Monday, September 06, 2010

Tony Blair and progressive discontent

This is an interesting post on some comments made by former British PM Tony Blair. It raises some important questions about how the political process works and the role of individuals and activists in that process. It reminds me of a characterization of political principles that I like. We have sets of ethical/principle callings. For example, we have beliefs and policy positions that we want to advance (i.e. cutting taxes or providing health care for all). We also have an ethical calling in our conduct when attempting to advance those policies (i.e. is it okay to lie in order to win an election – that is, do ends justify means?).

The problem is that sometimes we have to choose between those two ethical callings.

We can spread half-truths or outright lies about our political opponents or run attack ads (ads which may have some truth to them, but are slanted to paint an ugly picture of our political opponent) in order to win an election. Once the election is won, we are free to pursue the policy positions we believe will most benefit the nation. So, we have traded certain principles about clean politicking in exchange for the ability to advance those political principles.

On the other hand we can run a clean campaign, do no mud slinging, and lose. This means we are unable to advance a policy agenda, but we can still say we adhered to those political principles of clean electioneering (but at what cost).

Similarly, Blair wants progressive activists and rank-and-file voters to do a little more marching in line so to speak. We need to stick up for Obama a little more even if he gives us milquetoast SCOTUS nominees instead the progressive equivalents of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Even if there is no public option we need to fall in line and defend HCR to the death. And even though the Employee Free Choice Act seems to have fallen off the agenda we should get out and pound the pavement to save the Democratic majorities in congress.

Up until recent years, the right has done a much better job keeping their troops in a line. It seems that on the whole conservative voters are more willing to line up behind an R and march. And here is where competing political principles have to be reconciled. Democratic/progressive voters can sit at home in November and watch Democratic congressional majorities disappear. Next year we can look forward to trumped up investigations in house committees that will put a complete stop to a less-than-progressive agenda (that is still better than the right-win agenda we are going to get or had through the Bush years), not to mention the conservative threats to simply shut down the government (exactly what we need in the middle our economic problems).

As a result, we will still have our principles though. We can still proudly say we didn’t go out and vote for some senate, congressional or gubernatorial candidate who wasn’t progressive enough. And we can feel really good about that while Pat Toomey runs amok in the Senate.

This is the political conundrum we face. I don’t think we should reflexively line up behind a pol like Tony Blair. At the same time, I think progressives have been too critical, and not strong enough in defense of President Obama. We haven’t gotten a strong enough fight in favor of progressive policy positions from the White House or congressional Democrats. But sitting at home in November and turning congress over to a paleo-conservative, Club for Growth corporatist like Pat Toomey isn’t going to help things at all.

The question is which set of political/ethical principles are most important to us right now, because I don’t think progressive, or conservatives for that matter, can have political purity.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Libertarians and Ballot Access

The Libertarian Party of PA is sounding a little progressive today. Not a lot, just a little. I think it’s sad that in PA we had all five third-party candidates for statewide office knocked off the ballot this year; truly a shame. In the report on WITF this morning, this statement caught my ear though:

State Libertarian Party Chairman Mik Robertson said what used to be an unlevel playing field has turned into a "vertical barricade." He says it prevents citizens "who have a modicum of support but do not have large financial resources from gaining access to the ballot," he says. "Today we are asking the General Assembly to tear down that wall."
Now, there are a couple points to make about this. He is absolutely right that state law makes it difficult for third-party candidates to get on the ballot and the law should be changed to increase access. This is a case of the two major parties protecting incumbents and the consolidation of power between Democrats and Republicans. It is wrong and it should change. Third-party candidates from across the political/ideological spectrum should have access to the ballot if they are able to gather the signatures necessary, and that necessary number should be the same for all parties, Democrat, Republican or other.

On the other hand, I can’t help but point out the un-libertarian language employed by Robertson. He is essentially arguing that government needs to act in order to help those with less financial resources to gain access to the ballot, where access is limited to only those with money and an established political infrastructure.

It seems to me a more libertarian attitude to take would be to say, “If the Libertarian Party had the popular support necessary for gaining access to the ballot this wouldn’t be a problem. If the general public truly wanted a strong Libertarian Party they would donate enough money to pay for those legal challenges, or there would be enough volunteers to gather more than the required number of signatures to make a legal challenge a moot point. The public has access to the Internet, giving the Libertarians a voice in the marketplace that is just the same as the voice of the two major parties. So if the public doesn’t really seem to want the Libertarian Party to play a more significant role in Pennsylvania politics, why should government take action to “level the playing field,” wasting our tax dollars and the legislature’s time pursuing something that is only of interest to a small minority of voters who support third parties?”

If I were a Libertarian I might say something like that. But I’m not a Libertarian, so I won’t.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dick Armey is a man of the people

This editorial by Dick Armey is hilarious in its inauthenticity. It trumpets the beauty of a non-hierarchical grassroots movement in language clearly written by a PR firm. It is the velvet glove of populism. I feel like I’m still hearing the echoes of Spiro Agnew saying “nattering nabobs of negativity.”

The editorial describes the tea party as “decentralized,” as not a “top-down hierarchy.” I just wonder if the writers would apply the logic of the analysis to corporate governance. Would they apply their same populist message to the people at the bottom of corporate hierarchies having tea parties to improve their working conditions or increase their wages or to decry the growing gap between the pay of the people at the top and the people at the bottom?

Would Dick Armey celebrate a labor movement that, instead of looking to government for regulation of working conditions, self-organized in a decentralized leaderless movement that forced an oil company to improve the safety conditions on a drilling rig? Would he celebrate in the same glowing terms a decentralized labor union that applied the same logic to corporate governance as the tea party does to national governance, bottom-up rather than top-down; a labor movement that would work for higher wages, shorter hours, increased job security, and a raised standard of living for themselves and their families?

It seems to me that such a movement would decrease the need for government regulation because the labor movement would be able to advocate on its own behalf, making regulation unnecessary or less necessary. It would be labor taking a more assertive position in the free market that the libertarians love so much. So I would hope that people like Dick Armey would support such a movement wholeheartedly. I would like to think he would apply the same logic to such a movement in organized labor. But somehow I doubt it.

I remember reading Invisible Hands, describing the foundation of the movement we are seeing now, in the Goldwater years. There is a lot of talk from those people about the labor movement and the questioning of authority (i.e. capital) as somehow a moral shortcoming on the part of the general populace. This is why I’m skeptical of the tea party organizers (i.e. Freedom Works, not the people attending the rallies).

There are two moments in here that make me see this top-down attitude hiding behind what I think is faux-populism on Armey’s part. First is the fact that he says the tea party “rebellion's name derives from the glorious rant of CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, who in February 2009 called for a new "tea party" from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.” I can’t imagine a greater symbol of being “of the people” than standing on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

There is also a sort of linguistic slip in his call for letting “the leaders be the activists.” I know in this sentence he means that the activists should lead, but it’s funny that this can easily be read as meaning the opposite; let the leaders become like activists, as Patricia Clough (2004) says, “there is something more than intimacy between power and resistance in the ever-growing dependency of power on the usurpation of resistance” (p. 18).

This final point draws me into the problem of the analysis of a movement like the tea party, especially for someone who is outside of the movement. Who am I to say that, even if I disagree with their conclusions, the people attending tea party rallies are inauthentic in their feelings about government? How does one manage an analysis with the politics of it lurking in the background? How do we locate what constitutes a political “movement” like the tea party. Is it possible to separate the people or the movement from the PR company Freedom Works or do we have to call the people at the rallies a “front for” or “dupes to” a corporate organization that is using a bottom-up populist message to push what is really a top-down corporate agenda?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

“It takes something like courage to admit that we will never do better than a politician…”

At this hour it looks like Arlen Specter is going to be on his way out of the U.S. Senate. I voted for Sestak … strike that, as I write this the AP has just called the race for Sestak.

I have mixed feelings here. Even though I voted for Sestak I feel a little sad that Specter is done. I can’t remember a time when he was not the senator for Pennsylvania. I love politics on many levels. I love it as a policy debate, governing process, but most of all as a fight, a struggle between candidates, or parties or coalitions.

And Specter represented, up until tonight, a guy who knew how to win those fights.

Specter is cagey. He’s a political animal. There is something that transcends ideology for me: political talent. I can respect a politician who knows how to fight, even when I disagree with him or her. I love politics and Arlen Specter is a consummate politician.

He just came up against his last fight tonight. He’s giving his concession speech at the moment and it is a little sad.

Specter makes me think of Bruno Latour’s (1988) defense of the politician:

“…no one does any better than the politician. Those others simply have somewhere to hide when they make their mistakes. They can go back and try again. Only the politician is limited to a single shot and has to shoot in public. I challenge anyone to do any better than this, to think any more accurately, or to see any further than the most myopic congressman.” (The Pasteurization of France, p. 210)
On that note I leave this post with a double illustration of Specter at his most politically adept; a double feature that shows how truly good this guy was. How many other politicians have anything equivalent to back-to-back TV ads from Barack Obama in one reelection campaign and George W. Bush in the preceding reelection campaign? No one even comes close.

So ideology aside, my thanks to Arlen Specter for thirty years of service to Pennsylvania and now on to a Sestak victory in November! The last thing we need is a Santorum clone representing us in the U.S. Senate!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

I’ve been working here at my desk with the BBC humming in the background. It floats in and out of my consciousness, periodically grabbing and losing my attention. One moment that particularly pulled me in was when the hosts began discussing the merits of a two party system over having multiple minor parties.

The two party system is more stable they said; it is less susceptible to “horse-trading,” making it difficult to form a truly representative government.

Most of all, above all other concerns, is that of stability of government. They lamented the fact that they could potentially have a governing body that did not receive a majority or plurality of votes. They claimed that Gordon Brown had already started the “horse-trading” before the votes were fully counted.

What is most fascinating to me about all of this is that process of horse-trading. How do people form a governing coalition? It amazes me that the Tories might win the most votes, but instead of ending up with Prime Minister David Cameron the UK may end up keeping Gordon Brown who would be forced to build a coalition with the Lib Dems. Even more interesting is that fact that the Lib Dems ended up with a disappointingly small amount of the vote, less than the media hype of the last few weeks, and they would be the kingmakers.

What if the Lib Dems decide to build a coalition with the Tories?! How fascinating that politics would make such strange bedfellows!

Could it be that Gordon Brown becomes the Bush 2000 of England; he loses in the vote count and still, because of the quirks of the system, becomes the head of state? The UK political process is going to be fun to watch over the next few days.

Monday, March 22, 2010

health care vote and the coming election

Over the last few weeks I have had an ongoing debate with a friend of mine about the political implications for the health care vote that happened last night. My friend thinks it will end up costing the Democrats electorally and potentially make Barack Obama a one-term president. I suspect, as in most midterm elections, the Democrats will lose seats because that is the nature of those elections, but that they will retain smaller majorities and Obama will be reelected (mostly because there doesn’t seem to be a single Republican challenger that needs to be taken seriously, but that’s another post).

What has been most stunning about this past year in politics is the conduct of many on the right. I found it distasteful when liberals compared George W. Bush to Hitler. I think if you compare your opponent to Hitler and your opponent is not literally committing a holocaust you automatically lose the debate. But I don’t think liberals and Democrats in the Bush years are comparable to what’s been happening from the right over the last year. Just in the last few days we’ve had reports of hate speech about the race and sexual orientation of Democratic members of congress. Much of the tea party movement is based upon simply being at best rowdy and at worst threatening.

Yet, there was this from Boehner; a call for house Republicans to be civil after the vote. It just reminded me of this moment from the Clinton years recounted by former PA representative Marjorie Margolies.

Eighteen years ago, I was elected on the coattails of a popular young Democratic president who promised a post-partisan Washington. A year later, with partisan gridlock capturing the Capitol, there was a razor-thin vote on the House floor over legislation that Democrats said would remake the country and Republicans promised would bankrupt it. I was pressed on all sides: by constituents opposed, my president needing a victory and Republicans promising my demise. I was in the country's most Republican district represented by a Democrat. I had repeatedly said "I will not be a 'read my lips' candidate." I voted my conscience and it cost me. I still remember how, after I voted, Bob Walker jumped up and down on the House floor, yelling "Bye-bye, Marjorie!" I thought, first, that he was probably right. Then, that I would expect better behavior from my kids, much less a member of Congress. And then, that he was a remarkable jumper.

Bob Walker was once my congressman, before Joe Pitts (ugh). I imagine that he is a remarkable jumper.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

No more U.S. currency in South Carolina?

The conservative voyage into absurdity continues full steam today. This has to be my favorite news item of the week. It appears a state legislator in South Carolina is proposing that U.S. currency no longer be recognized by the state. 

This is a broader problem of a particular reading of the constitution that is endorsed by the so-called tea party movement, this reading that sees almost any act of the federal government as being unconstitutional to the point where it is almost a knee-jerk reaction, something that does not need to be preceded by thought.

More than that is the apocalyptic undertones of movement conservatives. Everything these days seems to be about the total collapse of the economy, the end of all freedom; every statement is colored with hyperbole. This particular SC state rep. is no exception. His rationale for switching from U.S. currency to gold and silver?
“I’m not one to cry ‘chicken little,’ but if our federal government keeps spending at the rate we’re spending I don’t see any other outcome than the collapse of the economic system,” Pitts said.
The chicken little reference is especially amusing. If I can be a chicken little myself, Rick Santorum appears to be getting ready to run for president.