Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What's Really Wrong with America's Political System

Last year I wrote a piece titled "Progressives 'R' Nuts." It was in response to another piece I'd written about Ralph Nader that wasn't well received by the rank and file. Hmm, I wonder why. To sump up, I blamed him for the 2000 election results that saddled the nation with George Bush. The fact is that had Nader not been on the Florida ballot, Al Gore would've won the presidency. Period.  Don't tell me about how lousy a candidate Gore was. Lousy candidates have won elections before. Not surprisingly, I was the recipient of a few choice, shall we say, colorful metaphors. I was unapologetic to say the least and I held nothing back in my retort.

I am tired of the McGoverns, the Mondales, the Dukakises and the Kerrys. There is no solace in losing, especially when winning is right there in front of you. So you don't like the NSA program. Fine. Go out and vote for a candidate who says they will stop it, and then when that candidate loses, you'll have to contend with the Republican who will not only continue that same dreaded program, but role back civil rights for minorities, scrap head start, end Medicare and Medicaid once and for all and destroy every other liberal initiative imaginable. Think the voting rights gut job was bad? You ain't seen nothin' yet. And, just think, you made it all possible by "voting your conscience."

I was right then and I'm still right now. Progressives, I said, "could screw up a sunset." I pointed out that Nader received 5 percent of the popular vote in 2000. Given that Barack Obama only won the popular vote in the last election by 4 percent, that was pretty damn significant. Can you imagine if Nader had run in 2012 and gotten the same percentage of the vote? Mitt Romney sure can.

I refuse to mince words here. Yes, the Tea Party frightens me. It should frighten the hell out of any one with half a brain, but its ascendency to power should serve as a warning to all of us that unbridled passion can have dire consequences if not checked by rational and sober reasoning. But while the Tea Party may frighten me, most progressives flat out infuriate me. It's one thing to be bat-shit crazy, which the Tea Party is; it's quite another to be delusional.

That's right, I said delusional. For all the high-minded talk about their values and principles, the bulk of the progressive movement in America is hopelessly lost in a land of make believe. I still remember how high and mighty many of them were when they heard Ben Nelson wasn't running for reelection in Nebraska. Finally, they said, a real Democrat would represent the Cornhusker state. They can't wrap their heads around the fact that not everyone in America is a progressive. Winning is simply a matter of finding the right person to articulate their message and bring it home. Once the voters are properly informed as to the real issues of the day, the choice should be clear. And, naturally, when they lose, it's the messenger's fault. It's always the messenger's fault. Like the title of that Elton John album said, "Don't shoot me, I'm only the piano player." Oh, Nelson's seat? It eventually went to a Republican. So much for finding a real Democrat.

The irony apparently hasn't dawned on them that while they are expounding their views on gay marriage, equal pay, global warming, reproductive rights, education, the minimum wage, civil rights and crony capitalism, at the opposite end of the political spectrum their counterparts are busily extolling their own views on states' rights, voter fraud, big government, over taxation, tyranny and the like. This whole "take our country back" meme is nothing more than a direct response to an ever-increasing cultural demographic shift within the country that many of them deeply resent and are terrified of.

This dichotomy sets up a rather unusual dilemma in that both movements have a habit of canceling each other out. One of the reasons for this is voter apathy. As scary as it might seem, a very small percentage of likely voters even know what the key issues are, much less care about what differentiates them. Most of the blame for this apathy rightly goes to a main-stream media that long ago abandoned its responsibility as a disseminator of truth and is now but a remnant of a once proud and vaunted fourth estate.

But the bigger reason for this canceling out has to do with the movements themselves. They are simply too entrenched in their own ideology to permit for the possibility that the other side might have a point or two to make. For instance, is it not possible that someone could believe in gay rights and global warming, yet still be concerned about the growth of big government and over taxation? I know I am. But then I would be considered a turncoat by most progressives the way moderate Republicans are thought of as RINOs by most conservatives. If you think I'm wrong, try reading some of the comments Thomas Friedman and David Frum get when they write a column. You'd think their real names were Benedict Arnold and Robert Ford.

During Bill Clinton's second term he was eviscerated by progressives for the welfare reform bill that he signed into law in 1996. Yes, the law was flawed, but progressives still don't get it that Republicans held both houses of Congress. Clinton had little choice but to agree to the measure. Like a future president would later say, "Elections have consequences."

A while back I wrote an oped in which I referenced two Forbes pieces. One reader took me to task for citing a business magazine in a progressive blog. What, I can only read the Daily Kos and Mother Jones? Never mind that I was merely using Forbes' pro-business bias to backup my own claim that supply-side economics doesn't work. Have we really gotten that out of touch with reality that we can't even see the other side of the playing field? For the record, I make it a point to read as many points of view as I can. When it comes to politics, I follow the Michael Corleone school of thought: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

When I look at the country as a hold, I see clear divisions. It's obvious America is a polarized nation. Never in our history has the blue been as blue or the red as red. But as divided as we are, there are still a few small pockets where blue and red combine to form purple. They are called swing states for lack of a better term. Things aren't quite so black and white in these places. Democratic voters aren't that progressive and Republican voters aren't necessarily beholden to the Tea Party.

The best example of this was last year's gubernatorial race in Virginia where Terry McAuliffe narrowly defeated Tea Party candidate Ken Cuccinelli. Progressives were not fond of McAuliffe and wanted a better (i.e., more progressive) candidate who they felt would've won by a far greater percentage. The Tea Party, not surprisingly, maintained that the reason for Cuccinelli's loss was that the base never got behind him. The real reason, though, was a majority of the state's voters simply opted for the moderate over the extremist.

The lesson of Virginia could not be clearer. Voters don't want ideology, they want solutions. Candidates who are perceived as willing to find common ground are far more likely to prevail. Witness what's going on in this year's midterms. Despite President Obama's low approval numbers, Democrats are holding their own in many Senate races. The reason for this is that the GOP is polling even lower. In Kansas, for example, Independent Greg Orman is ahead of incumbent Republican Pat Roberts. In North Carolina, Democrat incumbent Kay Hagen has widened her lead over her Republican challenger Thom Tillis. The bulk of the remaining tossup states are still up for grabs. Rather than the wave election they were expecting, Republicans are once again trying to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Now it's important to drive home an important fact. The reason for the GOP's dismal polling numbers has nothing to do with the electorate rejecting conservative principles, anymore than the reason for Democratic victories has to do with their acceptance of progressive ones. In fact, I always find it amusing when Republicans brag about all those Reagan Democrats that voted for the Gipper in 1980 and '84. They were ostensibly the same voters Democrats touted as Clinton Republicans in '92 and '96. In other words, they were moderates.

The great truth in American politics is that the middle, not the peripheral, drives the country, especially in national elections. Parties that forget that simple rule, almost always lose. Remember George Bush's passionate conservatism pledge? Yeah, I know it was bullshit, but it worked, didn't it? Bet you won't find that in the Tea Party manual.

That's why it astounds me to hear progressives borrowing a page from that same manual to sound the trumpets for passionate, yet unelectable candidates. I have stated repeatedly my admiration for Elizabeth Warren, but maintain steadfastly that, were she to be the Democratic nominee in 2016, the Republicans would instantly become the prohibitive favorites to win the White House. I say prohibitive, because the GOP could still fumble the ball at the one-yard line.

Progressives have had a hard on for Hillary Clinton for years. It goes back to her days with Rose law firm, which has defended the likes of Monsanto, Tyson and Walmart, among the most notorious generic engineering companies in the world.  While president, her husband Bill weakened regulations against the entire industry. Earlier this year, Hillary spoke at a biotech conference where she expressed her support for GMOs and Big Agriculture. This drew the ire of groups like the Organic Consumers Association. Google Monsanto, Rose law firm and Hillary Clinton and you will find a plethora of sites, most of which are very progressive and decidedly anti Hillary.

In New York, Andrew Cuomo is, likewise, despised by the Left. Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University, challenged him in the Democratic primary, only to lose. Unlike the Tea Party-controlled GOP, establishment Democrats usually prevail in their primary challenges. But the fact that progressives would actually run the risk of possibly losing an otherwise safe state house, speaks volumes about their lack of judgment.  At present, Cuomo holds a commanding 28 point lead over Republican Rob Astorino. If you think elephants have a long memory, they ain't got nothing on donkeys.

I've spoken at great length about bubbles in the past. While the Right's bubble is far larger than the Left's, the fact remains that bubbles are primarily responsible for the cancer that has metastasized throughout the body politic of this country. Far from helping their causes, the intransigent nature of these movements ends up being detrimental to their success. Their pursuit of purity and their unwillingness to compromise has had the impact of turning off many voters.

It's a fact that Democrats have been the beneficiaries of some of the most inept, extremist candidates the Republican Party has fielded since the days of Barry Goldwater. And while I would never put Elizabeth Warren in the same category as Ted Cruz, the dynamics behind the popularity of both within their respective bases is frighteningly similar. Both are thought of as anti-establishment hopefuls who can transcend all that is wrong with American politics. The fact that only one of them is actually fit to be in the Senate while the other looks like an extra from a Three Stooges short is beside the point. Maybe Warren would be able to articulate her vision for the country better than Cruz and win, or maybe she would be seen as the flip side of the same rotten coin and lose. The problem with pissing contests is that sometimes the splatter lands on you.

In states like Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Colorado - the crucial swing states that determine presidential elections - most voters would have a difficult, if not impossible, time parsing through all the minutia of an intense and complicated campaign. Imagine the fate of the nation resting on the roll of the dice. Would you take those odds? I sure as hell wouldn't. Most progressives would and that's the problem.

Look, I get it, the American political system is a mess and there is a real hunger out there for someone to come along and clean it up. But let's assume, for a moment, that Ralph Nader had actually won the 2000 election; or perhaps Ross Perot in '92; or maybe John Anderson in '80. Does anybody truly believe any of these people could've fixed the inherent problems in the system? I sincerely doubt it. More than likely, they would've been corrupted by the powerful and vested interests that actually do run the country. Witness how Barack Obama - the "Yes We Can" candidate - was blocked at almost every turn, some by members of his own party. Yes we can quickly turned into no way in hell.

I have no illusions about the world. It is what it is. And, contrary to what you may have picked up from reading this, I am no cynic; I'm a realist. In an otherwise relativistic world, there are no absolute or inviolable ideals. No one gets everything on their shopping list. More often than not we learn to settle.  Compromising and deal making are not an anathema; it's how Washington used to work, at least before the days of the Tea Party. I scratch your back you scratch mine is pretty much the lay of the land everywhere on the planet. Nothing gets done without some quid pro quo. It's time we got back to those days. Unless, of course, you think that all the Founders did was stand around making grand speeches and posing for paintings.

If Hillary Clinton is the best the Dems put up in 2016, progressives best play will be to bite down hard and swallow.  The same can be said for Andrew Cuomo and any other less than perfect choice in 2014. The alternative is to sit home and then bitch about what happened afterwards while the rest of the country ends up suffering. Again! Besides, without a total overhaul of the way in which campaigns are financed, the prospects for real change will remain out of reach and certainly beyond the purview of any one individual to address.

It's been a long time since I believed in heroes. Today if I want to see one, I go to the movies, not my local polling center.  Like the singer-songwriter James McMurtry once sang, "I've put away childish things."


Prof. Walter Jameson said...


Surprisingly, there is a lot here with which I agree. I'll touch on some of that later. In the meantime, I'd like to go over some issues where I disagree.

With regard to your incessant criticism of Ralph Nader's presidential candidacy in 2000, our 40th president said it best: "There you go again." Al Gore and his incompetent campaign team had no one to blame but themselves. Do you actually believe that those 97,000 votes that Nader received in Florida would've automatically gone to the VP had he (Nader) not been on the ballot? If so, what makes you believe that? A more plausible scenario would've had these people either staying home or doing a write-in at the polls. Either way, same result. So, please, enough with this nonsense about Ralph Nader. Why not start blaming the butterfly ballots .... or Pat Buchanan's placement on same .... or hanging chads .....or ... enough already! And your point about Nader's popular vote percentage - dispersed among 50 states, mind you - is specious as all. I don't think that you need to be reminded that it's the *electoral* vote that matters, and not the popular vote tally. VP Gore's example is enough to demonstrate that quite clearly and for all time. You suggested that had Nader run in 2012 and received a similar vote to 2000, he would've caused President Obama to lose against Gov. Romney. Hogwash! How do you even arrive at that conclusion? President Obama received 332 electoral votes to Romney's 206. How would Nader have impacted that?

As to your statement about the Tea Party, I agree somewhat. Yes indeed, it (the Tea Party) should frighten the hell out of anyone with half a brain. However, it shouldn't frighten anyone who is thinking clearly with a *full brain*. For one, across the wide expanse of the electorate, their ideas are as popular as those of radical leftists , and, secondly, they are every bit as likable as those on the radical left - i.e.: not very. They CANNOT win a presidential election in the United States. Upper echelon Republican stategists even know this.


Prof. Walter Jameson said...

You made a statement about the media's contribution to voter apathy. I think you assign way too much blame to the fourth estate. The news divisions of respectable media present both sides of a story; they make no judgements; they report facts. They leave it up to the reader to decide what is valid and what is not. This is what they're supposed to do. The opinions go to the editorial and op. ed. pages. Where some media has failed, however, is in being an "echo chamber" to obviously partisan nonsense originating on the right. A really good case in point is the most recent non-story of the President's salute with a cup of coffee in the saluting hand. Not every media outlet picked it up, but the respectable CNN did. Things like that have been a problem. But to say that the media deserves most of the blame for voter apathy because of actions like these is a real stretch and simply not fair.

You've leveled some sharp criticism at responses that were made to some of your past essays. I'll only address that criticism that pertains to one of my responses. Having given it a second reading, I will admit that my criticism of your use of Forbes magazine in making your point was overly harsh. I do, however, dispute (in part) what you've written here. I did not, as you say, take you to task for citing a business magazine in a progressive blog; I understood where you were going with it - really I did. My criticism stemmed from your seemingly giddy support of this statement from the magazine: "Additionally, Obama has reduced federal employment, which grew under Reagan (especially when including military personnel,) and truly delivered a “smaller government.” You see, that's standard fare for a pro-corporatist magazine such as Forbes - just get rid of people to achieve savings. I wouldn't expect a progressive, of any degree, to just go along with that up front, though. The federal budget is vast. Let's first take a look at areas that don't involve the loss of people's livelihoods when discussing "smaller government." That's what I was getting at.

So where do I agree with you? In short, just about everywhere else. I truly do believe that most elections come down to the "lesser of two evils." I believe that effective politics is about the art of compromise. I don't think that there is a clear definition of progressivism, but do believe there are some core progressive ideals. Stridency and strict adherence to orthodoxy is a turn-off to most people - myself included. Effective governance usually comes from center-right or center-left administrations, rarely from out on the wings.

I'm sure there are many other areas of agreement, but the hour is late, my eyes are tired and I've written enough for this day.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

Prof. Walter Jameson said...

Points of clarification ...

Paragraph regarding the media:

I wrote: They leave it up to the reader to decide what is valid and what is not.

Should say: They leave it up to the reader to decide which positions make sense and which do not.

I wrote: Where some media has failed, however, is in being an "echo chamber"...

Should say: Where some media *have* failed, however, is in being an "echo chamber"...

Infidel753 said...

The author is mainly critiquing progressives who vote for hopeless candidates like Nader, rather than Nader himself.

There were several states in which the Nader vote was larger than Bush's margin of victory over Gore. If the Nader voters in those states had voted for Gore instead, he would have carried those states and won. The foolishness of those few voters saddled the country and the world with eight years of Bush. That's the bottom line.

Green Eagle said...

Tom Friedman's real name is Bozo the Clown. David Frum's real name is, actually, Benedict Arnold.

Hope this cleared some issues up.

Prof. Walter Jameson said...

To: Infidel753

Several states? Really? There were two states: Florida and New Hampshire. And there is absolutely NOTHING to suggest that those who had voted for Nader would've automatically selected Vice President Gore had he (Nader) not been on the ballot. In fact, I'm just about 100% convinced that it wouldn't have mattered at all.

As to your comment about the author, I see it more as an individual's stubborn reluctance to place the blame squarely where it belongs: Vice President Gore's inept and incompetent campaign. And that's it.

To Green Eagle:

I think they, along with the often- quoted Tomasky, have become self-important, comfortable dilettantes.