Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is the GOP Looking Out for You?

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

With the midterms just over two months away, we are inundated with daily media reports on the election, most of them predicting doom for the Democrats. But what jumps out at me is how telling so many of the proposals and actions from Republican officeholders and candidates are, since they reveal that they are acting on behalf of a small group of right-wing extremists, not in the best interests of the American people.

To be clear, I'm all for political debate. I think for democracy to work, there has to be a free exchange of ideas, with the best solution to a problem winning the day. But in the current American political environment, we are missing two key elements necessary for our democracy to work. First, thanks to the dissolution of the mass media and the rise of a right-wing propaganda machine (Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc.), there is no longer an accepted common set of facts on which to base a debate. Instead, the right wing has decided to use lies and fear-mongering (everything from inventing death panels to questioning the ideological and religious beliefs of the president, including where he was born, to stoking fear of Islam) as a strategic method to win elections. As a result, we have a situation where, according to a recent Newsweek poll, 52 percent of Republicans think President Obama "sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world," and nearly a quarter think he is, in fact, a Muslim. Second, regarding the tea party-dominated Republican Party, in most cases, their proposals and tactics are not chosen with the best interests of the majority of Americans in mind, but are instead cynical attempts to win elections.

Today, Media Matters revealed how several right-wing media sources took a report from the InterAcademy Council on global warming and trumpeted it as proof that the threat from climate change was exaggerated, even though it said no such thing.

Again, policy debates are a good thing. And if someone thinks that we have no responsibility to act to beat back the debilitating effects of climate change, that person has every right to do so, and to make his/her best argument for that point of view.

But what is not useful for democracy is for partisans to knowingly lie about the facts in play to make an argument that plays to their rigid ideological position. The scientific community is not in a 50-50 split about the causes and effects of global warming. The IAC report (the one the right-wing propaganda machine insists debunks the global warming "myth") says: "Climate change is a long-term challenge that will require every nation to make decisions about how to respond."

I think a majority of Republican officeholders know that scientists are almost universally in agreement that global warming is a real issue, but they are choosing to allow the right-wing media to use lies to keep Americans doubtful, all for political gain. If the effects of global warming are real, these Republicans are not just failing to look out for what is best for Americans, they are actively preventing solutions from being discovered and implemented.

Global warming is just one example. On the myriad of problems we have to face as a nation, solutions are hard to come by because the tea party-controlled Republican Party has put political gain ahead of helping the American people.

Who are Republicans looking out for when they insist on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, even if they add to the deficit? By definition, the tax cuts would be a windfall for a tiny portion of the population (those making more than $250,000 a year) at the expense of the vast majority of Americans, both individually and collectively (higher deficits, fewer services and benefits). So to defend this gift to the wealthy, Republicans have to resort to fudging the facts. They argue that somehow the tax cuts help job growth by helping small business owners. But as numerous writers have laid out (a good example comes from Ezra Klein in the Washington Post), that argument has no basis in fact, as only a tiny percentage of small business owners are directly affected. (In fact, this paper from the Tax Policy Center of the of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution argues that "a majority of households that report small business income will end up worse off than they would have been without the tax cuts.")

When Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty issues an executive order forbidding his state from applying for federal health care aid, is he looking out for his state's citizens or his presidential aspirations? Clearly it's the latter, as he is blocking potential help to individuals in the name of his ideology. But such an action is not surprising given the Republican positions in the health care reform debate. Rather than engage in a productive discussion over how to handle the real problems facing the American health care system (as I've written many times before, while I support health care reform, I can easily make a thoughtful, compelling argument against it, even though no Republicans chose to do so), Republicans instead turned to fear-mongering and lies. (Death panels! Socialism!) Pawlenty is protecting his true constituency (corporations over individuals) and his own political ambitions, not the best interests of most of the people in Minnesota.

Similarly, with our education system falling behind many other countries of the world, and with the South's schools doing worse than the rest of the country, who is Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal helping when he said he would reject federal education aid if elected? Certainly not the children of his state. And when Nevada Republican senatorial candidate Sharron Angle says she would have voted against federal aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina (something, by the way, not a single senator actually did at the time), she clearly isn't looking out for the well-being of the people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. And the list goes on and on.

That's actually the heart of the problem here. You can disagree with the approach the president and the Democratic-controlled Congress took in addressing the massive problems left by the inept Bush administration. Again, debating solutions to problems is what underpins the people's faith in our democracy. But the Republicans never engaged in such a debate. They instead spoke and acted as if the Obama presidency was somehow illegitimate, even though he won a convincing majority of the American people. Rather than debate the benefits of a stimulus bill (and reveal that they were protecting their constituency: the wealthy and corporations), Republicans called Obama a socialist. Rather than debate foreign policy, politicians and candidates gave a wink and a nod as right wingers questioned his religion and his place of birth.

In the end, with the country facing massive problems, the Republicans decided not to act in the best interests of the American people and try and find solutions. The vast majority of Republicans holding office know that the president was born in Hawaii and is not a socialist. They know he advocated for health care reform out of a desire to help Americans, not as part of a plan to seize control of private corporations. They know that his economic proposals were his honest attempt to boost a recession-addled economy and restore a near-collapsed financial system, not an attempt to redistribute wealth. They know that his foreign policy actions were his honest best judgment meant to protect and promote the interests of the United States, not a secret plan to help radical Muslims. And they know that as president, he is doing what he thinks is right to help the American people, not to bring down the United States.

They know these things even as they stridently disagree with his policies. But rather than make that clear, these Republicans chose, instead, to allow the demonization to occur, knowing full well that many Americans would start to believe the lies. (We saw in the March Harris poll that revealed that 57 percent of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim, and 45 percent think he wasn't born in the United States.) Clearly, allowing these lies to take root is not in the best interest of the American people.

(It is interesting that Republicans accused Obama of intervening on behalf of the failing auto industry and proposing federal stimulus as part of an ideological attempt to assert government power over private industry. But these same Republicans have been completely silent over the fact that the American auto industry has not only rebounded since the federal government intervened, but the government will soon be selling off its shares in General Motors to private owners, as well as the report from Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi finding that the stimulus legislation was successful in saving and creating millions of jobs.)

As I wrote in July, I understand that Americans are angry. They have a right to be. But if they take that anger out by voting for Republicans in November, they will only be making a bad situation worse. In addition to playing into the GOP strategy of obstruction and dishonesty, they would be making it harder for the country to address the real and massive problems facing the country.

The GOP is looking out for a select group of constituents, but unless you are an extreme right-wing ideologue or in the top one percent of American earners, Republicans probably aren't trying to help you.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic Center Deserves Nuanced Discussion, Not GOP Fear Mongering

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

Given how far to the right the mainstream of the conservative movement has moved in the last few years, it is not often that I read a piece from a right-leaning columnists that actually adds to the national discussion of an issue. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times today on the proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic center.

I have been disgusted by the right's decision to politicize the issue, using the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the proposed Islamic center as a way to turn fear of "the other" into votes. (Newt Gingrich, an avid practitioner of fear mongering, has, not surprisingly, staked out a far-right position, equating Islam and the Nazis.) With each appeal to our basest, most xenophobic selves, the Republicans are systematically eroding the great American traditions of tolerance and diversity that have been a large part of the growth of the nation. (Note to the GOP: The Statue of Liberty is not just a pretty sculpture. It actually stands for something.) Even the use of the term "Ground Zero mosque" to describe the project is incendiary, intended to alarm at the expense of accuracy (the proposal is not for a stand-alone mosque, and the building would not be at Ground Zero).

Most of all, I have found it depressing that the right has turned a truly nuanced and complicated issue into a mean-spirited, us-versus-them test of patriotism.

Enter Douthat, who, frankly, I usually find to be a stealth apologist for distasteful policies on the right. He tends to act as if he is taking a reasonable, moderate position on an issue, only to come in with his true doctrinal-conservative take on the subject in the final paragraphs. (A great example is Douthat's piece on gay marriage, in which he begins by debunking several arguments against same-sex unions, before swooping in during the final third of his piece to declare an "ideal" in which "children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents," and that Judge Vaughn's ruling "suggests that any such distinction [between gay and straight relationships] is bigoted and un-American." In other words, he set himself apart from the typical right-wing arguments on the issue, only to take a position that is every bit as insulting to same-sex couples--they're not "ideal," after all--as those mainstream right-wing arguments.)

While I don't agree with many of Douthat's points on the proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic center (more on that later), I think he astutely recognizes that there are two issues at play here. Douthat says there are two Americas, one "where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides," and another "that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions." While I find his set-up strategically chosen to reach his intended result, I give him full credit for being one of the few writers who has acknowledged the complicated and potentially difficult-to-discuss aspects of the issue.

I would turn Douthat's two Americas into two questions. The first is whether those proposing the Islamic Center should be legally permitted to open the facility on Park Place. I think there is really only one correct answer, one we have heard from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama: Of course the Constitution protects the right of the sponsors to build the Islamic center. And I can't believe any American would take the opposing position, let alone file lawsuits to prevent it from happening. Telling a religious group that it cannot purchase private property and open a house of worship is about as un-American as it gets. You would think a modern conservative movement that has fetishized the right of citizens to act without government intervention would support the side of private citizens seeking to maintain private activity on private property.

But there is a second question, and, to me, this is the question that has really spurred the debate, but one that deserves thoughtful and honest discussion, not the political games-playing and fear-mongering of the right: Should the sponsors of the Islamic center build their project at this location. Those on the right paint the decision as insensitive, as the location is two blocks from the site of a terrorist attack carried out by those who claimed Islam as the justification for their barbarity. Others see the establishment of a center by self-described moderate Muslims as a positive (or at least benign) action, sending a message to extremists like Hamas and al-Qaida that they are powerless to intimidate Americans into surrendering their ideals out of fear. (To be clear, not surprisingly, I am in the latter group.)

But buried in this second question is an inquiry that Douthat gets at that I think is absolutely justified, and it is at the heart of the question of what American culture really is. Douthat's point (in his "second America") is that there is an essential American character (he describes it as being Anglo-Saxon and derived from Protestantism and later adapted to include Jewish and Catholic values), and that immigrants had to assimilate into this American way of life to survive and prosper, thus allowing this essential American character to continue to hold the country's society together.

Now, Douthat's approach seems to justify bigotry and discrimination as a means to an end that forced new immigrants to become Americans (citing as examples the need for Mormons to give up polygamy and for Catholics to shake their "illiberal tendencies" so that they were inspired to "prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American"). I can't get behind this kind of thinking. Bigotry and discrimination are always wrong, full stop.

But the underlying question of core American values is a valid one. It is clear that there has to be an American culture, at least strong enough to have acted as a uniting element for the country as it expanded and prospered over more than 200 years. It had to be strong enough to allow Americans to unite after the Civil War (to the extent that they did), and to rally together in the face of tragedies and wars. And it was on full display with the sacrifices of ordinary citizens who stepped up to help after the 9/11 attacks. There clearly is an American culture of some kind (although I'm not sure I agree with Douthat as to what is at its core), and it seems to me obvious that immigrants have found a way through the decades to come to the United States and assimilate into that culture, even while keeping the traditions and beliefs of their homelands.

The reason the GOP sees an opportunity here to score political points is, in part, due to concerns of some that the nature of Islam prevents its adherents from embracing these values that have held together American society. Personally, I think that the existence of a moderate-leaning Islamic center in Lower Manhattan could, potentially, demonstrate why such a fear is unfounded. But given world events and the behavior of those who have used Islam as a justification for violence (or even for societal intolerance, misogyny, etc.), it is fair to discuss these questions. Burying concerns doesn't mean they'll go away. Only through airing our society's darker thoughts can they be confronted and hashed out.

Obviously, when you throw religion, politics and a seminal tragic event in modern American history into a pot, it's going to get sticky, messy and potentially unpleasant. Such a cocktail requires a thoughtful discussion of the issues with a goal of reaching the truth and finding consensus.

Which is why the GOP strategy of using these issues to stoke fear for political gain has been especially odious. But it's also why a progressive blogger should highlight a conservative columist's attempt to have a more nuanced discussion of the issue (and to address some of the hot-button topics in a more mature way), even if he doesn't agree with all of what that conservative columnist has to say.

So I thank Douthat for taking a more thoughtful approach to the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, and I am happy to point out the places where I agree with his analysis, and those where I find his arguments to be less convincing. If only the majority of Douthat's conservative colleagues would take the same approach. If nothing else, we should all agree that what is best for America is a thoughtful discussion, not cynical attempts to stoke fear for political gain.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Krugman's Takedown of Ryan Demonstrates How Conservatives Are at War with the Middle Class

[I was asked to contribute a piece to Huffington Post on the decline of the middle class. This is what I came up with. It can also be accessed via my Huffington Post author page.]

Conservatives routinely paint Barack Obama as a socialist looking to redistribute wealth in the United States. (Or worse, as Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) reported that tea party leaders, during a meeting, espoused paranoid delusions of a totalitarian takeover of the U.S. by Obama.) This charge is cynical and outrageous, not just because it is false and a naked attempt to use fear mongering to drum up votes, but because there is actually a group of Americans actively engaged in wealth redistribution, and they have been for quite some time.

Who are these people looking to move massive amounts of assets from one subsection of Americans to another? The conservatives themselves.

Beginning with the Reagan administration, and reaching its fullest realization during the presidency of George W. Bush, conservatives have systematically been acting to redistribute wealth from the middle class upward. The result has been the steady decay of the middle class, and it's all a result of conservative policies, specifically involving taxes and deregulation.

Bush successfully pushed through accelerated deregulation and massive tax cuts for the highest earners. The result was that while the wealthiest Americans saw substantial income gains, real income for the middle class was static (and far below the robust growth of the middle class during the Clinton administration). And when, in the absence of regulation, Wall Street's reckless bets nearly brought ruin to the financial industry, the result was a massive recession that severely hit the lower, working and middle classes.

As I lamented last month, middle and working class Americans have every right to be angry now, but that anger shouldn't be directed at the Democrats in November, but at the Republicans, whose policies created the economic mess the country finds itself in. Which is why I was so happy to see Paul Krugman's annihilation of the economic plan advanced by the so-called "intellectual" star of the Republican party, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Krugman exposed Ryan's plan for what it is, a replay of the Bush economic policies, only this time on steroids: A massive tax break for the wealthiest five percent of Americans that would cost the country $4 trillion over the next ten years, a tax increase for the other 95 percent of Americans, and monumental cuts in government spending that would cause catastrophic pain for the lower, working and middle classes (while having little effect on the wealthy, the primary beneficiaries of Ryan's plan). Oh, and Ryan's plan would add to the deficit, pushing it far beyond the current projections for 2020. (Of course, Ryan is touting the savings of his spending cuts without accounting for the costs of his tax cuts for the rich.)

I thought Krugman's exposure of the realities of the Ryan plan provided a solid summing up of current Republican ideology. On the surface, Ryan appears more reasonable than the more vocal leaders of his party. He tends to avoid the outrageous pronouncements of his fellow conservatives (think Sarah Palin, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) and his talk of "velvet revolution," Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN) and House Minority Leader John Boehner, not to mention the lies and vitriol spouted by pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, as well as the consistent national security fear-mongering of Newt Gingrich, and the out-and-out insanity on parade daily in the media, like the recent charge by Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes that his Democratic opponent encouraged bike use as mayor of Denver as part of a plan to convert the city into a "United Nations community," not to mention the possible Queen of the wackos, Nevada GOP senate candidate Sharron Angle, including her claim that the press should ask the questions she wants to answer.).

Ryan is the young, normal-looking and sounding face Republicans would like to send out in front of the public, but, as Krugman comprehensively laid out, his policies are no more mainstream or plausible than those of his more obviously extreme colleagues. No, Ryan, just like the others, is completely dedicated to policies that empower corporations and transfer wealth upward, at the expense of the middle class.

In short, Ryan and the rest of the conservatives are at war with lower, working and middle class Americans.

The Republicans would like to frame the November midterm elections as a matchup between a socialist party looking to redistribute wealth and engineer a government takeover of the private sector (the Democrats) v. a party defending traditional American values of free market, capitalist economics (the Republicans). Such a framing of the two parties is a Republican fantasy, as accurate as the charge that President Obama was not born in the United States (which, according to a recent CNN poll, nearly two in five Republicans believe to be true).

But one look at the reality of the Bush years and the behavior of Republicans during the Obama administration paints a very different picture. On issue after issue, the Republicans have sided against the middle class, whether it was opposing financial regulation (even after GOP-touted deregulation resulted in the near financial collapse that plunged the country into deep recession), pushing for an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, opposing any kind of job-creating stimulus (that didn't involve more tax cuts for the rich), opposing and delaying the extension of unemployment benefits to those out of work (and painting the unemployed as lazy), opposing state aid that would preserve the jobs of teachers, police officers and firefighters (even though it would decrease the deficit), opposing health care reform (except to protect private insurance companies), and even opposing aid to workers sickened by the toxic fumes at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks.

The smoking gun of GOP dedication to the wealthy at the expense of the middle class (and the revelation that the party's supposed fanatical opposition to deficits is a facade) came when one Republican after another lined up to back Sen. John Kyl's position that it was okay to add to the deficit for tax cuts for high earners (something even conservative stalwart Alan Greenspan could not support).

The GOP record of the last ten years demonstrates that, in reality, the election in November will pose a choice between Democrats who support a free market capitalist economy, but with protections to prevent against its excesses (thus protecting lower, working and middle class Americans), and Republicans at war with the middle class, advocating policies that further their suffering while benefiting Wall Street, corporations and the wealthiest Americans.

Conservatives are right when they say that there are those in Washington looking to redistribute wealth. It's just that it's their party that is all for the redistributing.