05 October 2010

Sherman DeBrosse : The Puzzle of 2010

Image from StudentHacks.

The puzzle of 2010:
What’s going on with the electorate?

By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / October 5, 2010

This year's election is marked by a great deal of puzzling behavior. Media people report on the peculiar and shocking things that occur, but they can neither judge nor explain them. Here are some questions that this writer has.

1. Only two years after an economic Pearl Harbor, the majority of voters seem determined to restore the economic and financial policies that wiped out jobs and trillions in savings. The financial system almost melted down; now they want to restore the conditions that made this possible.

2. Most of those who say they will vote Republican insist that the Republicans will not go back to the George W. Bush playbook. They insist on this even after the Republicans tell them this is what they will do and the House Republicans issue a 46-page statement pledging to dismantle financial regulations, extend the tax cuts for the rich, and re-enact other Bush policies.

3. Once the party of “law n’ order,” the Republicans now support Sharron Angle and some others who threaten to take up arms against the federal government if they do not get their way. Not only is sedition ok, but the party of Lincoln also supports nullification efforts in seventeen states. These notions are a threat to the federal union itself, but they seem to arouse little alarm.

4. Many Tea Bag candidates join Sharron Angle in saying it is “hard to justify Social Security” and that Medicare should be phased out. Tea Baggers must think that threats to these benefits will effect people younger than them, but not themselves.

5. Tea Baggers and other Republicans have been demonizing public employees and demanding deep cuts in public employee pensions. Three states have cut the benefits of people already employed, Republicans in other states are talking about big cuts. Yet, public employees and retirees do not seem to be up in arms.

6. In 2008, many independent voters voted for Barack Obama. Now many of them join Republicans in believing he is a Muslim and were born in Kenya. Some of the same people were troubled by the comments of his United Church of Christ pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright.

7. The Congressional Budget Office reported that the stimulus plan created 3,300,000 jobs, but a vast number of Americans believe the Republican claim that the stimulus actually destroyed jobs. A common commercial used by House Republican candidates is that the stimulus package actually increased unemployment by 36%.

No facts are presented to back this dishonest and absurd claim, but it is believed. In the third district of Pennsylvania, a car salesman named Mike Kelley seems to be winning the race for Congress with this claim. Maybe this is because we have all learned from experience that car salesmen can be trusted almost all the time.

8. Women plan a major role as Tea Bagger candidates and activists and even claim the title of “feminist” even though their party tried to block legislation assuring equal pay for women and is committed to ending the reproductive rights of women.

All of this defies rational analysis. This is a year of craziness and irrational politics, and not all of these questions can be subjected to rational analysis. Self interest explains some Tea Bagger behavior, but other factors are involved.

Tea Baggers don’t want to help others

By any account, the Tea Baggers make a lot of irrational claims, but at root most of them are operating out of self-interest. Most of them are older than 45 and are more prosperous than the average American. A disproportionate number seem to have Medicare Advantage, and they thought that health care reform would threaten Medicare and Medicare Advantage.

As it turned out, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the reform package extended the life of Medicare. It also made Medicare Advantage more affordable, and this year the average premium goes up only 1%.

The Tea Baggers want to hold on to what they have and fear that Medicare reform and the stimulus will mean higher taxes down the road and that inflation might diminish their savings. This is at least understandable; they’ve got theirs and object to government helping the unemployed and the poor.

To the extent that they are motivated by deep seeded racism and Social Darwinism, we can understand where some of the absurd claims come from.

What is harder to explain is why so many of the unemployed, partially employed, and people threatened with unemployment are so determined to vote Republican? They saw the Republicans block the extension of unemployment benefits. Everyone knows there will not be another stimulus package under a Republican House, and though the GOP now talks about $20 billion credit for small business, it would have been hard not to observe that the Republicans blocked this seven times -- the latest occasion being this past month.

Back to the Gipper. Image from LA Times.

Why voters have repaired to Reaganite orthodoxy

Cultural considerations explain the depth of Tea Bagger hatred for Obama, and they also explain why so many people, whose self interest would best be served by Democrats, have joined the crusade to restore Republican control of Congress. When people are in deep fear and threatened with serious loss, some must find emotionally satisfying solutions to their problems by resorting to the default ideas presented by the culture.

Hence, many people support going back to George W. Bush economics because they embody the main tenets of the market culture that dominated the United States for the last three decades. Americans found the market capitalism ideology of the Ronald Reagan period to be reassuring a guarantee that the American Dream was still open to them. It is an optimistic ideology that is hard to abandon; and it requires total faith.

It is no wonder people shocked by plummeting housing process, unemployment, lost savings would rush back to economic orthodoxy. It alone still held out the certainty of better times, prosperity, and above all emotional security and stasis.

Republicans must deny the depth of the crises of 2007-2008

To cling to Reagan era orthodoxy after 2007-2008, one has to minimize the financial and economic crash of 2007-2008. Republicans cannot say this directly, but they must behave as though the problems of 2007 and 2008 were mere flukes. To admit how deep the financial economic crises really were is to admit that market capitalism failed. Any reality-based outlook promises far less emotional security and fails to offer the certainty many people need. .

Republican arguments depend upon maintaining that the recession was not deep and the financial crisis could have been easily repaired or even was self-correcting. With the premise that little happened in 2007 and 2008, it is possible to claim that the stimulus brought about the unemployment. The argument is, “They spent all that money, and unemployment is even greater.”

Now we are hearing Republicans lump together TARP and stimulus as “TARP/stimulus” and blame both on Obama, even though George W. Bush signed the TARP. On the September 26 Sunday talk shows, the frequently repeated Republican talking point was that TARP was not necessary to save the banks, and not one Republican said it was a Republican measure backed by Mitch McConnell and Speaker-to-Be John Boehner Now they denounce the TARP and blame the Democrats for it.

It may well be that some sort of cognitive dissonance is responsible for the House Republicans saying they want to repeal the entire financial reform bill. Their ideology is based on the idea that only unregulated capitalism will establish prosperity. If they admit that the financial system almost self-destructed, Republicans would be admitting that something was very wrong with the heart of their ideology.

Unregulated capitalism is even more sacred to them than tax breaks for the rich. They may sincerely believe the banks did not need help in 2007-2008, and that the TARP and financial reform are unnecessary.

But one cannot help wondering if a few Republican leaders understand that the continued prosperity of the financial sector requires no restraints on financial gambling and the unspoken guarantee that the federal government will continue to prop up failing banks, a strategy that began with Ronald Reagan.

Stripping away financial reform serves the needs of the blind ideologues as well as the cynical fellows who understand what their masters on Wall Street need.

Ideas have consequences

Even bad ideas have consequences. Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels said that people will believe anything that is repeated often enough. That is true, and it explains why voters believe so many big lies these days. But the belief is even deeper and widespread when the lie fits a mindset that has been dominant for decades.

Republican propaganda neatly fits the market capitalism ideology that has been dominant since the Eighties. Democrats, on the other hand, have not offered a consistent narrative since the New Deal Coalition fell apart in the late 1960s. Moreover, they seem clueless when it comes to message control and the impact of cognitive science on politics. Political narratives are not built over night, and the Democrats now seem almost defenseless.

For two decades after World War II, Americans believed in regulated capitalism and using state power to help others and improve community. Equality was a goal, and taking responsibility for others was thought to be a worthy value. Writing about this time in the UK and the U.S., Terry Eagleton said, “Unrestrained market forces were as frowned upon as unrestrained whiskey drinking in a convent school.”

The eviscerated society

By the Eighties, this mindset was in disrepute. The state was now seen as the creator of many problems, and it was believed that market forces should not be restrained. Instead, the economy should only be regulated by self-interest. There was a move away from the public toward the private and the privatization of public functions. Even some National Parks are now run by private interests, and their book stores carry literature saying the world was created less than 5,000 years ago.

Government, Edmund Burke thought, needed to engage the sympathies and loyalties of the people. In the so-called “conservative” market ideology, government was to be suspected. No wonder we now find that it has a lawless dimension, with some ranting about nullification and taking up arms against government -- the so-called “second Amendment option.“ Similarly, the drive to slash public pensions is lawless to the extent that it destroys people’s contractual rights.

Rants about taking up arms against government and nullifying federal laws are attacks on the concept of a national community. They were once confined to what has been called the lunatic fringe, but they are now commonplace. This is no accident.

Market ideology devalues community; it is the individual against the state and others. No wonder people are not alarmed by all this noise. Similarly, talk about putting land mines along the New Mexico border or about the laziness of the unemployed are offenses against the public marketplace of ideas, upon which democracy depends. But there is no room for the marketplace of ideas in the market ideology.

There has been very little fallout about 21 months of Republican obstructionism, blocking judicial and other appointments with holds, and the remorseless use of filibuster threats. Now, Eric Cantor and others are threatening to shut down Congress if they cannot end Health Care reform by defunding it.

Fifteen years ago, Republicans offended voters by shutting down government. The obstruction and threatened shut-down are assaults on the concept of community, something beyond the scope of the dominant market ideology. Today the attitude is that it is acceptable to do whatever is necessary to get what you want, regardless to the damage it does to our political system.

In 2011, respect for community might be so lacking that a shut-down of government might be applauded. Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris are betting that this will be the case as they urge the Republicans to confront President Barack Obama with a shutdown.

Now, we have what the late Tony Judt called an “eviscerated society.” Mutual respect and obligations are gone. Ugly sentiments that we thought had been overcome are on the rise with hatred of Hispanics, Islamophobia, and all the wild claims about Obama’s religion and place of birth -- scarcely disguised racist arguments.

There is an obsession with greed, materialism, and self-interest. Anyone who thinks in terms of collective responsibility is called a communist or socialist by people who could not define those terms. Symptoms of the new world view are a decline in social mobility, greater poverty, broken infrastructure, and many more broken people as seen in rising alcoholism, mental illness, and homelessness.

This materialistic, market ideology requires Social Darwinism, the belief that the rich deserve all good things because they are the best product of social evolution. Of course, people at the bottom of their societies deserve their grim circumstances. Now, Social Darwinism underpins economic globalism. Sometimes. as now, Social Darwinism feeds on and fuels racism and xenophobia.

We need a humanistic culture to produce responsible citizens and a society that seeks a measure of equality and justice. The problem is within the individual psyche, where there is a clash between narcissism and greed battling against love, respect, and compassion. We want to think that the former qualities are there, and studies of primates produce enough evidence to help us hope that this is so.

The schools cannot be relied upon to inculcate humanistic values because they are busy teaching students to master enough skills to pass tests and become useful cogs in the capitalist structure. Most colleges and universities have downgraded the subjects that traditionally promoted humane values, and many younger faculties have accepted postmodern outlooks that deny that there are universal humane values.

People have traditionally looked to religion for language to express moral concerns, but the United States is now seeing a decline in religious outlooks that value community, peace, and economic justice. On the rise are religious groups that seem to limit their moral concerns to rigid stances on reproductive issues and sexual orientation; on the other hand they repeatedly support the dominant market ideology and its companion foreign policy outlook that is built on faith in American exceptionalism.

The Democrats need a new narrative. Image from Right Democrat.

Democrats must find a new narrative

Democrats have no time to waste in explaining to voters that they must select between different visions of society -- one based on greed and benefits for the few, and one that aspires to create opportunities and well-being for everyone. If we elect Republicans, we are gambling on another banking system failure and another deep recession.

Things might get better despite the Republicans. Copper sales are rising quickly; tool and die shops are doing business; and inventories are very low. There is an outside chance that the Obama stimulus, health care, and approach to the banking crisis will begin to produce more results soon.

The banks are sitting on $ 1.2 trillion they might begin to spend, and the industrial firms have $1.8 to begin spending. It would be ironic but not totally unexpected that Obama’s policies will produce a recovery for which Republicans will promptly claim credit.

In the longer run, however, the Republican approach is bound to bring about another Wall Street collapse and deep recession. If they are in power when that happens, they will find it necessary to slash Social Security and Medicare in order to preserve benefits for the rich and continue to follow an aggressive foreign policy.

Democrats need to begin by defending what they have accomplished. The Democrats cannot run away from what the laws they havepassed. They should show voters the good points, which are many, and blame the flaws on the need to water down legislation to attract conservative votes. If they refuse to defend their work, they will help the Republicans make this election a referendum on their undefended policies.

Even more important, the Democrats must continually point out how conservative policies brought about the twin crises of 2007-2008 and how current Republican program will fail to help the jobless and will set the scene for future financial and economic disasters.

[Sherman DeBrosse is a retired history professor. He also blogs at Sherm Says and on DailyKos.]

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