Monday, July 26, 2010

Elections 2010: Politics at a Time of Uncertainty

We have 99 Days to go before Election Day. How different things look today compared to Obama's first 100 days. In the last year and a half, the national mood has turned from hope to uncertainty. The sluggish job market is the economic representation of this psychological state. Business are not expanding or hiring because they do not know what the future holds for them.

The White House, in acknowledging that it expects unemployment to remain at or around 9 percent, has conceded that voters will have to deal with this state of uncertainty even as they will be invited this Fall to make up their minds about whether their members of Congress deserve another term or if it is time for another reset. A certain act given an uncertain future. That's the crux of the political game this year.

Come November, voters will be asking: do we stay the course and give the incumbents a little more time to bring back the test results, or do we throw the bums out and issue a new test? Republicans are chanting behind one ear saying, "no results means bad results" and Democrats are chanting in the other, saying, "wait for it, the good times are coming." With no good news or an objective litmus test in sight, the election outcomes will turn largely on the perception of despair versus hope.

The emerging Republican narrative for Election 2010 is that all this uncertainty in the market was generated by big brother. A massive health-care bill which has made it difficult for business to predict their labor costs for the years to come; a financial deregulation bill has given new powers to government but no indication as to how such powers will be deployed; and now, talk of legislation that would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire in 2010 will only spook business out even more. The Republican headline is: despair; and it is time to move on.

Unless they can point to some specific pork they have brought back to their constituents, Democrats will have to deal with this national mood of uncertainty that can easily be turned into despair. The question of whether or not will Democrats lose one or both (because zero is nearly out of the question) houses of Congress will turn on how successfully, once again, they would be able to massage the reality of uncertainty away from the fairly contiguous sentiment of despair into the more unrelated sentiment of hope.

Now that was a lot easier done in 2008. When patience had run dry with Iraq and George Bush, even Independents found it easy to be optimistic about an alternative path. Anything but the status quo was cause for hope in 2008. Not so in 2010, where there is neither clear light at the end of the economic tunnel nor a wreck in sight. It would take a much bigger leap of faith this year for the same people who voted Obama into office to continue to hope that his friends in Congress will deliver on his promises. Indeed, at this point, Republicans and most Independents are probably done with hoping. They’ve heard the boy cry “wolf” too many times.

The only people who will see hope when there is only uncertainty are the Democratic party faithful. If Democrats want to avert an electoral catastrophe, their best bet is to turn out the party faithful who will vote for a member of their own party even if the heavens came crashing. In this year’s political wheel of fortune, it’s all about whether uncertainty can be massaged into despair or spun into hope.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Racism, the NAACP and the Tea Party Movement

The NAACP was doing its job when it accused the Tea Party movement of harboring "racist elements," but it didn't necessarily go about it in the most productive way.

All it took was for supporters of the Tea Party movement like Sarah Palin to write, "All decent Americans abhor racism," and that with the election of Barack Obama we became a "post-racial" society, and the NAACP’s charge was soundly “refudiated.” Or, as Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell put it to Candy Crowley on CNN on Sunday, he's "got better things to do" than weigh in on the debate. He was elected to deal with real problems, not problems made up in people's heads. Case closed.

If one has decided not to see something, one won't see it. (And to be sure, if one has decided to see something, one will always see it. That's a stalemate.)

I think the NAACP ought to consider the possibility that the residuum of racism that exist today are more thoughts of omission than acts of commission. Racism is a very different beast today than it was on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, or on the eve of the Civil Rights Act. Indeed, it is so difficult to detect and even harder to eradicate precisely because it is no longer hidden behind a white conical hood.

Because our standard for what counts as "post-racialism" has gone up with each civil rights milestone, the NAACP should realize that as the old in-your-face racism is gone, so too should the old confrontational techniques of accusation and litigation. Unconscious racism can only be taught and remedied by explanation, not declamation.

To understand unconscious racism, consider the case of Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express, who was expelled by the Tea Party Federation, an organization that seeks to represent the movement as a whole when Williams posted a fictional letter to Abraham Lincoln, saying "We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards."

The stridently mocking tone of this letter belied a breezy assumption that any and everyone could see that this was a letter written in satire. Sure it was. But if that was William's subjective excuse, it would also be his objective crime. Williams did not stop to consider that it is so much easier to tell a joke than to be the butt of one. Here's a bully telling the bullied to get over it.

If we don't want to call this indifference “unconscious racism,” we can certainly call it bad citizenship because it is a failure to consider the grievances of a group of fellow-Americans. Isn't this exactly what we were faulting our British cousins for doing in 1776?

Most of us, Tea Partiers or not, care about our taxes, our jobs, and our children. It takes a lot of energy and civic mindedness to worry about someone else's taxes, jobs and children. (And that’s why our British cousins failed to summon the energy to care in 1776.) But the least we could do when we fail to enlarge the ambit of our sympathies is to admit that politics is a zero-sum game, and that other people have an equal right to petition for what they care about, even if we lose if they win. But that’s not a courtesy Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell, or Mark Williams extended to the NAACP for so categorically dismissing its plea.

Even if we lived in a post-racial society, it is not for Sarah Palin to announce it, and it is certainly not Mark Williams' place to tell African Americans to get over his joke. But the NAACP should also bear in mind that whatever we call this presumptuousness - unconscious racism or indifference - it is bad citizenship precipitated, in part, by the NAACP's excessive focus on accusation, and not also education. If we want every American to learn to walk around in another person’s shoes, we should invite them to try each other’s shoes, not just order each other to not to step on them.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Why Obama is Losing Independents

Gallup reported last week that President Obama's job approval among Independent voters dipped to 38 percent, the lowest support he has ever received from this group of voters.

It would be too easy for Democrats to blame these numbers on the Tea Party movement. Some Independents are Tea Partiers - and those the President has forever lost - but not all Independents are Tea Partiers.

To understand why Obama has lost so many other Independents, we need to understand that Independents are a curious bunch. They don't believe in partisan loyalty, yet they are notoriously fickle. They may be fairer than Fox and more balanced than MSNBC, and yet because they are beholden neither to personalities nor parties, but to issues, their love for a politician can be vanquished as quickly as s/he fails to perform.

Politicians love to chase Independents, but they best remember that when push comes to shove, Independents cut to the chase. Independents have determined that on too many of Obama’s campaign promises - the closing of Guantanamo Bay, the public (health-care) option, comprehensive energy and immigration reform, ending Don't Ask Don't Tell - the President is either foot-dragging or has simply failed to deliver. Part of this, to be sure, is systemic. Most presidents suffer from lower approval ratings in their second year in office because they become victims of the (required) big talk in the year before which had gotten them elected in the first place. But Obama must also take especial responsibility for so unrestrainedly tantalizing his base during the 2008 campaign and then so abruptly disenchanting them when the realities of governance stepped in. When even the Liberal faith in Obama falters, Independents can hardly be expected to hold the fort.

In recent days, the president's firing of General McChrystal and his handling of the Gulf oil-spill has only confirmed the Independent voter's growing conviction that Obama is not displaying the perspicacity of a president in charge. There is a sense of chaos, that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark," or, as Jimmy Carter fatefully put in the potentially analogous summer of 1979, that the nation is suffering "a crisis of confidence."

The White House is in full-scale damage-control, dispatching both the President and the Vice President on the campaign road, and sending David Axelrod on the Sunday talk-shows to talk their way out of this one. This is completely counter-productive.

Independents voted for Obama because he was not a Washington insider, believing that because he was not obligated or loyal to Democratic apparatchiks as the Clinton machine presumably was, he would be able get things done. More talk is only going to remind Independents that Obama can be no more than a Great Campaigner. The more the White House tries to damage control, the more it appears to be giving excuses. (And one talking point recurs with striking regularity: blame George W. Bush.)

Independents care neither for a donkey's bray nor an elephant's trumpet. They only care that the president gets something done (or delivers on a promise). The White House should realize that when they're explaining, they're already losing.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Meaning of Independence Day

Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4, the day the words of the Declaration of Independence were set on parchment. John Adams had famously predicted that this day "ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more." Because these celebrations have become annual rituals, we have stopped thinking about exactly what it is we are celebrating.

For a glaring fact stares at us in the face. The Declaration of Independence has absolutely no legal or constitutional status. Presidents and journalists alike appropriate the principles it articulated in their rhetorical flourishes, but for all its symbolic power, the Declaration cannot be quoted by a judge on the Supreme Court to justify an opinion.

A National Day ought to commemorate what it is to be American, and the truth is, the Declaration may well have been the necessary, though certainly not the sufficient part of what made America America. In 1776, the Continental Congress severed our ties to the British crown. That was only a negative act which did not positively define who we were. That positive definition would only come in 1789, when "We the People" would constitute the American nation.

Two hundred years after the fact, Americans commemorate the events of the 1770s and the 1780s as if they were the same decade. But (in order to understand the strive in our contemporary politics) it is important to recall that the 1770s (and the Declaration) and the 1780s (and the Constitution) represented two opposite world-views. The revolutionary generation and the Founding generation were not always on the same page.

The Declaration, ultimately, was an act to guarantee our negative liberties. (Independence = freedom from.) It was a revolutionary act by "one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another." The revolutionary generation thought, contrary to what most modern liberals believe, that government was evil. The less of it we had to endure, the better.

The Constitution, in contrast, was an act to guarantee our positive liberties or our freedom to do certain things. The American People came together "in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." The Founding generation, chastened by the inadequacies of the Continental Congress, came to see government in more benign terms. Contrary to Glenn Beck, 1789 was the culmination of a collective call for more government, not less. By 1789, memories of government as a source of evil had receded into the background, while promises of government as a force to do good hovered in the foreground.

The Declaration and Constitution are not of a piece, but are in fact the book-ends of the American ideological spectrum, presenting two competing visions of government; whether it is the solution or the cause of our problems.

But one thing is worthy of note. We picked July 4 and not September 17 (the day the delegates to the Constitutional Convention appended their signatures to the document) as our National Holiday. And if so, perhaps there is some truth to what Sean Hannity has been saying for years, that "we are a center-right nation." For the Fourth of July is ultimately a day celebrating negative liberty, and our freedom from a tyrannical government. These may be key words in the Tea Party political play-book, but some Democrats may be pleasantly surprised (or embarrassed) to know, as they set off "Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other," that they too, are quite American.