Tag Archives: power

Thanks, Obama!

Yesterday, I got another one of those emails explaining why President Obama has been the worst President in all of human history.

For people who have managed to retain a sense of humor during the seven-plus years of the Obama Administration, there has been plenty of similar material to keep them chuckling. (Now, granted, my own reaction to some of the crazy has been to beat my head against the nearest wall, but people more stable than I am just laugh a lot. And have fewer headaches….)

I do like the Facebook entries making fun of this tsunami of blame: “On this date in [whatever year], the Titanic sank [Or the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Or insert your preferred historical calamity here]. People died. Thanks, Obama.”

The Rightwing crazies have blamed everything from Kim Kardashian to El Nino on our first black President. ( I’m sure the fact that he is the first black President is entirely co-incidental. Also, if you are interested, I have some swampland in Florida for sale….)

At the bottom of all of the Obama blaming is an irony that has evidently escaped most of our President’s determined critics: on the one hand, we are constantly harangued from the Right with accusations about Obama’s deficiencies: what he doesn’t understand, hasn’t accomplished, doesn’t have sufficient experience to appreciate….in other words, we are constantly told how utterly feckless he is.

At the very same time, we are treated to constant admonitions about this President’s absolutely amazing prowess: he has singlehandedly lost wars, destroyed economies, created racial tensions in hitherto loving and peaceful neighborhoods, interfered with your gallstones….I mean, you name it, this dude’s super-powers are up to the task.

I thought about this disconnect (okay, haters gotta hate) when I read about an O’Reilly accusation over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

Did you know that it’s Obama’s fault that people use hard drugs? I didn’t either. And do you know why it’s his fault? Because he apparently knows what words mean.

Here’s the quote from O’Reilly in support of this….um ….interesting thesis..

President Obama’s leading the way on this, classifying drug dealing, hard drug dealing, as a, quote, “nonviolent crime.” That sends a signal to the country that, you know what, it may be illegal to sell drugs, but it’s not all that bad. And the left is generally supporting the madness.

As Ed Brayton notes, classifying a transaction as “non-violent” (assuming no violence occurred) is generally seen as–what’s that called?– using words to convey information.

 If I sell you a bag of dope and you pay for it and we both drive away without any physical confrontation, then that transaction was — by definition — non-violent. Still illegal. Still might be very bad for the person who takes the drugs, depending on the drug. But it isn’t violent. Thus ends our lesson in using a dictionary.

What Ed has obviously missed is the central lesson of the past seven years: everything bad is Obama’s fault.

Come to think of it, just where were the Obamas when Prince died…??

Power, Voice and Bowling Alone

Americans are increasingly focused on economic inequality, and especially the growing and dangerous gulf between the 1% and everyone else. But of course, no element of our social ecosystem is separate and distinct from the other elements, and the financial gap between wealthy and working class citizens is closely connected to other kinds of inequality.

Children from poor families attend poorly performing schools. The streets and sidewalks and parks in poor neighborhoods are rarely as well maintained as those in wealthier precincts. The prevalence of “food deserts” in poor neighborhoods—the lack of markets selling healthy foods at reasonable prices—has been the subject of numerous articles. These and other tangible manifestations of unequal access to social goods (health care, for example) are relatively obvious.

But there is a less-often recognized kind of inequality: disproportionate access to the public square and the marketplace of ideas. This lack of access to contending perspectives, abetted by the steady erosion of what sociologists call voice, doesn’t just disadvantage the poor. It hurts us all, by depriving us of perspectives we need to hear and understand.

It is certainly true that many Americans, not just the poor, have historically opted out of democratic deliberations. But they had voice–and influence–through a multitude of civic organizations.

As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote

 Political scientists after World War II hypothesized that even though the voices of individual Americans counted for little, most people belonged to a variety of interest groups and membership organizations – clubs, associations, political parties, unions – to which politicians were responsive.

 “Interest-group pluralism,” as it was called, thereby channeled the views of individual citizens, and made American democracy function.

 What’s more, the political power of big corporations and Wall Street was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers, and smaller banks. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith approvingly dubbed it “countervailing power.” These alternative power centers ensured that America’s vast middle and working classes received a significant share of the gains from economic growth.

 Beginning in 1980, those organizations—a vibrant part of civil society—began to wither. Robert Putnum famously documented the decline in Bowling Alone.

The decline of unions has been especially consequential. As Reich notes, however, other former centers of countervailing power – retailers, farm cooperatives, and local and regional banks – also lost ground to national discount chains, big agribusiness, and Wall Street. Many of these changes were an intentional result of public policies—everything from Right to Work laws to slackened banking regulations. Others reflected economic and technological shifts.

Meanwhile, political parties stopped representing the views of most constituents. As the costs of campaigns escalated, parties morphed from state and local membership organizations into national fund-raising machines.

Although Reich does not include it in his list, we might add the effects of so-called “privatization”—especially the practice of government contracting with nonprofit organizations to deliver public services. Nonprofit scholars have long expressed concern that the growing dependence of human services nonprofits on government dollars has operated to “hollow out” their essential character as mediating institutions.

Reich concludes that the only way to turn this situation around is through greatly increased political activism. I agree.

The open question is whether average Americans have the time, the energy, or the will to  reassert their right to be heard, and to insist on retaking their rightful place at the civic table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

False Equivalence

When my children were little, cries of “He started it!” and “He did something worse!” were staples of household debate.

I think about those arguments between four and five year olds when I hear complaints from the political Right about the “liberal media,” and retorts from the political Left about “false equivalence.” Most genuine journalists ignore both, figuring–reasonably enough– that if both extremes of the political spectrum are unhappy, they probably got it right.

That said, I was struck by a comment made by David Niose during a recent interviewNiose is legal director for the American Humanist Association and a past president of both the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America.

In his remarks, Niose shared his concerns over the disproportionate influence of corporations on American politics, and especially on the current upsurge in anti-intellectualism (an unfortunate American mainstay), but along the way, he also made a point worth considering about the relative influence of the crazies on the Right and Left. As he noted, anti-intellectual left-wingers, such as Marxists invested in “dialectical materialism” and other Leftist ideologues who insist on doctrine over facts, are routinely dismissed and politically irrelevant. Meanwhile, Republicans who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old can and do get elected to political office.

Extremists and zealots of any stripe are equally dangerous, but in the U.S., the political Left has rarely gained much traction. (And no, raising the ire of Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin doesn’t make one a Leftist–I doubt either of them could define socialism.) Over the past quarter-century, however, the Crazy Right has become positively mainstream in many areas of the country.

The nutso Right and Left may exhibit equivalent insanity and ignorance, but only one of them currently influences–and debases– the national narrative.