Blame the Democrats

On Wednesday night Jon Stewart at the Daily Show skewered the Democratic “super majority” for passing no major legislation on the environment, Iraq or Afghan war timetables, or health care.   Stewart mocked how the Senate Finance Committee rejected two health care bills with a public option (despite the fact the public option is supported by 65% of the people and 70% of doctors) on the same day they passed an “abstinence only” education proposal.   Stewart’s colleague Stephen Colbert was more direct, pointing out  how Max Baucus (D-Montana), Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has received over $3 million in campaign contributions from the health care industry.

In all the complaining from me and others about the wild rhetoric from some voices on the right, there is one fact that nothing Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin says can change: the Democrats have 60 Senators, and a majority in the House of Representatives of 79 seats.   Even if the Republicans score big gains in 2010, they’re not going to pick up 40 House or ten Senate seats.  The Democrats have a secure majority, if united they can defeat any filibuster in the Senate, so how on earth can one blame the Republicans for the lack of progress on major legislative issues?

One can’t.   For all the criticism I might have of the nature of current political discourse, the Democrats should be able to pass just about anything from emission trading for climate change to serious health care reform.  They should be able to undo tax cuts that they criticized, and cut “corporate welfare” that enriches big business.   They talk a good game, but can they follow through?

The same can be said for the Republicans, of course.  They came into office promising smaller government, fiscal responsibility, and enhanced personal liberty.   Instead, the Bush years with Republican majorities gave us the opposite on all fronts.   It’s hard not to conclude that politics in America is a sham, with both parties telling persuasive lies, only to line their own pockets and follow the whims of big money once they are in power.   It’s tempting to see the “spettacolo,” or ‘spectacle’ of talk radio, blogs, tea parties and anti-war protests as something to merely appease the masses.   Bread and circuses.  Keep the public amused so they don’t know what the man behind the curtain is really doing!

Yet that is probably too cynical.   There is weak party discipline on both sides of the aisle, and diverse opinions.  The Democrats have members who are conservative enough to be in the GOP if they had so chosen, while others would be comfortable in a European Social Democratic party.  The Republicans have pro-business “libertarians” who may be pro-choice, support gay rights and consider religion mere myth, standing alongside religious conservatives distrustful of big business and focused on things like abortion and the teaching of evolution.   With “big tent” parties it’s hard to reach agreement.  The most unified they are is when they oppose the other side.

Still, it’s clear that both parties serve a master beholden to no ideology: big money.   They do not all serve that master, nor are they always loyal servants.    Big money serves their other interests: being able to get re-elected, and having effective contacts to enhance political power.   Big money also has a sense of marketing — they both market themselves to politicians (we provide information and can help you better serve your district) and give politicians the arguments to market their positions to the voters.

How they work can also be subtle.  In the power packed inside the beltway universe it is lobbyists for wealthy companies who throw the best parties, have the most ease in making contacts, and create a ‘conventional wisdom’ around an issue.   Their power is especially strong in the US, where individuals are elected and party loyalty virtually unnecessary.

Big money plays a huge role in European politics, but in places where party leaders set policy, and the party funds and shapes election campaigns, there is more of a firewall against undue influence.   Individuals are beholden to their party, not their donors, and party leaders see themselves as representing real political interests, willing to take on big money more often.  Places with limits on campaign activity and campaign spending can more effectively shut out the power of big money.

Why is it that in the EU, also wealthy and industrialized, there is 90% support for concrete action to stop global warrming, strong support for public health care, and real questions about the usefulness of military power in today’s world?   Simply: in the EU big corporations can’t control the climate change debate, there isn’t a huge health care industry working to undercut public health care support, and the arms industry isn’t in bed with the parliaments and the military to keep production levels high.   This also means that in the EU campaigns like the “Big Ask” campaign in the UK to push for climate change laws can be effective — they aren’t running up against a propaganda behemoth funded by extremely wealthy and powerful organizations.

So what can be done?   Campaign finance reform was a nice idea, but ultimately we can’t alter campaigns without changing the constitution, and for all the problems inherent in the money-politics nexus, I do not want to weaken the first amendment.   While some different kind of political system inspiring party loyalty might sound good in theory, you don’ t mess with established political traditions like the US electoral system without risking dangerous unforeseen consequences.

The only solution is information.   The public has to know what is happening, see where the money is going, and not get distracted by talk radio, wild pundits from the left or right that go for emotion rather than reason.   That may sound naively optimistic, but I think that’s happening.   I think the generation of college students now is active in ways that make them potentially more powerful than any generation in the past.   It’s no longer big protests, but making connections via the internet and working on practical campaigns from amnesty international to “350.org.”

I’m optimistic that this can work in part because the current generation of college students is the first to have grown up entirely during the internet age.   They are more connected and knowledgeable about how to dig for information than earlier generations, and tend to assume that they can find just about anything out if they really try.   This will make it harder for politicians and big money to rig the game and keep us distracted.

This won’t happen overnight.  Obama’s election was the first shot fired by a generation wanting to change politics.   But an information revolution like that caused by the internet cannot help but fundamentally change and democratize knowledge and information.   The rules of the game are changing, and given the current gridlock and the inability of both parties to stay true to their word, that’s a good thing.

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  1. #1 by Scruffy on October 1, 2009 - 17:20

    I was furious with Stewart’s piece. The Public Option was voted down by the Finance Committee – NOT the entire Senate. There’s a good chance some form of a public option will pass when the Senate has the final bill.
    Stewart is no fool, he made the illogical leap just to score some cheap laughs.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on October 2, 2009 - 12:15

      I suspect Stewart would respond by saying that’s what he does — go for the cheap laughs 🙂

  2. #3 by Josh on October 2, 2009 - 02:19

    I agree with much of your post, Scott. This may sound strange, but I think we need politicians that (somehow) don’t want to be politicians. Too many of them really, REALLY want to keep their jobs, and they’ve built their careers around doing that.

    As T.E. Lawrence put it, a man can do whatever he wants, but he can’t “want what he wants”. I think some of our elected officials should watch Lawrence of Arabia.

  3. #4 by notesalongthepath on October 2, 2009 - 04:41

    If anyone would know about the current generation of young people, it is you, Scott, and I’m inspired by your take on them. They can change the way our country operates, making us a light for the world,once again. I hope I get to live to see them in action.

  4. #5 by classicliberal2 on October 2, 2009 - 19:00

    “The only solution is information. The public has to know what is happening, see where the money is going, and not get distracted by talk radio, wild pundits from the left or right that go for emotion rather than reason.”

    The problem with that: That corporate press on which most rely for their information is, itself, part of that “propaganda behemoth” you describe. During almost the entirety of the Bush administration, the press, which exists, in theory, as a watchdog, achieved a level of pro-administration uniformity that was the envy of most state-run press operations in Third World dictatorships. Toward the end, this began to change, but only after Bush’s popularity had gone into freefall.

    Obama has benefited from this, insofar as the voices critical of Bush who were allowed to emerge toward the end of the Bush regime tend to be more supportive of Obama. For example, MSNBC, enamored of the hard right for most of its existence, currently has programs by no less than three liberal hosts (Ed Shultz, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow), which may be a first in the history of television.

    Most of the press is still dominated by right-wing nonsense, though, letting the right frame things, on the one hand, and, on the other, filling the rest of the available time with irrelevancies like Michael Jackson’s never-ending death. Look at what happened to Kevin Jennings this week. That’s a campaign that emerged right from the darkest, nuttiest corners of the extreme right-wing fever-swamp, and was dragged right into “mainstream” reporting and turned into a feeding frenzy in only a few days.

    This sort of thing isn’t an accident. Establishment money is–surprise, surprise–pro-Establishment (whcih is to say conservative, in the broader sense of that word). The media orgs are huge corporate interests with their own chunk invested in the process, and their even-bigger-money ownership has even more money in it. These orgs will allow “anti-Establishment” voices a space only if they turn a profit, and don’t endanger bigger profits.

    General Electric, for example, is one of the biggest defense contractors in the U.S.. It made a fortune off the Iraq war; it also made a big, loud point of eliminating the one liberal skeptic of that war, whose program appeared on their network (Donahue, at the time their top-rated program). Another example: Jim Hightower’s WABC radio show. It has a solid audience, and was improving with every ratings period, but Hightower was a liberal, and extremely critical of things like Disney’s (extremely profitable) use of virtual slave labor offshore; when Disney bought ABC, Hightower was fired without even being allowed to do a farewell show.

    Money isn’t “an issue” in U.S. politics. It’s virtually the ONLY issue. It would lead the news almost every night, if given even half the weight it merits. Instead, it simply isn’t something on which the press reports at all. Stray stories, here and there. It’s why the “mainstream” consistently portrays the teabaggers as a genuine “movement,” instead of what they actually are, a 100% corporate-invented astroturf campaign. The facts about such things are readily available. Someone who stuck to “mainstream” corporate press outlets would know virtually nothing about it (except that there was this sudden, loud appearance of angry, anti-Obama people). The Center for Responsive Politics calls their website opensecrets.org, because what they offer is publicly-available information that is “secret” because the press won’t touch it. Common Cause issued one of their “Governing While Under the Influence” reports on health care industry contributions to congress, and you’ll learn more about health care reform by reading its relatively few pages than you’ll learn from the combination of every report of every network newscast on the subject.

    Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is the top recipient of health-care industry donations in the congress. He allowed the former VP of Wellpoint to write “his” bill. The press won’t report this. Everywhere, it’s the “Baucus bill.” And, since it’s the most conservative, it’s currently being treated as the only one (there are actually four others that have already been passed out of the genuinely relevant committees of both houses). Wellpoi… er… Baucus not only includes a provision making health coverage mandatory (something the industry spent a bloody fortune getting he and Obama himself to adopt); yesterday, his committee adopted a provision that would attach CRIMINAL penalties–jail-time–to anyone who failed to comply. “His” plan aims to create millions of mandatory new clients for the current nightmare of a health insurance industry at the point of a gun, provide subsidies to those new “clients,” that will then go to those companies, and that will then, in part, be funneled right back into the coffers of politicians like Max Baucus. What a deal! If the press would report ANY of this, the “Baucus” bill would have been dead before it ever began.

    Over in the House, you have Rep. Mike Ross (Clown-AK), who recently came out strongly against any “public option.” At the time, he released a statement:

    “I have been skeptical about the public health insurance option from the beginning and used August to get feedback from you, my constituents. An overwhelming number of you oppose a government-run health insurance option, and it is your feedback that has led me to oppose the public option as well.”

    Who are Ross’s “constituents”? It certainly isn’t to be found in the population. In his home state (according to Research 2000), 55% of the public, including 81% of Democrats, support the public option. Ross’s district is the second-most Democratic leaning one in the state. Those clearly aren’t the “constituents” who oppose the public option by “an overwhelming number.” No, the answer to the question is much simpler. Ross has simply been purchased by the health care industry:
    http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/industries.php?cycle=2010&cid=N00009571&type=C
    The health care industry is now his top contributor. It has dished out nearly $100,000 to Ross, and it was later revealed he’d made a sweetheart deal in 2007 with a pharmaceutical company to buy a drug store he owned. It was valued at just over $200,000; Ross was given millions for it.

    • #6 by henitsirk on October 7, 2009 - 04:14

      Part of what you mentioned *has* been reported on: the idea of mandatory health insurance. I recall reading quite a long time ago about major health insurance companies coming out with a statement in favor of a health care overhaul that included that kind of mandate. This was before the whole debate really got started, in fact, probably about a year ago. (I can’t recall where I read it; I think it was a press release from the CEOs of several insurers. But the idea goes back even to 2005: http://www.aetna.com/about/aoti/articles/reqinsurance.html)

      It was purely a financial decision, obviously: as they stated quite bluntly, it is in their interest to spread out the costs in a larger pool, and they were worried that the young and healthy would opt out of health insurance if given the choice, thereby skewing the pool toward children and the elderly, both of whom typically have higher health care costs.

      One idea (also given in that link) is that those who cannot buy insurance must accept government-subsidized insurance, and those who can afford it can buy private or employer-based insurance. Maybe that’s a model that could work, since you’re not forcing the entire nation into “socialized” medicine (like Medicare!) but adding a public health insurance aspect.

  5. #7 by renaissanceguy on October 3, 2009 - 10:01

    Scott, I agree with what you wrote about the political parties and their connection to big money interests on both sides. That’s one reason I have decided no longer to identify myself as a Republican.

    I think your take on radio and TV talk show hosts is slightly wrong. It’s true that they go for entertainment value and for emotional persuasion more than for accuracy; however, I think that they are generally sincere in the views that they espouse. I also think that all’s fair in politics, and grabbing people’s emotions is a fair tactic to use. I have done it myself, as you know. I also like to exaggerate when discussing politics, not because I believe my own exaggeration, but to be funny and to try to drive my point a little harder.

    I think you might have been implying that we need a parliamentary system of government. I’m all for it. A parliamentary system does generally lend itself to more than two parties, which means compromise and coalition, and it leads to less influence by special interests of all persuasions. As you say, it would require an overhaul of the Constitution. It will probably never happen.

    • #8 by Scott Erb on October 3, 2009 - 19:19

      A proportional representation system for the House would make a difference (especially helpful for, say, Greens and Libertarians), but our system isn’t going to change dramatically. Going to a parliamentary system (essentially putting the executive and legislative into one branch) would be too much of a difference. With 200 years of tradition, it’s probably best to try to make what we have work. I’m rather a Burkean conservative in that respect — tradition is important, radically altering things can have dangerous unforeseen consequences.

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