coastal towns affected by Rita, one finds homes, businesses, and lives still in shambles. The government that promised to help has done little more aside from funnelling some coin to their pals at Haliburton et al. And this year's hurricane season is only just warming up, y'all.

I'm willing to accept that there were many who were genuinely shocked and dismayed by the initial scenes of devastation, and by the devastation that still has yet to be repaired. Several news anchors and pundits were unprepared for scenes that seemed more fitting for a third world nation. And yet, as friends of mine who had spent time in the area (outside of the tourist traps) had told me, it had been pretty much third-world for quite a while in NOLA. In fact there have been folks (myself included) who have noted for at least a decade that substantial swaths of this nation have fallen into such severe neglect as to merit third-world status. So I was not shocked by what we were getting on the news stations at the tail end of August & the beginning of September. Rather, I was simply pissed off - at a government that has so thoroughly neglected its responsibilities that a large number of lives were lost (and we're talking a largely preventable loss, had the levee system been kept up adequately, had the wetlands been preserved, had equipment and potential first responders been in adequate supply rather than wasted on that atrocity of a war in Iraq); pissed off at the CEO carpetbaggers bound to profit off of the misery; pissed off at a corporate media that I knew would go largely back to sleep once the ever important stories about Jessica Simpson's impending divorce or the Olsen twins' eating habits hit the fan.

I'm not sure if there is a Huey Long out there in the woodwork, or plan on pinning my hopes on such an individual showing up. I'd rather get the word out instead. In the meantime, we can be rest assured that today's GOP doesn't give a rat's ass about most of us (at least those of us who don't count in the corporate and government's eyes as "substantial"), and that like the 1920s the Democrat party is all but useless. What I do know is that we cannot afford another moment of the status quo. This would be a damned good year to throw the bums out from both parties, a damned good year to take our country back - a damned good year, indeed, to begin the long road to fashioning something of a working democracy, and something that would hold far more legitimacy among the large proportion of currently disenfranchised citizens as well as abroad.
The bums from both parties are still there - merely the balance of bums from one party to the other has changed over the last two electoral cycles to the point that one party is probably little more than a regional party whose base is focused more on God, guns, and gay marriage. The apparent demise of that party (tilting from center-right to extreme right-wing nationalism) is a welcome development.

At this point, I am not sure that the ones holding majority power and the White House come January 2009 are up to the task of actually listening to their constituents. If anything, the last two years have given us enough reason to not place too much trust their listening skills. The current economic crisis was a long time in the making, and it is a crisis of legitimacy - not only regarding matters of credit and currency, but also regarding the connection between the government and the governed. Word to the wise: more of us are waking up to that reality.

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