“As Tamerlan’s devotion to Islam became more intense and radicalized, Dzhokhar showed signs of his brother’s influence” – The Atlantic Wire, May 5, 2013
“A YouTube account apparently belonging to Tamerlan Tsarnaev gives tantalising hints of his radicalisation before the Boston bombings” – The (UK) Guardian, April 22, 2013
“Rojanksy will speak to the notion that Islamic extremists, and Chechen ties, contributed to the radicalization of the suspected bombers” – programming notes for the April 24, 2013, episode of CNN’s Piers Morgan Live [emphasis mine]
Since the horrible events in Boston, last month, it is impossible to browse a news site or watch television news without having the word thrown in your face like a water soaked towel. Guantanamo radicalizes. Middle East politics radicalizes. Islam radicalizes. The Internet radicalizes.
“I think that this is a very difficult challenge when you have individuals who are self-radicalizing, they’re not part of some massive conspiracy or a network,” President Obama told a Univision interviewer, Friday.
To that end, Newsweek’s Michael Moynihan, in a piece where he uses a pseudonym to explore extremist websites, defines “self-radicalization” as “the process by which those unconnected to organized jihad are lured toward extremism via the Web.”
If the online snuff films and photographs of dead children that Moynihan describes are part of the jihadist call to arms, then coming down from the dark cloud of the terrorist underworld can only be countered with an equally potent validation of community and belonging.
“A lot of these videos, they are very emotive,” Haris Tarin, of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told PBS‘ Bob Abernethy, last week. “These sermons, they use violence and gruesome images to tug at the emotion of young people.”
But while the media is scrambling to compartmentalize “self-radicalization” as a behavior in which only a handful of sociopathic, homegrown Islamic terrorists engage, there’s one place in the American conversation where radicalization from an organized group gets only minimal attention from the press, as an existential threat. I’m speaking, of course, of the National Rifle Association.
In Houston, this past weekend, the NRA paraded speaker after speaker, who railed against Obama and gun safety advocates with the hateful energy of a radical imam. Through the exhortations of their leadership, the NRA are behaving like American jihadis. Like the terrorist who twists the Qur’an to defend their murderous ways, the anti-government, cultural isolationists of the NRA re-interpret the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights to justify arming themselves for revolution.
“I am looking at an army,” freshman Texas Senator, and Tea Party darling, Ted Cruz, told the 70,000 convention attendees, after saying he felt like Gen. George Patton, because he was speaking in front of a “ginormous American flag.”
“Stand for America. Fight for America,” former GOP presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, put to the crowd.
Newly installed NRA president, Jim Porter, reminded the conference, “[You] here in this room are the fighters for freedom. We are the protectors.”
Wayne La Pierre reminded the audience that the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey, background check bill, two weeks ago, “is but one skirmish in what could only be described as a long war against our Constitutional rights.”
The war analogy that the NRA brought to the fore in Houston may be shocking and scary to most of the ninety percent of Americans who want background checks, but it is a consistent echo on the radar of the Department of Homeland Security. In 2009, DHS published a nine page, unclassified study, called Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.
In it, the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis cites the 2008, Supreme Court decision known as District of Columbia v. Heller, “in which the Court reaffirmed an individual’s right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment… but left open to debate the precise contours of that right.” The report goes on to warn:
“Because debates over constitutional rights are intense, and parties on all sides have deeply held, sincere, but vastly divergent beliefs, violent extremists may attempt to co-opt the debate and use the controversy as a radicalization tool.”
Maybe this is the line they were talking about, from La Pierre: “No matter what it takes, we will never give up or compromise our Constitutional freedom – not one single inch.”
Or this one, from Porter, at a pro gun event during last year’s presidential campaign: “I say, let me tell you something bad that [Obama]’s done. His entire administration is anti-gun, anti-freedom, anti-Second Amendment.”
Or, maybe it’s simply the theme of Houston’s gun gathering, “Stand and Fight.”
Of course, it could also be things like the Obama effigy they use for target practice.
The folks at the NRA aren’t arming themselves against some possible future tyranny. For them, the tyranny is here, now. They’re just trying to convince the rest of us that it’s time to take up arms, to protect the “culture.”
According to a Farleigh Dickinson University run poll, “44 percent of registered Republicans believed an armed rebellion could come in the next few years.”
In fact, the DHS study warns, it’s not just Second Amendment extremists who could radicalize the right. It’s also the unsteady economy, continuing high unemployment and the immigration debate.
“Over the past five years,” the 2009 report says, “various rightwing extremists, including militias and white supremacists, have adopted the immigration issue as a call to action, rallying point, and recruiting tool… DHS/I&A assesses that rightwing extremist groups’ frustration over a perceived lack of government action on illegal immigration has the potential to incite individuals or small groups toward violence.”
It’s a wonder, then, that the administration chose two major touchstones of right-wing extremism – guns and immigration – as the impetus to the president’s second term agenda. It could be argued, though, that this has been going on since the furor over Obamacare, which was obviously not something the DHS predicted, other than the study’s assertion that “the election of the first African American president present[s] unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.”
That alone presented a platform from which American right-wing extremists could speak. The actual issues of the day just give them political cover for their racism and xenophobia.
There is a solution, and, like the attempts to quash self-radicalization in the Muslim community, it involves providing a counter to the paranoid phantasms they hold as reality, letting them know that being an American means we are all parts of the whole, that America works peacefully, joyously and productively, when we all come together.
“[W]e… need to ensure that when we put out the counter-narrative it’s as savvy, it goes as viral and addresses the same issues,” Tarin explained, on PBS, “and that we’re not afraid to address some of the same policy grievances that they address, but to make sure that the outcome is positive and not negative.”
Mohamed Elibiary, a frequent adviser to the FBI on homegrown terror threats, seems to agree, citing the “model [of] community-based early intervention partnerships between communities and law enforcement” that has helped mitigate gang activity in major cities.
“This experience by American police provided constructive lessons on how to counter homegrown violent extremism,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on faith, last week.
“After facilitating more than 100 events of cooperation across our country between Muslim community members and the FBI in homegrown terrorism investigations, it is clear to me today that radicalization is an individual or small group phenomenon that sometimes requires a community-based solution,” he added.
In many ways, in the wake of Boston, it may be easier to overcome our absence of social and political will to engage in a compassionate understanding of the culture of our Muslim neighbors, and create a welcoming community for them, than it will be to combat American extremism. It is daunting to consider finding a way to validate the feelings of the radical right, while redirecting their passion in a more productive way.
As President Obama said, the other day, in his commencement address to The Ohio State University:
“We’ve seen the petty divisions of color and class and creed replaced by a united urge to help each other. We’ve seen courage and compassion, a sense of civic duty, and a recognition we are not a collection of strangers; we are bound to one another by a set of ideals and laws and commitments, and a deep devotion to this country that we love.
“And that’s what citizenship is. It’s at the heart of our founding — that as Americans, we are blessed with God-given talents and inalienable rights, but with those rights come responsibilities — to ourselves, and to one another, and to future generations.”
“Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical,
Liberal, fanatical, criminal.” – from Supertramp’s The Logical Song, words and music by Roger Hodgson
When I was a kid in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the media and politicians used the “radical” brush to paint everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Abbie Hoffman, from Students for a Democratic Society to Black Panthers to White, middle-class, hippie flower children.
The New York Times, hardly considered a shill for right-wing politics, often used the term “campus radicals,” back then, in describing the violent actions taken by university students protesting the war in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon, in 1970, the day after announcing the invasion of Cambodia, told a group of Pentagon employees that the protesters were “bums” who are “blowing up the campuses.”
But it was Nixon’s strident vice president, Spiro Agnew, who held very little back in his disdain for liberals and the left. During the 1968 presidential campaign, he lambasted UC Berkley students who held three days of demonstrations after academic credit was withdrawn from a course taught by the Black Panthers’ Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver, he told a California fundraiser, had “nothing to teach but anarchy,” and added, “Trying to learn from such criminals was like trying to get clean by taking a bath in a sewer.”
He also said the infamous 1971 Attica prison riot was being exploited by “the radical left,” as “yet another cause celebre in the pantheon of radical, revolutionary propoganda.”
Perhaps ironically, in the 1950s, “radical” was used more often to describe the right-wing, ultra conservative John Birch Society and other staunch anti-communist groups, according to Wikipedia. Nixon himself, in his 1962 book Six Crises, warned:
“There is nothing more irresponsible than for the radicals of the right to make a racket of anti-Communism… On the other hand, it is just as irresponsible for the radicals of the left to pooh-pooh the danger of Communism at home by denying it exists, even in the face of facts like the Hiss case-thereby adding fuel to the fire of the demagogues on the right.”
“I think it comes as no surprise not [only] to the American people, but even [to] members of Congress themselves, that right now things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill.”
- President Barack Obama, Tuesday, April 30, 2013, during a White House press conference
It’s very hard to tell, but it seems that the policy branches of our federal government have bared themselves to our anger, disappointment and distrust. They have embraced a recovery program – not an economic plan, but the one that starts with them finally admitting they have a problem.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) says the legislation he co-authored with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) broadening background check rules for gun buyers, failed a recent Senate vote because Congress is “too politicized” and sees cooperation as capitulation.
Members of his own party, he told the editorial board of a Pennsylvania media group, Tuesday, “did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.”
Close to ninety percent of the American public wanted to see it get done, too, but despite recent reports of voter backlash against a handful of senators who did not support Manchin-Toomey, many rank and file Republicans, who may have personally supported the legislation, said they do not see the nay vote as something that would threaten their fidelity to the Grand Old Party. “Yes, I believe the Republicans should have voted for background checks, and they should not legalize automatic weapons,” Jim Hensley, a Michigan Republican, told the New York Times, after answering a recent NY Times/CBS News poll about Congressional actions regarding the gun debate, immigration and other national conversations. “I was against the repeal of the ban on automatic weapons, and I don’t support the N.R.A.,” he added, “but it’s like marriage. You stick with your wife no matter what, and you don’t just ditch your political party on one issue.”
President Obama says he already figured that part out. “[T]hey’re worried about their politics,” he said at his press conference, Tuesday. “It’s tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries.”
On the other side of the Capitol, Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH) and the rest of the GOP leadership are having trouble getting their own caucus to agree on the principles of their priorities, which bare little resemblance to the wide ranging issues the Senate has been dealing with over the past few months. Under the headline, “A House in chaos,” Politico describes the woes of the Lower Chamber this way:
“Speaker John Boehner, [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor and [Majority Whip Kevin] McCarthy are plagued by a conference split into two groups. In one camp are stiff ideologues who didn’t extract any lesson from Mitt Romney’s loss and are only looking to slash spending and defund President Barack Obama’s health care law at every turn. In the other are lawmakers who are aligned with Cantor, who is almost singularly driving an agenda which is zeroed in on family issues.
“Boehner seems more focused on passing big pieces of legislation like hiking the debt ceiling and extending government funding, sometimes drawing flak for having to rely on Democrats to move these bills over the finish line…
“Members of leadership have trouble staying on the same page. Cantor is anxious to move on his agenda, but McCarthy needs to gather support in a House Republican Conference that’s filled with lawmakers constantly divided on leadership’s priorities.”
During his press conference, Tuesday, President Obama bristled (albeit, humorously) when confronted by ABC’s Jonathan Karl, about whether the failure of the Manchin-Toomey gun legislation, an issue for which he campaigned hard, and his being forced to sign the piece meal fix to the FAA budget rather than hold out for a broader resolution to the sequester, if those actions meant that the president had lost “the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress.”
“If you put it that way, Jonathan,” responded the president, with more than a little snide sarcasm, “maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly.”
After explaining that he was confident he could still get a gun bill through, he defended his agreeing to the emergency FAA funding by admitting, “Frankly, I don’t think that if I were to veto, for example, this FAA bill, that that somehow would lead to the broader fix.”
That’s a lesson he has learned after five years of trying to deal with Congress – even when both houses were majority Democrat – that ultimately, it’s the politics of the thing, more than if it is good or bad for the American people, that dictates how Congress will likely vote. But he continues to believe it is possible. He has to. It’s his job.
“[T]he point is that there are common-sense solutions to our problems right now,” he said, concluding his answer to the ABC reporter, “I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions. I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can rally the American people around those common-sense solutions. But ultimately, they, themselves, are going to have to say, ‘we want to do the right thing.’”
So although the constant battling between the White House, the Senate and the House, has gotten them all to recognize the problem, the dysfunction will continue, until they each say they have the political will to “do the right thing.” But political will is not manifested from turning our backs on Obama and Congress. We cannot just say, “Good riddance. F’ them all,” and go and find someone else to love. If we want our national family to work, we have to acknowledge them for their courage to admit their inherent, political narcissism has run amok, and out of our own love for our country, engage with them in an intervention.
There are literally millions of stories about how we are consistently screwed by government inaction, whether you’re a returning, wounded veteran waiting years for a claim, or working one hundred hours a week just to keep your family from going hungry because you aren’t paid a living wage, or you’re trying to keep your parents from being deported, or you’re making sure your kids get a hand up for their early education. These are the stories we need to share with our representatives in Washington, D.C. These are the stories with the power to intervene in their dysfunction. We’re not just doing it to save our Republic. We’re doing it to save ourselves.
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
- attributed to 19th c. minister, Rev. Theodore Parker, popularized by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a commencement address to Wesleyan University, 1964
Take your sandals from your feet, America. We’ve climbed the mountain, and stand on the holy ground of progressivism. Feel the heat of rigorous, enforceable gun laws. See the burning triumph of love over intolerance in the fight for marriage equality. Hear your own meek voices rising to a crescendo on immigration reform, fair wages and feeding the hungry.
The call has gone out. Though rainmaker lobbyists and extreme ideologues have unleashed a hell storm of fire on sanity and common sense, our republic will not be consumed. Tell the stiff necked in Congress, more beholden to what is good for their careers than what is good for the country, to let our government go, that it may worship the reality of a functional America.
After more than thirty years in the wilderness of anti-union, anti-government and anti-social welfare policy, welcome back to the mountain top. Before us lies the promised land. This is not the time for humility or discretion because who we continue to be as a country is what is at stake, not just for the Joseph Campbell sized myth with which we regard ourselves, but also the story we write for our place in the world.
The Bush Doctrine of freedom spreading and democracy growing has failed to produce favorable outcomes in the Middle East and South Asia because we have been unable to come together ourselves, to sustain the example of cooperative democracy we demonstrated in the middle of the Twentieth Century. “When people used to talk about [America as an] indispensable nation,” former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Vali Nasr, told Jon Stewart, last week, “they were talking about a country which had a vision and had the ability to get everybody together, and was the only country that could get people to find peaceful, economic, diplomatic ways of solving [global problems].”
We lead with the stick, not only abroad as “an invading, occupying force,” as Dr. Nasr described it on The Daily Show, but we have also adopted the fist in the way we approach domestic policy. We vilified “welfare queens” and lost the “War on Poverty.” We initiated a “War on Drugs” and a “War on Crime,” and created a privatized prison industrial complex, where the commercial need to fill more beds too often tilts justice’s scales. Congress ignores international treaties that seek to regulate military weapons trafficking because they mistakenly think it allows other nations to rewrite the Bill of Rights.
Meanwhile, we have members of Congress who think following some of the other first ten amendments to the Constitution is being too “politically correct,” and they’re calling for infiltrating the Muslim community to watch for terrorists because, as Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told Politico, after the Boston bombings, “It’s coming from people within the Muslim community by the terrorists coming from that community, just like the mafia comes from Italian communities.”
Other Congressmen apparently are under the impression that advising marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – a US citizen – of his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, withholds that right from him, somehow. “We had, I think, legal reasons and follow-up investigative reasons to drag this out a little bit longer,” Rep Dan Coats (R-IN) told CNN’s Candy Crowley, Sunday, “We could have done that.” Yes, we could have, but his lawyers will certainly argue that anything he said before he was Mirandized, with regard to the events two weeks ago, is inadmissible because it was not about public safety, but gathering evidence to be used against him.
This is the way we want our country run – through fairness, with everyone equal in the eyes of the law, and everyone given an opportunity to succeed, even if it requires some help from our government. Twice, the people have sent President Obama up the mountain to bring down the law, and twice he has come down to find Congress dancing around the golden calf. Senators like Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT) lead the throngs, anointing themselves the true guardians of the Constitution, and declaring those who would compromise and reach toward consensus heretical RINOs and “squishes.”
In order for the earth to open and swallow them up, we must raise our voices for what is right for our flailing republic. We must stomp our feet loudly as we march for what we believe. We must blow the trumpets of justice, fairness and equality until the exclusionist wall with which they surround themselves comes tumbling down.
Why should we keep pushing, when so many before have tried and failed? Because unlike those who find it a lot less challenging to keep us penned into convenient stereotypes of race and religion and ethnicity and gender and sexual preference, who fight to reconstruct our country into a place where they won’t be frightened by the Muslim family next door, we fight for an America where being generous with our neighbors, all our neighbors, is the ideal truest to the foundation of our founders’ vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“This [country] is the ideal micro-world, and entire world,” Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of the accused Boston bombers told a gaggle of reporters gathered outside his Maryland home, during the manhunt for his young nephew. “I respect this country. I love this country – this country, which gives [a] chance to everybody to be treated as a human being.”
The honor, love and respect for America, of which Rusaln Tsarni speaks, is not just the voice in the heart of an immigrant (or this child of immigrants); it is the song that is played in the hearts of all those around the world who look to us as a light of liberty and a guarantor of self-determination. But none of that is true, if we cannot come together as one nation, to lift up the weak, protect the sick and provide justice in balanced measure, to all who choose to call America home. Whether one’s family has been here one generation or fifteen, we will destroy our promised land, if we destroy the generous promise of a free and open democracy, to the world.
That could really be the mantra of the transition from Obama’s very public, bully pulpit tactic of campaign style events, highlighting the issues he wants the American people to help him see through, to his new, private “charm offensive,” a series of dinner and lunch meetings with Republican Senators and Representatives aimed at getting past the immovable conversation in Washington, DC.
As recently as a month ago, during the State of the Union address, the president made clear his conviction that “it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”
His actions show that he believes in us that much, and if he could have asked for that commitment from all of us that night, right then and there, without rhetorical flourish, in a way that would have had us all on our feet, saying, “Yes, Mr. President, I will stand with you, march with you and fight with you,” maybe he would have us believing it, too.
But this latest outreach to Congress makes it seem as though the president has given up on getting any broad, mobilized consensus from the populace. He has resigned himself to the realization that the ground war for the issues we believed in enough to fight for in 2012, has delivered a ball into his court, and no matter how many times he serves it to us over the net, begging us to stay in the game, we return it to him weakly. The ball that just dies at his feet. He can’t do anything with it.
He sighs, slumps his shoulders, then, looking up, shakes his head and walks away. “I was counting on you,” he mumbles under his breath.
“That was your first mistake,” we say, matter-of-factly. Well, we may not actually say it, but we’re probably thinking it, as we pack our rackets away and go home to watch the news.
Now, after a winter of can kicking, ass sitting and nit picking, a small number of Republican Congressional leaders of relative character, comfortable with the level of political risk involved in participating in a dialogue with the president, are thrilled that the president has “finally” come to talk with them. Allowing our power to be bypassed in this way means legislative items we didn’t even want to be on the table are sure to be wrangled over, and things that we wanted to be on the table may not even make it out of their respective Congressional committees.
The Republicans in Congress are notorious for saying, “The American people want this. The American people want that,” when poll after poll shows that the party of the House majority has no clue what the American people want. They only know what the one-percenters want, and they will not deign to acquiesce to the needs of the rest of us because we are not the god they serve. We don’t have his capital. Just ask the people still trying to recover from Hurricane Sandy.
But we still have a voice and a vote. The beautiful thing about our politics is that it’s never too late to change things. It’s never too late to get into the game. We can still call our Representatives and Senators. We always have a voice.
You don’t have to pick up the sword for every political battle, but for goodness’ sake, find something you believe in, dig into the depth of your conviction, and fight for it! If you don’t have the kind of country you love, it’s not just the politicians’ fault. They’re willing to change, if you’re willing to ask them.
So I’ll see you on the court. I’ll be the one practicing my lobs. Even if my favorite pols end up hitting it into the net, at least they’ll know I’m there, ready to give them another try.
There are few words that cut through the perennial story of American pride in its exceptionality, like “racism.” That one, ugly social system, propped up over our sordid history by institutional and ideological bulwarks of denial and ignorance, like Jim Crow, is part of the DNA of our country, away from which we are continually attempting to evolve. But just saying it’s over doesn’t end it. Seeing more minorities voting than ever doesn’t end it. Electing an African American president doesn’t end it.
Ask the people whose 2012 vote was protected by the Department of Justice denying attempt after attempt in states affected by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The need for DoJ clearance and oversight is essential to implementation. That’s what makes the law “rational in theory and practice,” the loss of which, the plaintiff representing Shelby County, Alabama, in the case, argued Wednesday, should be grounds for overturning the preclearance called for in the disputed section of the VRA.
But Justice Antonin Scalia took that argument one step further, saying that since Congress didn’t reformulate the method applied in Section 5, that they did so not because it wasn’t necessary, but because they didn’t have the political stomach for it. He pointed to the declining number of nay votes for the VRA’s reauthorization over the years – from double digits in 1965 to zero in 2006 – and rather than attribute that to an evolving sensibility, he took the pompous, cynical route he is famous for, and blamed it on legislative entropy.
“I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement,” he revealed to the Court. “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), whose horrible beating on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, in Selma, Alabama, during a 1965 civil rights march precipitated the passing of the Voting Rights Act, called Scalia’s words “unreal, unbelievable” and “appalling.”
“[T]hose of us who marched across that bridge 48 years ago, we didn’t march for some racial entitlement,” he told MSNBC’s Rev. Al Sharpton, Wednesday evening.
But Justice Scalia, not coy about where he stands on Section 5, was not wasting time figuring out what he would decide, as much as he was measuring the grounds upon which he could rest his opinion. He said he believed it was up to him and his fellow justices to do what politicians can’t be trusted to properly enact. “[T]his is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress. There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law just about now. …[T]hey are going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act.”
“It’s not unusual for Justice Scalia to be provocative,” observed Dr. Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist who specializes on race and politics. “And it reflects his general antipathy for race based remedies for past discrimination.”
In an email to Prose and Thorn, Gillespie explained what “the court will decide in this case is the constitutionality of the 1975 formula that is used in Section 5. Invalidating the formula would not necessarily eliminate preclearance entirely. Instead, it would require Congress to create a new formula that reflects contemporary voting disparities.” In that context, she said, “one could interpret Scalia’s phrasing as evidence of the fact that he doesn’t believe that the South should always be covered by preclearance provisions because of voting conditions in the region in the 1950s.”
Congressman Lewis, who was in the chamber during the arguments, told MSNBC that if the Court strikes down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, it would be “a dagger in the heart of the heart of the democratic process.”
But because it’s a “process,” the next generation of civil rights leaders is taking a pragmatic approach to the outcome of Shelby County v. Holder. “If the court chooses to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, then we understand what our mission is,” Martin Luther King, III, told Politico, after the Supreme Court arguments. “Even if the court says it will stand, there still is work to do.”
“I know that sometimes folks in Congress think that compromise is a bad word. They figure they’ll pay a higher price at the polls for working with the other side than they will for standing pat or engaging in obstructionism…
“All of us are concerned about our politics, both in our own party’s as well as the other party’s. But at some point, we’ve got to do some governing.”
- President Barack Obama to a National Governors Association meeting, Monday, at the White House
When there are no more votes to be counted or money to be raised, the campaign turns from electioneering to the noble pursuit of governance. In January, right hands raise and oaths are taken and those elected to do the country’s business sit down and get to work.
At least, that’s the way it seemed when I was growing up. But children born in the 1990s have only been exposed to partisan division, where Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Bill Frist and Tom DeLay whipped the greed of politicians like they were horses in a chariot race, teaching them that, in the pursuit of power, the campaigning never ends.
Representatives, on both sides of the aisle, roll their campaign war chests over before the last polls have closed on the first Tuesday in November, in our biannual Congressional cycle, making calls before the sun is past the yard arm on Wednesday to encourage lobbyists and big donors to woo them for influence, and finance the next campaign. Those who are relatively reasoned announce abdication to the polluted political process for fear of an expensive primary challenge in the coming cycle.
As the president told the NGA, “[T]his town has to get past its obsession with focusing on the next election instead of the next generation.”
This is why President Obama continues in what his detractors like to call “campaign mode,” because while the Republican led House of Representatives is worried about losing their base by coalescing around a plan that will help the country, and engaging in their own “campaign mode” to keep from losing the generosity of backers, the president has nothing to lose. But he is not campaigning to be reelected. He is campaigning to restore functionality to our federal government, and for his legacy.
One could argue that he took a similar tack after the 2008 campaign, launching a publicity tour, in 2009, to tout his health care plan. It was at that point that the Republicans circled their campaign wagons, with former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) declaring healthcare to be “Obama’s Waterloo,” and Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) laying out the campaign goal of making Obama “a one term president.”
It may turn out, a bit ironically, that passing and upholding the Affordable Care Act is actually the Waterloo of the Republican Party, for it was out of that single issue that the anti-Obama fanatics found their money and their voice, and the GOP spread its legs like a coke whore (or Koch whore) and welcomed their money and their foolishness in.
But the president, today, urged the nation’s governors to move past the election “obsession” that is strangling action in Congress, in the pragmatic way state executives must. “The American people are out there every single day, meeting their responsibilities, giving it their all to provide for their families and their communities,” he told them. “A lot of you are doing the same things in your respective states. Well, we need that same kind of attitude here in Washington. At the very least, the American people have a right to expect that from their representatives.”
Unfortunately, what we have a right to expect, and what we actually expect, have become mutually exclusive. The only way to get what we expect our elected representatives to deliver, is to treat power the same way they do – like there’s an election at stake every second of every minute of everyday. Only when we do that, when we challenge them to actually represent us (and not just their party), will they pay attention to what we expect out of them.
“He seems to always be in campaign mode, where he treats people in the other party as enemies rather than partners.”
- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), on CBS This Morning, Wednesday, lamenting President Obama’s post State of the Union swing through North Carolina and Georgia to raise support for the agenda he outlined
The best politicking is populism, because it is the bane of an elected official’s careful plans to hold onto power. It engages the rabble, you see, the dirty unwashed who, for the most part, have no direct stake in seeing their reps reelected, but who do have a practical interest in the success of their nation. That is why the president has taken his message to the people, and why a Congress that refuses to go against its various corporate and political allegiances, to make a deal with Obama, is so ruffled by it.
The last time someone took it to the people, the corporate funded Tea Party emerged, an entity of questionable sanity that exposed, among other things, the xenophobic, racist underbelly of the Republican Party. The degrading of the GOP brand by “a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party,” as Gen. Colin Powell put it on Meet the Press last month, has caused many in the party of Lincoln to ask, as the general did, “Why do senior Republican leaders tolerate this kind of [racially charged] discussion within the party?”
Well, the answer is obvious – power. They need the racists to respond to the dog whistles, so they can make it through this period of middle class backlash against a Republican regime that took us into an unnecessary war, compromised our justice system and treated our treasury like a candy store for their friends on Wall Street. They can only hope that the anger subsides before they lose control of government policy altogether.
In 2010, after the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives, pundits pointed to the “unpopularity” of the Affordable Care Act, and the way it caused a “grassroots” uprising against the way the Congress did its business. But, as in most midterm elections, it was mostly the politically engaged who showed up to vote, which, in 2010, was the Koch brothers backed Tea Party. What the president learned from his first midterm election was that his party and its supporters did a dreadful job of getting people to the polls, because they had disengaged since that historic night in November, 2008.
Hence Obama’s continuing “campaign mode,” as Ryan called it, because while our nation’s legal system isn’t decided through plebiscite, the people still have the power to petition the lawmakers who represent them, and the president’s efforts are designed with the power of public redress in mind. It’s why most modern presidents take to the road after a major policy speech like the State of the Union. “As is tradition,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the media on Air Force One, Wednesday, “the President is traveling the day after the State of the Union to amplify some of the aspects of his agenda that he talked about last night.”
He’ll do this as long as it works, and as long as the GOP’s charges of being a permanent campaigner don’t have adverse stickiness. “Look,” Carney explained to members of the press who were questioning the usefulness of promoting the infrastructure funding policy, “if you have the right proposal that has broad-based support, that is proven to be effective, you have to keep pushing it and fighting for it.”
It was our Founding Fathers who democratized the mystery of politics, giving us the tools of voice and action to affect change in our government. They not only didn’t want to serve a king; they wanted our country’s destiny to be in our own hands. When “broad-based support” won’t come from Congress, it has to come from us.
So when you see the president on the news the next few weeks, whether it’s in Ashville, North Carolina, or Ashland, Oregon, he will not only be explaining his policies. He will be empowering you, reminding you that, in our country, the veil of political participation is lifted, and the power is ours. Without us, and the exhortations of our president, as Carney said,”We wouldn’t get anything done in Washington.”
Now go engage yourself.
“‘You are a slow learner, Winston,’ said O’Brien gently.
“‘How can I help it?’ he blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’
“‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’”
- from “1984,” by George Orwell (Part 3, Chapter 2)
If you have paid any attention to the Chuck Hagel, SecDef nomination hype, you probably heard the former Republican Senator’s detractors calling him “out of the mainstream,” when it comes to Israel, Iran, and involving the US in talks with terrorist organizations.
Witness Thursday morning’s exchange between Hagel and Sen. John McCain, during the former’s confirmation hearing. Hagel, as a Senator, made statements against Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq, equating it to a potential quagmire, a word used often to describe the war in Vietnam, where Hagel served and was wounded.
McCain, himself a prisoner of the Vietcong during that conflict, insisted that the surge was a success and wanted his former colleague to take it back, to admit his previous position was a mistake.
“I’m not going to give you a yes or no,” Hagel told McCain. “I’ll defer that judgement to history.”
“History has already made a judgement on the surge,” McCain insisted, “and you’re on the wrong side of it.”
This insistence on defining history as mainstream truth is a revisionism worthy of Orwell. Honest and frank answers are eschewed for blind allegiance and party fidelity. Engaging in “You’re either with us or against us” tactics, especially when it comes to what’s true or not, endangers our republic, because it attempts to supplant evidence with conviction.
You can’t just make something up, that some people believe is true, and call it mainstream. Whose mainstream? How is that defined in Washington? The mainstream of the respective parties? The nation’s mainstream? Or is it just the mainstream as defined by the deepest pockets and the shrillest voices?
Even the loud and wealthy National Rifle Association, with its indisputable hold on legislators of both parties, at every level of government, is out of the mainstream when it comes to the White House proposals for universal background checks, closing the gun show loophole, and banning high capacity ammunition magazines. A survey by Public Policy Polling, released in early January, found that most American gun owners think the NRA’s idea to post armed guards in schools is a terrible idea, by 15 points, although most Republicans agree with the gun industry lobbyist.
Wednesday’s contentious exchange between the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin showed the gun group’s willingness to go counter to the mainstream, by creating its own narrative that it wants members of Congress to get behind. LaPierre claimed that background checks will keep honest people from getting guns, but not criminals because they won’t go through the process. He was saying, essentially, “How can we get more guns into people’s hands, so they can protect themselves, if we have universal background checks?”
“That’s the point,” Durbin replied. “You’re missing that point, completely [that we want fewer guns out there]. We are awash in guns.”
Deep pocket influencers, like LaPierre’s NRA, are leading their staunch supporters in Washington, DC, away from true mainstream American thinking by their wallets, where they willingly go, finding a place where the flowing water of opinion won’t fight them too much. There, two plus two can equal five, or three, or four, or “all of them together,” and it’s okay, because they are floating in a happy eddy of politically safe, partisan denial, and believe they are sane. And we keep voting for them, so what does that make us?
“The deal approved today is truly a missed opportunity to do something big to reduce our long-term fiscal problems…”
- from a statement released Tuesday, by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of a bipartisan deficit reduction committee
If you don’t stand broadly and shoulder the responsibilities of governing, there should be no surprise when the house of cards you’ve tried to build over the last two years comes crashing down around you. That’s what happened over New Year’s Day, when the Senate, and then the House, passed an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill that mitigated the effects of the final sunset (thank God) of the Bush tax cuts.
As a solution to the so called “fiscal cliff,” the Senate version of a revamped House bill falls short of averting every slippery rock on the way to the economic edge, but it was the only lifeline of agreement left after Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), turned down the president’s offer of early December, refusing to take the same tack with his caucus that he essentially was forced to take Tuesday night. Since he dropped the ball the White House handed him, Boehner had to make do with the cold, meatless bone of a compromise worked out between Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Vice President Joe Biden. Abandoning the standing “majority of the majority” principle that has been a guidepost for Republicans for the last dozen years, Boehner allowed his caucus to vote against itself by nearly two-to-one.
With the flack that he has taken for that vote, don’t expect him to walk a similar line in two months, when the just delayed automatic cuts to defense and entitlements set up in 2011, known as the “sequester,” are now due to kick in. The conservative GOP is already salivating at the cuts they can make while risking the country’s credit rating, when the debt ceiling needs to be raised again, around the same time as the sequester is triggered. “We Republicans need to be willing to tolerate a temporary, partial government shutdown,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), telling MSNBC’s Morning Joe that the delayed sequester and debt ceiling provided an “opportunity” for the Grand Old Party.
“That’s a debate the American people want,” McConnell said in a statement about the pending spending cut negotiations, ignoring the results of an election with net gains by Democrats, that had more to say about what the “American people” really want. “It’s the debate we’ll have next. And it’s a debate Republicans are ready for.” Well, good for them.
The spending curbs that dissenting Republicans complained about being absent from the New Year’s Day vote would have been part of the larger deal, if Boehner would have had the guts to bring Obama’s proposal forward, instead of his ill fated, ill advised, Plan B. It is possible that he brought Plan B out, just to demonstrate to the White House, and the country, how little control he actually has of his fellow Republicans.
Some in his caucus seemed to regret their fight against Boehner’s push for a one million dollar tax threshold, that was contained in the earlier legislation. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) reportedly told fellow Republicans, Tuesday, that “we harmed ourselves by undercutting our leader on Plan B,” according to a Politico unnamed source.
The only reason the Speaker went ahead with Tuesday’s vote was that he knew that the legislative body he supposedly runs, and perhaps, more importantly, his party, would have borne the brunt of the outrage from the American public, had the fall from the cliff landed on the backs of the middle class.
There has been, and will be, a lot of rhetoric on this, between now and the end of 2013, but the most consistently precise description of the way our government’s legislative process works, or doesn’t, came from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) during Tuesday’s House debate on the Senate bill. “This agreement,” he said, “represents absolutely the least we could have done under these circumstances and tragically institutionalizes for the next Congress the madness of short-term frenzy around artificial deadlines that drives the American public crazy.”
As the nation welcomes the 113th Congress to the Capitol, does it make us crazy for believing that maybe they can stop the insanity, where legislators care enough to do the least, when the most is at stake? After the failure of John Boehner to get his Plan B to a vote, last week, he famously got up and recited the Serenity Prayer, girding himself to accept the things he cannot change. I wonder if the Speaker will give a copy of that affirmation to the freshmen representatives. Maybe that’s the only way to get through a term, and keep one’s mind intact while abdicating responsibility, trust and integrity.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
“New Year’s Eve is fast approaching, and for decades and decades, the American people have watched the ball drop in Times Square. But this year, Mr. President, the American people are waiting for the ball to drop, but it’s not going to be a good drop.”
- Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV), in a floor speech, Thursday, about our government’s inability to pick up the ball on the so-called ‘Fiscal Cliff’
It’s been awhile since Congress had any fortitude, when it comes to passing important legislation. It’s as if there were a fear of herniating themselves if they do too much heavy lifting during a term. Even Obamacare had to be cobbled together and shoehorned through because our elected representatives were afraid of the backlash from conservative, big money backers, and the throngs of screaming hayseeds they sponsored.
In both chambers, the lack of ability to think outside of the reelect-me box has frightened enough Senators and Representatives that the halls of the U.S. Capitol echo with the shrill voices of reactionaries and obstructionists, screaming about minutia and ignoring the hard work at hand. They’ve entrusted their convictions to the monied special interests and angry extremists, who promised to carry the ball for the reelection campaign, as their share of the exchange – a Devil’s deal for the nation’s soul, to be sure.
Many legislators, with a history of putting their strong beliefs on the table and compromising across the aisle, decided they would rather quit than be stained by having been a member of Congress during some of its most contentiously uncompromising terms.
Witness Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner’s reaction to the difficulty of the situation. Obsessed with the notion of having the votes of a majority of the House GOP majority for a Fiscal Cliff deal, with the end nigh, and narrowing space between his offer and that of the White House, the frightened and ineffective Boehner pulled back, and wasted five days on Plan Bullshit, before sending the House home for Christmas. Those who promised him they would pick up the ball he drops are telling him that this is a winning strategy, politically. They must be the same people who kept assuring Romney campaign that they were going to win the election.
As Rick Ungar wrote, in Forbes magazine, after Boehner’s failed Plan B vote:
“The entire ploy was nothing more than pretend legislation designed to embarrass Obama into offering up more cuts in the Plan A negotiations.”
Extremists in both parties cheer and rally for their respective sides to hold tightly to their “convictions.” They call it a true measure of power, and it may be, for even something as small as a dropped screwdriver can shut down a factory and keep it from being productive. But it doesn’t even rattle the scale when it comes to measuring good governing, putting the interest of the nation above that of a few wealthy men and entrenched industry lobbyists. Besides, it seems to me that if you’re the one who dropped the screwdriver, it’s not the screwdriver who gets fired. It’s you.
- Reid Says Congress Lacks Time to Resolve Budget Talks (bloomberg.com)
- Fiscal cliff deal increasingly unlikely (politico.com)