Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Misplaced Anger and Misguided Populism

The Meaning of Scott Brown

Oh, how soon we forget. Bill Moyers and Thomas Frank discuss how blame was shifted from Bush/Cheney to Obama in just one year

Said Cristina from Aosta (Northern Italy):
The Brown election ( and the voters attitude against Obama and Heath care) reminds me a Italian saying : ” Un uomo che si evira per fare dispetto alla moglie” – “A man to play a nasty trick on his wife castrates himself.”
I was going to write a post congratulating Google for standing up to the Chinese government and refusing to abide any longer by China's censoring rules once they had detected organized and coordinated hacking attempts on the gmail accounts of various Chinese dissidents. It would have been nice if they had acted earlier out of conviction; out of principles related to respect for free speech and human rights and less out of their concern about intrusions into their proprietary operating systems, but at least it's something. At least somebody is standing up to China over something.

I've been by turn both solicitous towards China as in here (in the case of their earthquake), and critical of them (as in here, here, and here). I don't get many comments on this blog, but the majority of the ones I do get these days are Chinese language spam getting bounced off of various servers in Taiwan and making its way past Blogger's word verification. I've had a couple of bad viruses on my home machine in the past year that have required me to re-install the O/S from scratch. That might explain why I’m a target for all of this, but I also find myself wondering if just a bit of it has anything to do with my content.

I wanted to congratulate Google. After the Supreme Court’s astonishing SCOTUS decision, however, which seems to equate speech with money and further solidifies the court’s dubious contention that a corporation is actually the same thing as a person, I’ve been giving second thoughts towards publishing a “Good for Google” post. After all, with their doggedly proven determination to be the dominant personal information owners & brokers in the age of cloud computing, I find myself wondering who we should fear more…. Authoritarian governments such as China’s, or corporate behemoths like Google?

I found great irony in the fact that the day after Republican Scott Brown’s winning of “the people’s seat” in Massachusetts, hailed by both him and his supporters as a victory of “the common man over special interests,” the Supreme Court, with a majority built around recent Republican appointees, voted to overturn precedent and to grant corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited funds on political campaigns. You can’t make stuff like this up. I mention the unions, toothless and insignificant as they are by virtue of the fact that they only represent 7% of the private sector workforce, because it’s the only way to get a conservative to pay any attention to this decision at all. The whole thing doesn’t seem to matter much to Brown or to the people who voted for him. It doesn’t seem to matter much to the whole Tea Party crowd in general, which is why I suspect that a lot of the so-called right-wing populism we see these days is manufactured and orchestrated rather than genuinely spontaneous.

As a blogger from Massachusetts, I suppose it would be remiss of me not to offer my take on the whole Scott Brown phenomenon. I really hadn’t paid a lot of attention to him during the tail end of 2009 because I don’t have much use for pro-choice Republicans as a rule of thumb in any case, but when I was watching Brown's acceptance speech the other night I was struck by what an intellectual lightweight he appears to be. All of this nonsense about his “available” daughters and pickup trucks... I felt like I was watching an event in Alabama. In the midst of that crowd I didn't recognize Massachusetts at all. The guy from Wrentham in the pickup truck, playing the regular-guy populist role as if he was a pipe-fitter, is a BC Law School grad who owns 5 properties, including a timeshare in Aruba.

I don't know what all of these ecstatic people think Brown is going to be able to do for them. Is he going to advocate for more of the same failed deregulatory Bush policies that were so thoroughly discredited in the financial meltdown of 2008? Sadly, I think the constant paranoiac drumbeat at FOX News has sunk into the American mindset more than I would like to admit. People in my state were cheering for the suspension of constitutional rights and the negation of the rule of law? It’s chilling, and these people have voted for another failed presidency in a time when we can least afford one.

I have to put some of the blame on the Democrats too. They raised people's hopeful expectations at the federal level and in our state too (under Deval Patrick), and failed to deliver on national health care reform despite the fact that they controlled both the White House and Congress. Now, angry people are just lashing out at whoever is in power without thinking, swinging like a gate in the wind.

I offer no defense for the Democrats. Martha Coakley ran a miserably lackadaisical, arrogant and impersonal campaign. She’s an extremely bright and competent woman, but a terrible campaigner. I’ll always have fondness and respect for her for the way she won justice for Matthew Eappen as a prosecutor against a team of dishonest defense lawyers in the Louise Woodward case (Coakley was the victim of popular anger in that instance too, and a spineless judge bowed to public pressure and set aside the verdict). Nevertheless, she couldn’t get away with arrogant remarks that revealed her as being out of touch with the public, and her suggestion that devout Catholics shouldn’t work in emergency rooms (in response to a question about conscience clauses and medical workers) was inexplicable, especially considering that her husband is a daily communicant. Is this really what the Democratic Party has come to? By Democratic Party standards, at least in Massachusetts, if someone has difficulty comprehending how two men make for a marriage he’s branded as a homophobe and a bigot, but at the same time it’s not unreasonable for Democrats to suggest that people with religious scruples shouldn’t work in emergency rooms... This is a seriously confused party that has lost its way in some key fundamental areas. It’s small wonder that so many people found it impossible to cast a vote for her even though they may have wanted to find reasons to do so.

There’s a place for populist anger. I consider myself a populist in many ways, but what frustrates me is how misplaced the anger in this country is and how misguided the trajectory of the middle class populist movement has been. Despite what was done to the country by Wall Street, middle class anger is being directed downward (towards immigrants and people receiving public assistance), not upward. Instead of being angry at people at the top who’ve rigged the game so that they have everything, the middle class is angry at powerless people who have next to nothing. They’ve also been conditioned to hold nothing but contempt for government, which does not bode well for the future of a republic.

IMHO, the biggest problem this country faces is the mass disappearance of middle class jobs as a result of technological automation and of the competitive pressures of globalization. The exodus of these jobs coupled with the effects of deregulation which created a superclass of corporate executives and financial professionals has created the largest gap in income equality we’ve seen since 1929. Bruce Judson, Senior Faculty Fellow at the Yale School of Management writes:
In 2007, the percent of total income received by the top 10% of families was 49.74%, or effectively one-half of the nation's total. This compares to 1980, when the top 10% received 34.63%, or about one-third of all income.
No republic can survive this kind of widening of income inequality without experiencing great social upheaval. Despite this, the mantra you hear at FOX News these days from libertarian apologists is how unfair it is that “40% of Americans pay no federal income taxes and that the wealthy shouldn’t be expected to keep shouldering more of the burden.” I don’t know if that statistic is correct or not, but if that many people are experiencing downward mobility to the extent that they are now eligible for earned income tax credits, it should be a cause for alarm for all of us about where we are heading, not a battle cry of resentment on the part of the wealthy.

As for my impression of Scott Brown, I have a feeling that people don’t know him as well as they think they do. The Tea Party folks are one thing, but I think a lot of social conservatives are going to be quite surprised at his views over time. As David Gibson pointed out in Politics Daily:
The political flexibility of religious conservatives in backing the pro-choice Brown certainly worked, and indeed may have put Brown over the top. But it also revealed two other realities of modern American politics.

The first is that there are Christian conservatives and there are Christian conservatives. The largely evangelical and conservative Catholic support for Brown and against health care reform contrasts sharply with the position of progressive evangelicals and the influential Catholic bishops of the United States, who have declared universal health care a "pro-life issue" and who were ready to throw their support behind Obamacare if, as was possible, it included sufficient bars on abortion funding. That is a gap wide enough to drive a health care bill through, though Democrats have never figured out how to exploit it.

The second is that the same powerful forces that carried Brown to victory -- and that many religious conservatives embraced in their zeal to block Obama -- often pay little heed to moral issues like abortion and gay marriage and stem cell research. Tea Party conservatism is at its core about unemployment and economic anxiety and anger and throwing out the rascals, whoever they are, or even if they are on the side of the angels. That could come back to haunt social conservatives.
Scott Brown seems like an affable enough fellow, and the following might seem like needless ad hominem, but I have a persistent feeling that Scott Brown is really pretty much all about Scott Brown.

I could be wrong. He could surprise me, but with the nude Cosmo shoot in 1982, his shallow frat-boy kind of remarks in Cosmo at the time, the marriage to the popular local news personality, the daughter on American Idol, the triathlons, etc… I just get the distinct impression that this is an extremely narcissistic man who craves attention. Then again, he wouldn’t be the first such senator by a long shot.

By the way, Scott Brown isn’t alone in that family for having posed for provocative shots. His wife, the extremely professional and impressive Boston newsreporter Gail Huff, was in a 1980s Digney Fignus rock video – The Girl with the Curious Hand. Here it is, just for kicks (click image).


Garpu said...

At least to my outsider opinion, it seemed like people were voting against the Democratic candidate. (Seriously? was that the best they could find?)

You should ask Steve about the virus he found...I'll send you his email.

Jeff said...

Hi Jen,

Yeah, I'd say that's right. Contrary to the impression that the rest of the country holds, those kinds of revolts do happen here every now and then. We've had a few Republican governors here in recent decades for that very reason.

I don't think anyone thought Coakley would be a bad pick, but she did take the seat for granted. Her primary challengers weren't very strong, and Emily's List threw their full support behind her.

Does Steve suspect a hacking attempt against him of Chinese origin? I'll shoot him a note.

Liam said...

The Massachusetts thing is depressing, but at this point the whole "60 Senator" thing has proved to be worthless anyway, given that a number of them are bought and paid for by the insurance industry.

I'm very depressed about what is happening in politics right now. On one hand, you have a Democratic Party that is beholden to corporate interests, lacking identity, and thoroughly spineless; and on the other you have the GOP that is only interested in gaining power again, and they don't care if the whole country goes down in flames as they do so. The fact that the right has mobilized populism is depressing, too. The whole tea party thing seems fueled by the same kind of white racist resentment that Nixon capitalized on so well.

Both parties are responsible for the financial deregulation that got us in this economic crisis, and it's sad to see Obama surround himself with people like Larry Summers. Still, people who vote Republican because the Dems aren't hard enough on corporate interests are like people who move to Alaska because they think Montana is too cold.

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

Good to see you.

The Massachusetts thing is depressing, but at this point the whole "60 Senator" thing has proved to be worthless anyway, given that a number of them are bought and paid for by the insurance industry.

Isn’t that the truth? Looking back on it now, it’s strange to think that the reprehensible Joe Lieberman, that insurance company flack and Israeli agent of influence, almost was (or actually was), the Vice President of the United States on a Democratic ticket.

Let’s not even get started on the Ben Nelson bribe. That alone probably did more to sink the whole health care initiative and Democratic prospects for 2010 elections than anything else.

Not many progressives should be mourning the plan as it was though. It wasn’t much of a reform the way it stood. Maybe it’s better to step back and do smaller, more obvious things.

The whole tea party thing seems fueled by the same kind of white racist resentment that Nixon capitalized on so well.

I hadn’t really thought of that before, but I suppose that’s right. Good point.

Both parties are responsible for the financial deregulation that got us in this economic crisis, and it's sad to see Obama surround himself with people like Larry Summers.

Plus all those Goldman Sachs alums who never seem to go away, no matter who is in office. You should ask my friend Joe about Larry Summers. His brother had to work with him at Harvard for years, and found him a fundamentally dishonest person.

Still, people who vote Republican because the Dems aren't hard enough on corporate interests are like people who move to Alaska because they think Montana is too cold.

That’s pretty good, but I still like Cristina’s self-castration metaphor.

Joe said...

Another good demonstration of how quickly people sign up for things (causes & people) that they might not know much about. In other words, things are rarely what they seem to be. Sounds like a skeptical way to view things, but if it happens to be true, there's no reason to get maudlin about it... you just wish folks would be responsible enough to do some real homework (research) before signing on things. There are decisions that have enormous impacts, like backing just war initiatives etc. I don't know much about Brown, so I can't make a call, but I sense there is more than meets the eye.

Jeff said...

Thanks Joe,

I worry in particular about the breakdown of the rule of law. Every fascist and authoritarian system that has abused human rights, stripped rights away from citizen and non-citizen alike, and suspended the rule of law has done so in the name of protecting national security.