Listen to this week’s episode of News & Culture, in which we look at the roots of government gridlock in the United States, the life and work of Emily Dickinson, and the latest updates on US Foreign Policy.
Listen to the full show here:
00:00-01:18: Sign-On (Jackie Cremos)
–01:18-06:11: Headlines (Danny Waldroop)
–06:11-19:32: Government Gridlock (op-ed by JM Colon)
19:32-34:08: Fireside Poetry, Emily Dickinson (Luisa Banchoff)
32:54-53:21: Talking Heads (Jamal Maddox)
– featured guests: Rahul Subramanian, Joe Margolies
– featured topics: US spying on foreign allies, Syria chemical weapons deadline, bombing in China
53:21-53:47: Sign-Off (Ola Oladosu)
Or listen to each segment below:
Read the transript of JM Colon’s op-ed here:
When the media talk about the recent debt ceiling debate in Washington, they tend to create a certain narrative around it. It goes a little something like this: an upstart group of Republican radicals called the Tea Party has held the government hostage in order to continue the war they wage against the President’s health care plan, despite the fact that it was passed in Congress years ago and recently upheld by the Supreme Court; they are a grassroots movement of white, southern, middle to lower-middle class, and vaguely racist or with a nostalgia for the Southern Confederacy of the 1860s that seceded from the Union; and they have created a crisis, a breakdown of the usual political system in Washington. And because of this – not to mention because of their defeat in the most recent stalemate – they’re going to pay for it in the 2014 election.
This narrative gets some details right. For instance, there is in fact a somewhat disturbing racist and Conferderate-nostalgist streak in the Tea Party, at least some of them. They are in fact enthusiastic about their political positions, even if as we’ll see it’s questionable whether this makes them “radical” in the meaningful sense of the term. But this story is largely useless for getting at the underlying causes of the gridlock: how, for instance, did these people get into office? Where did they come from in the first place?
The where should be easy enough: the South, right? That politically backward part of the country that everyone hates, that has always been skeptical of government, that denies the rights of anybody besides white men – surely the Tea Party comes from there. But by various measures this has not been shown to be the case. For instance, if you measure the Tea Party by the number of people who support it, it is not predominantly a southern movement. And as the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza wrote back in September, the Suicide Caucus – essentially the legislative wing of the Tea Party, comprising those House members who signed onto the letter asking to Speaker Boehner asking to defund Obamacare and thereby setting off the conflict – only about half of these people are from Southern states. There are members from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, Wyoming, and Utah, among other states that are hardly Southern. And although a 2010 Gallup poll said tea partiers are more likely to be white, male, and married, they’re also more likely to be more wealthy than average – that is, upper-middle class and suburban. This doesn’t look like what we’ve been led to expect. So what’s going on here?
It’s widely known, and it’s been widely reported, that the Tea Party is not a grassroots movement, a spontaneous uprising of the people, at least not in its origins – instead it’s what’s called an astroturf movement, which is what happens when wealthy and secretive organizations pour lots of money into making it look like average Americans are out protesting something. The two major organizations which planned all the earliest Tea Party events, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, preceded the election of Barack Obama by four years, and they are composed of professional conservative political operators like Richard Armey who have been working in Washington for decades. These groups are in turn funded by the Koch Brothers, the owners of the second-largest privately held company in the US. All through 2009, 2010, and 2011 they were given free advertising by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, especially Fox News through the shows of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck – free advertising which was not always honest, such as Jon Stewart caught Sean Hannity falsifying footage to make a rally seem bigger than it actually was in 2010. All this is well-documented in a number of articles in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, and other news media. It was only after months of careful organizing by the corporate and right-wing establishment to make it seem like there was a mass movement that well-meaning and relatively ordinary people began to join – people who were, as we’ve seen, predominantly white, male, and upper-middle class, hardly the Average American.
Now we’ve seen the full extent of the Tea Party’s extremism, and so you might say: well John, surely now we’re gonna vote them in 2014, everybody knows how crazy they are? The problem is that if that were true, they would have been voted out in 2012. According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll a few months before the election, approval ratings of the Tea Party that they were on the wane: fewer Americans than ever approved of them, and the more Americans heard about them the less likely they were to approve. That’s because they pulled the exact same stunt they did just a few weeks ago in 2011. So why’d the Republicans – and fundamentalist Tea Party Republicans – earn their “second-biggest House majority in 60 years and their third-biggest since the Great Depression?” As a Mother Jones article called “Now That’s What I Call Gerrymandering” so beautifully pointed out, the answer is that they didn’t: more people voted for democrats than for Republicans. They won because they happened to have a majority in 2010, which was when Congress redrew voting district lines, and they essentially rigged the election by splitting states up into districts that would favor right-wing Republican candidates. It also didn’t help that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010 ensured that 2012’s election was one of the most awash in outside money in American history, so that the only candidates who could even afford to stay in the race on the Republican or Democratic side were those who had a Super PAC’s anonymous millions or billions of dollars at their backs – and where do you think those millions and billions came from? Why, Wall Street and major industrialists like the Koch Brothers, of course.
So hopefully you’re beginning to see that the problem is structural: it’s not just that one election or two have gone against the will of the people, but that the whole thing is geared to favor the special interests of an oligarchical few. The Tea Party exist because of a fake grassroots campaign sponsored by big money; you can’t vote them out because they draw the district lines; and you even if you do vote for people you think might make a difference, the only way they can compete in these money-drenched races is by getting money from the same corporate interests you’d like them to fight against, so when they get into office, they don’t do anything.
And here’s the scariest thing of all: this antidemocratic election system isn’t just something that appeared overnight – it’s something that’s at the root of the Constitution of the United States. Seth Ackerman’s articles in Jacobin magazine are especially helpful to illustrate this point. In them he points out with ample historical evidence and examples that the Constitution was drafted by people who were afraid of democracy, people who didn’t want the people’s will to be directly expressed – that’s why our election system is so idiotic. Here’s just a few examples of how, according to Ackerman:
The Senate is an undemocratic monstrosity in which 84 percent of the population can be outvoted by the 16 percent living in the smallest states. The passage of legislation requires the simultaneous assent of three separate entities — the presidency, House, and Senate — that voters are purposely denied the opportunity to choose at one time, with two-thirds of the Senate membership left in place after each election. The illogical electoral college gears the whole combat of presidential elections around a few, almost randomly determined, swing states that happen to contain evenly balanced numbers of Democrats and Republicans. And the entire system is frozen in amber by an amendment process of almost comical complexity. Whereas France can change its constitution anytime with a three-fifths vote of its Congress and Britain could recently mandate a referendum on instant runoff voting by a simple parliamentary majority, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires the consent of no less than thirty-nine different legislatures comprising roughly seventy-eight separately elected chambers.
So here’s the saddest thing : we can actually dream up what it is that we need to do to prevent crises like this from happening; we don’t have to wait for the moneyed powers that be to decide that the Tea Party has become a liability to their interests, which is going to happen eventually. We could fix our political system right now. These aren’t my ideas, they’re the ideas of political scientists, activists, philosophers, all sorts of smart people you’ve never heard of because our corporate media won’t give them the light of day.
First you need campaign finance reform: overruling the Citizens United Decision, getting big money out of politics by having public funding of elections. That means all candidates get the same aamount of money to run with and that’s it. Then you need major, serious election reform: get rid of the electoral college so the President is elected by popular vote; have the President and the entire Congress elected at the same time every four years; and turn our Congressional elections into a proportional representation system, which makes gerrymandering impossible and will help tear apart the two party system. Then you’d need what I’d call Congressional reform: term-limits in the Senate and filibuster reform. All that would probably have to come through a Constitutional amendment, and it would actually turn our government into something resembling the democracy it’s supposed to be: a government where representatives are elected directly by the people and are directly accountable to them in competitive elections that don’t suffer from the interference of corporate money and astroturfing.
Once we have that, we might be able to dream of having a government that actually begins to listen to our demands: one that passes an Equal Pay Act for women and an amendment to enshrine the right to privacy in the Constitution; one that raises the national minimum wage to a wage you can actually live off so a giant chunk of working people don’t have to work two jobs and still be on Food Stamps; a government that invests in research and development, and maybe even in things like non-profits and co-operatives; a government that might employ the best architects and urban planners to transform our unsustainable suburbs and inner-cities into communitarian green spaces that might actually survive the resource scarcity of the twenty-first century; and finally, we might have a government that stops these destructive, useless, imperialistic wars in the Middle East that nobody in this country wants except the rapacious military-industrial complex that profits from it.
But the problem is that none of this will ever happen. Why? Because it’s not in our hands. By the will of our lovely, perfect Constitution, as decreed by the glorious Founding Fathers of our nation, none of this can be decided by us – by a national plebiscite or a general assembly of the people. Instead these reforms could only possibly be put into effect by the same corrupt political representatives who benefit from our oligarchical, money-stained, anti-democratic electoral system. And guess what? As the people who are reaping its fruits, they’re not going to change a damn thing.
So I’ll leave you with a dark thought listeners: if we know what we can do – what we must do – to save democracy in this country, but simply aren’t allowed to, what is to be done? What’s left to us? Well I don’t know. But it seems to me that the common person in America – who lacks the money with which to bribe the politicians and the platform upon which to be heard and taken seriously – only has one of two options when it comes to the structural problems of our society: either bend over and take it, or pick up a rock, and throw it.
For WPRB News and Culture, I’m JM Colon.