Friday, February 25, 2011

Our two-party politics are like Pro Wrestling

I'm sure somebody has made this comparison before, but it is becoming increasingly clear to me the many parallels between politics in the U.S. and Pro Wrestling (what we used to call "Big Time Wrestling" when I was a kid).

In both cases, each player assumes a role, often an overstated one - a character. At the height of Wrestling's popularity, when a Pro Wrestler stepped into the ring, there was an immediate visceral reaction of the crowd - jeers and cheers, and even tears sometimes. Hulk Hogan, the clean cut, pro-USA face would square off against the evil Russians. "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan made his point with a 2x4 and waving an American flag. The good guys and bad guys have changed, but pro Wrestling still works like this. The story is basic: good vs. evil - more importantly, it is base, entirely feeding on emotion, that of supporters and detractors. It doesn't matter if a character is hated or loved - it only matters that they stir powerful sentiments, one way or the other.

This is exactly what we see in U.S. politics. If you want to get a strong reaction, just utter names like Nancy Pelosi, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or Dick Cheney. And it goes beyond those in government too. If you want to really get people riled up, mention Rush Limbaugh, Al Sharpton, Glenn Beck, or Michael Moore.

These figures conjure an immediate and intense reaction. It doesn't matter what these people are for, their detractors are going to be against it. And this applies equally to the left and right.

Whether Nancy Pelosi, Michele Bachmann, Barney Frank, or Mitch McConnell, they all seem to be playing a very specific character, one that seems to, at times, be speaking more to their opposition than to their fans. It's hard to find people that really love Pelosi, even on the left, but it's easy to find people on the right that find her utterly repulsive - their rage comes through just speaking of her. The same can be said regarding Michele Bachmann for those on the left.

The issues don't matter when you're talking about these extreme characters. It only matters who came up with the idea and who it is promoting it. And, in fact, no one really looks too closely at the actual voting records anyway, except on the really extremely emotional issues like abortion, gay-rights, and such heated topics. What no one notices are the many quieter issues, where both the parties, all the characters on both sides pass bill after bill supporting special-interests, the super-rich, at the peril of the middle-class and poor, like tax-cuts for the super-rich, bailouts for Wall Street bankers, wars that send billions of middle-class tax dollars to Halliburton and KPG, and healthcare legislation that favors insurance companies. Yes, even Democrats vote for these same bills too, sometimes under (simulated) protest, but eventually all this stuff gets a YEAH vote from Democrats too.

They all play the role of their defined character, to stir up the emotions, mostly for the sake of those that hate them, while quietly voting the same as their counterparts at the end of the day.

Sometimes this comes out. One in-your-face example was the bailouts. Both sides voted for them and yet both sides use rhetoric to blame the other - and each side has been able to successfully convince their supports that the OTHER side was the cause of the bailouts - but both sides voted FOR them folks, remember? Diane Feinstein's office, just one example, was inundated with calls opposed to the bailouts - 93% opposed them, but she voted for them anyway, telling her constituents they were just "confused".

Even when it's in our face like this, we seem to just revert to business as usual, and seldom hold these monsters accountable - by voting them out.

Nowhere is logic or rationale - we have WWE type characters playing to the most base fears and emotions. That's what stirs people. Once you sink your claws into their base emotions, they don't need logic anymore - they will seek out and find the "rationale" they need for that position and filter out all opposing arguments, no matter their merit, or basis in fact. On the Internet it is easy to find information to support any given crazy position and equally easy to filter out any information that you don't like.

Sometimes it looks like these characters, like Sarah Palin and Barney Frank, exist more to stir up the other side than anything else. That math works. As long as there are enough voters hating one side, there will be enough votes for the opposing side. This is most evidenced by how voters speak of choosing the lesser evil - most people end up voting against the other guy, not voting for anyone.

This driver gets so powerful that people become their own worst enemy. If you consider how some of the nation's poorest people endorse hard-line issues that help the super-rich at their own expense - it's because the other side is even worse, on the grounds of them not being god-fearing Christians or other such emotional basis. We have these same people calling teachers "greedy" while Wall Street bankers are "important" - all because San Franciscans and East Coast elites are so easy to hate.

Ever notice how the issues that have the least monetary impact get the loudest arguments, with both sides entering into what are practically screaming matches - all for theater, establishing their character's role, while not having much impact to anything significant (especially not financially significant), while some of the issues with the greatest potential impact are mostly radio-silent, with votes taken on weird days at weird times, and with almost no debate.

There was almost no media outcry or debate on the house floor about the Iraq war or the Wall Street bailouts. While issues such as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), a Ground Zero Mosque, or a House resolution to protect Christmas (to say nothing of Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods), receive all the media attention. While these issues may be important, they really have little impact, one way or the other, on money and power, so they are terrific places for politicians on both sides to "take a stand" - to go over the top to bring out the nature of their character using the most theatrics possible. And they are issues where the vote can match the rhetoric because, at the end of the day, these issues have little impact on those at the top in control (applies to both parties) so they don't really care a whole lot how their puppets members vote. These kinds of fake issues are wonderful for both sides. They let the characters really play up their role, without any cost to their power.

The so-called "Bush tax-cuts" and the 2008 Wall Street bailout (AKA Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008) really highlight this point. With the bailout, the GOP staged theater showing how they opposed the bill, but in the end, sold out and enough of them voted for it and the bill passed. We saw the same thing with the tax cuts for the richest Americans. At first, Democrats made all kinds of noise, but ultimately, they pretended to "compromise" and voted for the exact same bill they so passionately opposed a few days earlier.

It's hard to imagine that there isn't somebody in charge of this. It all seems so well orchestrated. While some members of congress are pretty obvious shills, it doesn't really require Mitch McConnell and Barney Frank to even know they are just playing a role. It probably is not that hard to find people that mostly believe their own rhetoric and think they are "doing the right thing" but sometimes have to step in line with the party leaders when it's time to tally the votes, in the name of compromise and "good sense," even if it is in conflict with their own rhetoric. But somebody had to seek out and find those characters and help them get elected, or put them in a prominent position of power or place them on a popular radio or TV talk show.

I hate to suggest a conspiracy, but it's hard to believe this just happens naturally. And there is the question of who wins and following the money.

We still get to vote - and I still believe our elections are mostly not fraudulent - we just have to stop doing what they want us to do. We must look past the rhetoric and not get caught up in emotional trigger-words. Look at what our elected criminals vote for, what they actually do, and the impact to ordinary Americans, not what they say or how they say it.

This information is out there - it can be hard to find among all the misinformation, but it's there. Don't take Glenn Beck's or Rachel Maddow's word for it.

I agree with the Tea Party on one thing - vote the bums out - we just might not be talking about the same bums. Somewhere in there may be a few decent apples, particularly in the House where some folks can perhaps run under the radar for a while - but ultimately they all need to answer to their party's leadership - and so they are screwed... and we are screwed. I suggest we begin by simply voting out everyone that voted for bailouts. You have to start somewhere.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Don't let Wisconsin divide us.

Via Washington’s Blog

Conservatives and liberals actually agree about the most important things.
In fact, most Americans – conservatives and liberals – are fed up with both of the mainstream republican and democratic parties, because it has become obvious that both parties serve Wall Street and the military-industrial complex at the expense of most Americans.

In reality, all Americans – conservatives and liberals:

Want to break up the unholy alliance between big government and big banks
Want to break up the giant banks (and see this)
Agree that the Wall Street criminals who committed fraud should be thrown in jail
Agree that the Federal Reserve should be audited
Are against corporate socialism
Are against rampant inequality
Want to stand up to the ruling class
And are against unnecessary imperial wars

Could not have said it better myself.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Tea Party, a populist movement, but to what end?

Being the contrarian that I am, whenever it becomes popular to ridicule something, I find myself asking "wait a minute. Is there more to this?" Many of the figures of the Tea Party movement are pretty easy targets, making it easy to dismiss the whole movement as a bunch of extremists, ignorant backwoodsmen or agents of some evil puppet-master.

There are things I should like about the movement. First, it started as a populist movement, which is what I think we need to shake up the current rigged two-party monopoly. But it hasn't played out that way. Tea Party proponents say they "don't care about party labels" and that they "don't care what party you're in; they just want to know if you reflect their values." However, in practice, there is no place for Democrats in the Tea Party - and what's more, all Tea Party candidates have run on the Republican ticket, not a third party ticket.

Ok, so the real Tea Party is older, white, somewhat more male, and 30% more likely to identify as "born-again" Christians than the general population. They have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party and an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party. But what do they want?

A common slogan is "Take back America." When I see representatives of the movement speak, whether official PR spokesmen or ordinary attendees at rallies etc. it feels like this is code for a number of what appear to be fear-driven goals. In a lot of ways, "Take back America" seems to mean taking America back to a mythical, idealized time in the past, when white people had it good, jobs were plentiful, taxes were low, and everybody feared/loved Jesus in appropriate quantities.

They want to roll the clock back to some imagined version of America that never really existed. It's a fictionalized, Rockwell-esque amalgam of all the best of America, from their perspective, from many different times in history. Except in this rose-colored-glasses story, they leave out the ickier parts.

They want lower taxes and less government, but does that mean going back to a time before Social Security and Welfare? If there was a Tea Party back when those issues were moving through congress, it certainly would have opposed them, going by their stated mission of strongly opposing such social programs. Keep in mind, 43 percent of the federal budget goes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, yet the vast majority of Tea Party members support these programs and want them to continue.

Or how about civil rights? This "better time" they long for allowed segregation and countless forms of formalized racism and discrimination, even slavery, if you take them at their word that they want to revert to the original doctrine of the Constitution.

The Tea Party says they support reduced government interference and "liberty" while at the same time Tea Party candidates have said "we would like to see prayer back in school" and activists carry signs reading "Yes, we are a Christian nation" and "United government under God." Or there's Governor Robert Bentley announcing that "Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister." So, "liberty" in the Tea Party definition, appears to be the liberty to impose Christianity.

Tea Party darling Christine O'Donnell famously said "Evolution is a myth." Recall that, even though Clarence Darrow made William Jennings Bryan out to be a fool at the 1925 Scopes trial, he lost the case and Scopes was found guilty of illegally teaching evolution - and those anti-evolution laws were not repealed in Tennessee until 45 years later, in 1967! Yes, you read that right - it was illegal to teach evolution in Tennessee as recently as 1967! Is that the America the Tea Party wants, where factual science is excluded from education by government mandate?

As for tax rates, nobody likes paying taxes and getting rid of government waste sounds great. But let's give it some perspective, shall we? Analysis shows that the effective income tax rate is currently at its lowest level since at least 1955 and corporate tax rates are already lower than they’ve been in 50 years. High taxes are not the problem.

Tea Party enthusiasts are quick to throw around the word socialism in reference to Obama’s tax policies. They claim he wants to raise the tax burden on the rich and lower it on the poor to "distribute wealth" but the facts, again, don't bear it out. The rich continue to get richer. Even if Obama had gotten his way, it would have represented a pretty paltry tax increase for the richest people and, even then, it would only get things closer to where they were because, while the tax rates for nearly all households have been dropping since the 60s, the rates of the richest have dropped the most, by far. If the Tea Party sees a pro-business, pro-capitalism moderate such as Barack Obama as a socialist with all his tax cuts, imagine what they would think of a president who ran a federal government with significantly higher tax rates than today and who raised taxes while in office, specifically, Ronald Reagan.

The basic message of the Tea Party movement is quite appealing: Government is too expensive, too intrusive and too big. But the devil is in the details. In the end, I don't think there's anything new here. The Tea Party should be praised for managing to organize some of the anger and frustration that's out there into something people are looking at - and perhaps it can be a model for other populist movements in some way. But for the Tea Party itself, there is no "there" there, at least not yet - it's not that unlike the old "moral majority" but with a much narrower agenda. And like that movement, it will continue to be a fringe element. It is a movement that cannot deny that it is heavily loaded with extremists - truth hurts, sorry. Mocking them really is easy, and justified in most cases. Again, tough luck. You are what you are.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

After all these years of bloated deficits, how do Republicans still own the "fiscally conservative" talking point?

Everyone knows that only Republicans are fiscally conservative. There's only one thing: It's not true.

I do not understand how this meme prevails. It's a study in PR and propaganda to rival any other. There may have been a time when Republicans believed in fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets, but that time has long passed.

The reality is that the debt explosion that Republicans today rail about began in 1981 with their, now mythically reinvented hero, Ronald Reagan. Here are the facts: Deficits remained relatively flat with Gerald Ford (R) and Jimmy Carter (D). But they ballooned with Reagan (R), $85 billion to $255 billion, and H.W. Bush (R), $255 billion to a peak of $432 billion. With Clinton (D), it decreased all they way back to $18 billion at the end of his term, when under another Republican president, G.W. Bush, with the full support of a Republican congress, it skyrocketed from Clinton's $18 billion to $1.017 trillion in 2008. As David Stockman, Reagan’s first budget director, recently wrote in The New York Times, the “debt explosion resulted not from big spending by the Democrats, but instead the Republican Party’s embrace … of the insidious doctrine that deficits don’t matter if they result from tax cuts.”

As Republicans on the one hand decry our nation’s enormous deficit, successfully blaming Democrats I might add, they also forced Obama to cave on extending the Bush tax cuts, even though the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report that the revenue loss from the Bush tax cuts accounts for about a quarter of the current federal deficit, and if extended, those cuts will be responsible for 54 percent of the yearly deficit. According to the Pew Economic Policy Group, the extension of the Bush tax cuts will cost $3.1 trillion over ten years, with nearly all of the benefits going to the richest 1 percent, those with incomes of more than $500,000 a year.

Yet, somehow, Republicans still manage to own the debate, successfully making fiscal responsibility part of their party platform, campaign slogan and self-professed philosophy - And people buy it - Polls suggest voters are angry about the deficits and are blaming the Democrats. Go figure.