Friday, September 24, 2010

The Perfect Tea Party Candidate

Christine O’Donnell is the perfect Tea Party candidate. She is uncompromisingly committed to her evangelical ideology, she is oblivious to all scientific and historical knowledge that conflicts with her ideology, she believes it is her duty defend liberty by forcing others to conform to her superior values, and she flaunts her ignorance as if it is a virtue.

Consider her attempt to smear Obama over the media’s use of the word "czar" to describe the dozens of appointed advisors all presidents rely upon. She actually said, “Article 1, Section 9 says no title of nobility should granted by the United States, there you go. I would say to President Obama that czar is a title of nobility and therefore unconstitutional.”

To metaphorically challenged O’Donnell, “czar” could only refer to certain eastern European monarchs. Christine seems unaware that "czar” has been used in American politics and culture for over 180 years to refer to individuals with broad administrative powers. It can be used mockingly or affectionately. For example, calling the Commissioner of Baseball the “baseball czar” is affectionate. Calling him “Czar Selig” is mocking. It was often used in the press to describe presidential advisors in the 1930s and 1940s. It became popular again during the Nixon administration and has been widely used by pundits since then. Nixon himself used the word, although most presidents avoid it. To be fair, grandstanding over the use of the term is not limited to Republicans. In a complaint brought by Democrats against the Bush administration (which had 32 “czars”), the GAO ruled that use of the phrase “drug czar” in government publications “does not constitute unlawful self-aggrandizement.”

Ms. O’Donnell’s public statements about the use of this term demonstrate 3 things about her: she hates Obama, she doesn’t understand metaphors, and she is deeply ignorant of American law, politics, and cultural history.

Consider her abstinence only approach to sex education and sexual conduct. In 2002 on Donahue she said “Condoms will not protect you from AIDS.” In 2003 when asked if she would have teenagers stop having sex she said, “Yeah. Yeah…I'm a young woman in my thirties and I remain chaste. Come on. It's unrealistic to think they're just gonna do it anyway.” In 2006 on Fox she said “People aren't bad. When did humans become a bad thing? Why is it that we have to, you know, stop people from getting pregnant?” In 2007 she argued on Fox News against age appropriate comprehensive sex education and said it is up to the parents to decide what their children are taught.

She can believe anything she wants, and mocking her beliefs is unprofessional and a logical fallacy. But her beliefs would be a disaster as a basis for public policy. We have thousands of years of evidence, from virtually every culture, that abstinence doesn’t work for large portions of the population (95% in the US, including certain prominent religious Republicans). That is an undeniable fact of life. Today we can measure things like teen pregnancies and STD rates that show exactly how ineffective it is. In addition, we know exactly how effective condoms are in preventing the spread of AIDS. We know exactly how many abortions, unplanned pregnancies, and STDs can be prevented by comprehensive sex education. Of course, many conservatives think using actual measurements when debating public policy is mind trick of the intellectual elites, but public policy must be guided by facts, not myths, and must promote public health, not personal moral philosophy.

By insisting on abstinence only sex education O’Donnell puts her own sexual obsessions ahead of public health. O’Donnell wants to control people’s lives rather than empowering them to make their own choices, a common trait of the authoritarian conservative personality.

Consider her stance on abortion and the sanctity of life. She is against abortion even in cases of rape or incest. She has said “I pledge I will always vote in favor of life ..." Her campaign web site says she "Strongly believes in protecting the sanctity of life at ALL stages."

This is a difficult issue for many people. I have enormous respect for anyone who opposes abortion because they really do respect the "sanctity of life at ALL stages". Such a person is rare. Most people use this argument as an excuse to prevent other people from making their own choices, but are quick to abandon it when convenient. If you believe the sanctity of life overrides all other concerns then you must

  • Oppose the death penalty,

  • Reject unnecessary wars and military campaigns that slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians,

  • Support programs proven to reduce abortions, including compulsory comprehensive sex education and condom dispensers in all high schools and youth centers, and

  • Support universal health insurance rather than let nearly a thousand people a week die from lack of health care.

O’Donnell believes we should win in Iraq but can’t define what win means. She thinks we shold consider invading Iran. She has not, that I am aware, expressed any concern for the civilians we have killed. She supports only abstinence based sex education, and opposes dispensing condoms. She wants to repeal the “government provided” health care (actually she means the Affordable Care Act regulating private insurance) by removing all government restrictions on health insurers (so called free market reform), leaving even more Americans without health insurance.

On every one of those issues she rationalizes abandoning her pledge to “always vote in favor of life.” Like most authoritarian conservatives O’Donnell is incapable of recognizing the inherent contradictions of her positions.

Consider her absolute unwillingness to compromise. In 1998 when asked whether or not she would lie to Nazis who showed up at her door during WWII and demanded to know if she were hiding any Jewish people in her house. O’Donnell refused to even entertain the notion of concealing the truth from Nazis because “you never have to practice deception…A lie, whether it be a lie or an exaggeration, is disrespect to whoever you’re exaggerating or lying to, because it’s not respecting reality…I believe if I were in that situation, God would provide a way to do the right thing righteously. I believe that!”

This is a well known dilemma which has been debated for decades, without resolution, amongst ethicists who argue passionately for both sides. We cannot fault Ms O’Donnell for her choice for there is no “right” choice. Those siding with O’Donnell are generally absolutists who believe there is an inviolable commandment against lying and there is never any room for compromise on this point. That’s what’s relevant when evaluating Ms O’Donnell’s bid for public office. Logicians have proven that in any logical system which is internally consistent it is always possible to create unresolvable questions (or in this context, questions for which there is no right or wrong answer). Because our population consists of a multitude of different viewpoints, priorities, and philosophies interacting in complex ways, public policy is rarely a black and white situation. Without compromise government would come to a standstill and there would be no end to factional bickering.

Many conservatives, like Ms O’Donnell, reject compromise as weakness and believe the country will not survive if our laws do not conform to their religious beliefs.

Christine O’Donnell is the perfect Tea Party candidate: an ideologue who refuses to acknowledge facts that contradict her dogmatic beliefs, who values emotion over logic, who sees every thing in black and white, who is blind to her own contradictions and obsessions, who is incapable of compromise, who believes she has a sacred duty to dictate how others should live, and who hates Obama.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Conservatives Embrace Their Ignorance

“Czar” as a pejorative term in American Politics

All presidents must choose a slate of Cabinet Secretaries and dozens of other administrators. The press and pundits, on both sides of the aisles, have long referred to these officials as “czars”, but presidents, at least since Nixon, rarely use the term themselves.

I cannot find is a single example of Obama actually using the term “czar”. I can find dozens of Republicans and pundits denigrating Obama because of his czars. I can find dozens of commentators complaining that Obama czars are proof he has a hidden agenda to turn America into a socialist nation, that his czars prove he is an arrogant despot, and that this is unprecedented in US history. I can find lots of proof that most Republicans are either deeply ignorant of American history and culture or are hypocrites playing on their constituents’ emotions.

The word czar comes from the title “Tsar” once used by certain Eastern European monarchs. In America it has been used metaphorically by the media to describe appointed positions with broad powers over an organization. It is not an official government title.

The term “czar” was used as early as the 1800s to criticize political opponents. In the 1830′s, Andrew Jackson sought to eliminate the Second United States National Bank and its president Nicholas Biddle. In supporting Jackson, the Washington Globe labeled Biddle “Czar Nicholas”, comparing Biddle’s control of the currency to the iron fisted rule of Russia’s Nicholas I. Andrew Johnson was ridiculed with the title of “Czar of the Amerikas” for perceived mishandling of reconstruction. In 1890 the Republican Speaker of the House earned the nickname “Czar” for strong arming through rules changes.

After the Russian Revolution deposed the czars, the term lost its connection to harsh despots and took on a gentler tone. When Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed commissioner by the baseball owners in 1919 to clean up the sport following the Black Sox Scandal, headlines proclaimed him the new Baseball Czar. Soon other sporting authorities were also called czars as were many other organizations administrators.

In the 1930s and 1940s it was used less congenially to describe the multitude of positions Franklin D. Roosevelt created by executive order to manage the wartime economy. In 1944 the Republicans requested the creation of a “food czar” to control wartime pricing and distribution. By the end of the war the term was also being used to describe some Cabinet appointees after their powers were expanded by Congress. However, the term became less popular after the war ended.

The term became popular again in the 1970’s with the creation of the Energy Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency during Nixon’s presidency. Nixon said the heads of these agencies would have “absolute authority” in their respective areas and compared them to dictators. Thus they became popularly known as the “energy czar” and the “drug czar” in the press. Since then the term has been widely used by the press and by pundits to describe government and non-government appointees: terrorism czar, cyber-security czar, oversight czar, intelligence czar, and war czar are just a few of the terms used in the press to describe people in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

By 2003 the Office of National Drug Control Policy began using the term “drug czar” in official press releases. Democrat Henry A. Waxman, and others, suggested that this was an unconstitutional granting of a title of nobility. An investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that “"the law does not bestow that title on the ONDCP Director.” The GAO concluded that “ONDCP's use of the term "Drug Czar" to describe the Director of ONDCP does not constitute unlawful self-aggrandizement".

The word “czar” has long been used by American political commentators to describe appointed officials whose broad powers bear a superficial resemblance to 19th century Russian autocrats. Although its usage has crept into the language of both Democrat and Republican officials, its use is metaphoric, and it is not intended as a title of nobility.

Republicans have tried every way possible to belittle and marginalize Obama and his presidency. Their willingness to manipulate people’s emotions by pretending that Obama is the first president to have a stable of “czars” advising him is just one more example of the cynicism of the Right and their overwhelming need to attack Obama at every turn. The web sites that demonize Obama for appointing advisors are full of people who have no knowledge of American political history before Reagan. And they know very little of history since then.

As we know, the authoritarian conservative personality is psychologically incapable of understanding how reprehensible their behavior is. They have no hesitation over viciously attacking Obama. They aren’t the least bit embarrassed about publicly displaying their depth of their ignorance. And they have no ability to acknowledge any fact that contradicts their agenda to destroy an American president.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why Fear Mongering is Working for the Republicans and What You Can Do About It

Why Fear Mongering is Working for the Republicans

In 2006 John Dean, former Nixon White House counsel, in Conservatives Without a Conscience, wrote about the rise of authoritarianism in the Republican Party and how that positioned them to benefit from fear among the voters. His argument is both persuasive and prescient given the sustained Republican effort to scare white voters since Obama was elected in 2008.

According to Dean the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 brought a surge of authoritarians into Congress and the House Republicans became even more focused on authority than in the past. Furthermore this culture has slowly migrated to the Senate over the years. This authoritarian structure is one reason Republicans more frequently vote as a unified bloc compared to Democrats.

Social scientist John T. Jost examined data from 44 years of studies on the attitudes of over 22,000 conservatives. He concluded that conservatives have a heightened psychological need to manage uncertainty and threat. He found the primary motivators of political conservatives are fear, intolerance of ambiguity, need for certainty or structure in life, overreaction to threats, and a disposition to dominate others. Additional work (esp. by Bob Altemeyer) describing authoritarian personality traits found the following characteristics are common (and admired) among those who are disposed to follow authoritarian leaders:

  • Uncritically accept statements and acts of perceived authorities

  • Willing to subsume their conscience to the goals of authority figures

  • Aggressive and bullying on behalf of authority

  • Inclined to control others through punishment

  • See the world as a dangerous place that needs them to protect morality

  • Believe themselves to be more moral and upstanding than others

  • Hostile to many minorities yet unaware of their prejudices

  • Conventional, narrow minded, mean spirited, and dogmatic

  • Often contradictory or inconsistent and unaware of their inconsistencies

  • Lack of self-awareness of these traits

Since Obama’s election the Right has raised one alarm after another, most aimed at arousing fear among white voters, as Rachael Maddow has so artfully discussed. It has been alleged that Obama was conspiring with the UN to take our guns away, that he was preparing concentration camps to lock up anyone who resisted or for indoctrinating our youth, that he wants the economy to fail so he can declare an emergency and proclaim himself king, that he’s going to raise taxes to create a socialist/welfare state for blacks, that health care reform would create “death panels” to cut short the lives of the feeble and elderly. These tales are cunningly crafted to raise the anxiety of a public already struggling with the floundering economy.

And it has worked spectacularly well. At the recent politicized 9-11 Memorial rallies there were signs expressing fear and outrage at every one of those false issues. The corporate funded Tea Party movement (Taxed Enough Already) plays on resentment over taxes and fears about government spending. (In fact Federal income taxes are now the lowest they’ve been in 60 years, and US taxes are among the lowest of all industrialized nations.) People are upset, fearful, and angry. Thousands have attended Tea Party rallies. Republicans outnumbered Democrats at the polls in mid-term primaries this year for the first time in 70 years (yet overall participation was amongthe lowest ever). The anger over false and imagined dangers has reached such a fever pitch that there is open talk of armed rebellion (the 2nd amendment solution) if the Tea Partiers don’t prevail at the ballot box.

The tidal wave of manufactured anger is so powerful that even moderate Republicans, who have spent a lifetime serving our country honorably, have been cast aside. Other Republican leaders have failed to condemn the excessive claims and seditious comments, either because they agree with them or because they believe they can ride this wave to power in November. I have asked every Republican I know to repudiate the “by ballot or bullet” slogans, but so far not a single one has done so. As we have seen, authoritarian personalities are incapable of seeing how these ideas conflict with their own principles and our Constitution.

What can progressives do in the face of this dangerous national trend of using fear to drive people toward fascist-like authoritarianism? Although there is evidence that some conservatives can be made aware of the consequences of their actions and the harm their lack of critical self-examination can cause, this is a slow process. We do not have time to re-infuse respect for reason into Conservatism.

We can use the ballot box. We need to talk to progressives and independents and show them how important it is to keep the liars and fear merchants, and those who use them to satiate their own lust for power, from taking over America. Progressives are a diverse group with many reasons to be dissatisfied by the pace of progress the last 2 years. But, when judging candidates this fall, don’t compare them to your ideal or to your list of unfinished priorities. Compare them to the alternative. Remember, if only one out of a hundred Florida Democrats had brought someone else to the polls with them in 2000, then Gore would have won. Our challenge is great, but if one in 10 of us brings another progressive with them to the polls in November it will make a huge difference. In most states there is still time to register people, so find like minded people and get them registered.

Voting is not enough. If it matters to you, then do something about it. The corporate interests behind the Tea Party will be spending massive amounts to affect the elections this year. I know times are tough, but it is very easy to donate money these days. Even if all you can give is $5, do it. Every dollar helps, and campaigns count the number of contributors as well as the total dollars.

But there is more you can do.You can volunteer, even if only for an hour or two. It’s easy. They’ll train you, and it can often be done from home. You can write letters to editors, show your support with signs and bumper stickers, and talk to your neighbors. I’ll even send you a list of talking points that use Tea Party buzz words to support progressive ideas. You can make a difference. YES YOU CAN.

Freedom isn’t free. We have to work at it. It is up to us to keep fear and ignorance from taking over our government this fall.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Conservative Values and States' Rights

Why Don’t Conservatives Respect States’ Rights?

States’ Rights are always a major component of Republican platforms and policies. At least that’s what they say. But they repeatedly abandon States’ Rights when it is convenient for the cause du jour.

Remember Terri Schiavo? She was the Florida woman who suffered extensive brain damage after cardiac arrest. After years in a coma, with over half her brain atrophied, and with every competent physical examination concluding that she would never recover, her husband sought to keep his prior promise to her by ending her life with dignity. But her parents were unable to let go of their daughter and mounted a protracted legal challenge. These end-of-life medical issues have always been under state jurisdiction (a States’ Right). Nevertheless, national Republicans sought to use the family’s suffering for political gain. Time and a again they sought to interfere with the Florida courts’ orders. Senate Majority Leader William First, a trained physician, declared on the basis of a picture, and without actually examining her, that Terry was not brain dead. The publicity the right raised caused a siege around the hospice caring for Terry, disrupting the dignity of all their dying patients. Congress passed a law usurping the right of the state of Florida to decide this issue. Bush cut short his vacation in Crawford to sign the legislation. In this case the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state, and the family was finally allowed to end their suffering.

In 2000 States’ Rights were once again a prominent part of the Republican presidential campaign. With the very close vote in Florida unsettled, the Republicans raised a pitched battle to control the recounts. The constitution is very clear that it is up to the states to determine how presidential elections are conducted and how to cast their electoral votes (Artilce II: “…Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct”). Congress has passed some procedural rules to assist the states in submitting their results in a timely and orderly way. Fearing that they could lose the election, the Republicans did not hesitate to appeal to the Supreme Court. The Court, stacked with Republican appointees, repeatedly ruled in Bush’s favor. Their final ruling dictated how the state was to proceed, ignoring the clear language in the constitution that leaves these decisions to the states. Meanwhile the Republican publicity machine imported agitators and whipped supporters into such a riotous frenzy that election boards had to suspend recounts out of concern for public safety. A proper recount was prevented and Bush declared the winner. The irony is that once the ballots were reviewed calmly (long after Bush was inaugurated) it became clear that Bush did, in fact, receive the most votes. So it wasn’t really necessary to for the Republicans to throw State’s Rights (and due process) under the bus.

During the health care debate of 2009 the following phrase was repeated over and over by Republicans and Tea Partiers: “allow health insurance companies to sell policies across state lines.” I suspect not one person in ten knows what this means. It is, in fact, a covert assault on States’ Rights. There are dozens of nationwide health insurance companies which sell health insurance in every state. Every state has the right to determine the minimum requirements for policies sold in their state. For example, some states require that all health insurance policies sold in their states must include a specific minimum amount of coverage for mental health treatment. Other states may have a different minimum or may not include this requirement. That’s one reason there are differences in the price for minimum coverage from state to state. The Republican language “allow companies to sell policies across state lines” is an attempt to force all states to reduce their requirements to those of the least restrictive state. It is also an attempt to undermine health care reform by reducing coverage, not improving coverage. It is a particularly cynical example of Republican denial of States’ Rights.

From gay marriage to abortion rights to zoning decisions for religious buildings, the Right puts its political agenda ahead of States' Rights time and again. The belief that Republicans protect States’ Rights is as false as the myths that Republicans are champions of small government (every Republican administration has proposed and implemented new federal programs, bureaucracies, and spending) or that Republicans are fiscal conservatives (every Republican administration has expanded the growth rate of the federal deficit while Democrats have slowed it).

A Conservative Idea We Can All Agree With

Stop The Elitist Wealth Transfer Program

We were told that other people would spend our money more wisely than us. We were told that they would use it to create jobs and make us all better off. We were told it would expand our economy. But it hasn’t happened that way. The Reagan-Bush tax cuts transferred over a trillion dollars from the middle class to the wealthiest 3% of Americans. 95% of Americans have seen their income stagnate since the Reagan and Bush “tax cuts” increased the tax burden on the middle class. Meanwhile the wealthiest have seen double digit increases in their earnings and the economy has floundered. A robust and prosperous middle class is the backbone of our economy. Reagan and Bush have proven that “Trickle Down” does not work, and it is time to return to tax policies that benefit all Americans, not just the wealthy elites. This chart shows the average increase in income for different groups under Republican and Democratic administrations.

Source: Larry M Bartels. Chart by Catherine Mulbrandon,

Clearly Democratic policies benefit all Americans while Republican policies primarily benefit the wealthiest.

The following charts show how the growth rate of the economy has fallen since the Reagan-Bush tax cuts were introduced in the early eighties (Top Marginal Tax Rates only apply to that part of income that exceeds $20,000 per week).

Source: The Rag Blog

Notice the downward trend in GDP growth under Republicans from 1980 to 1992 as money moved out of the middle class. Clinton stabilized the economy but could not generate significant growth because of deep reductions in the purchasing power of the middle class. The Bush tax cuts created an artificial bubble, but it accelerated the transfer of wealth from the middle class which assured its subsequent collapse starting in 2004. Clearly, tax cuts to the wealthiest wage earners actually slow economic growth. The wealthy invested selfishly in high risk, artificial instruments (i.e. derivatives) that did not create jobs. They did create the financial bubble which, when it finally burst, left the middle class burdened with debt.

This transfer of wealth has also enormously increased the power of the wealthiest Americans. The wealthy are using their money to control the political debate in this country. The elites funnel millions into campaigns for politicians who will make sure that the top 1% will continue to earn 80% of the income in this country. They control the media so well that a majority of the people are unaware that Obama has reduced taxes for 95% of Americans. The alleged grass roots “Tea Party” was created by, and is controlled by, wealthy elites using sham organizations with populist sounding names to hide the true source of their funding. Tea Party participants repeat what they have been told - that taxes are excessive and out of control - and are unaware that the US has one of the lowest overall tax rates among industrialized nations.

It is time to restore balance, reinvigorate the middle class, and make sure the richest earners contribute fairly to the system that creates their wealth. Incomes at the highest levels actually increase faster under a balanced system that benefits all Americans equally.