Edmund Burke, the 18th century Anglo-Irish statesman and founder of conservatism, criticized the radical democrats of the French Revolution for thinking that they could force reality to conform to their ideals and principles, and for failing to appreciate that the complexity of society forbids simple, pure formulas from explaining all of its operations. For Burke, conservatism meant skepticism about the ability of man to reform and improve society based on abstract theories. Conservatism meant pragmatism in the face of changing circumstances; it was the radicals who imposed speculative theories onto the world. Conservatism was about preserving existing institutions, making incremental changes, and improving what already exists through empirical trial-and-error rather than wholesale reformation. The radicals were the ones with grand schemes to remake the world, threatening to do away with long-existing practices.
Today, too many conservatives have become radicals attempting to remake society based on speculative, abstract formulas. They start with pure principles like “limited government” and “free markets” and then refuse to acknowledge that the complexity of society and institutions simply cannot be explained, much less fixed or improved, by the use of such platitudes. Saying the words “limited government” does not solve the problem of gun violence or climate change, and the phrase “free markets” is not a plan to deal with stagnant wages or rising health care costs. When confronted with the problem of how to address long-term funding for programs like Social Security and Medicare, programs that have been developed and changed incrementally over many decades, the conservative response is to remake them in the image of “free market” and “limited government” ideology. Privatize Social Security. Turn Medicare into a voucher system. In other words, completely transform programs that work in order to satisfy an ideological vision, redesign institutions without regard for the benefits they provide to real people.
Today’s conservatives, in their desire to reverse engineer a century’s worth of social reform and progress, have become beholden to an attractive, tragically simple ideology. They cling to the laissez-faire ideas that made some sense prior to the Industrial Revolution, but that quickly proved inadequate to deal with the increasing complexity of society. The Progressive Era was a response to a changing reality, a messier reality, and insisting that the political theories compatible with an agrarian society be used today will not bring back the past. It is naïve, wishful thinking to believe that simply by cutting spending and rolling back regulations we can solve our problems. We have responded in pragmatic, trial-and-error fashion over the last century to new problems that have emerged, and if we want to solve the problems that face us now we cannot pretend that complex issues are simple. For example, our health care system is very complex, inefficient, and unjust. The Affordable Care Act attempts to solve some of these problems not by radically changing the system, but by expanding the existing programs and targeting specific flaws with new regulations. The Affordable Care Act expands the private health care industry to increase coverage and utilizes market competition to control costs. Thus, it is the opposite of a government takeover, and is much less radical than conservative proposals to fundamentally change the nature of programs like Medicare.
The implementation of the Affordable Care Act has been a disaster and the legislation is not perfect, but Congress should improve the law with the goal of solving the problems, both lack of access and affordability, that the legislation was designed to solve. The conservative approach would be to solve the problems pragmatically; using whatever means will work, rather than focusing entirely on whether the program conforms to certain ideological principles. Unfortunately, Republicans decided before the law was passed that they did not want to participate in health care reform because it would hurt them politically to help Democrats. Since passage, the Republicans have attempted to obstruct and undermine implementation at every turn, simply calling for the law’s complete repeal even though that would bring back a number of problems that the ACA has already fixed! Daniel McCarthy, the editor of The American Conservative, recently explained why the Tea Party cannot govern: “What they [are] against [is] always more clear than how they could create an alternative – a modern alternative, not simply a return to an idealized past.” Conservatives must abandon their dogmatism and face reality if our two-party system is to solve complex problems and improve society. Solving something is preferable to remaking nothing.
Now that the unnecessary, foolish, and irresponsible government shutdown has ended it may be helpful to discuss the role of the representative. Too many people seem to think that the representative’s sole purpose is to reflect the views of their constituents. Such an understanding is both flawed and incomplete, and may explain the dissatisfaction felt by everyone from Tea Party “republicans” to progressive Democrats towards their representatives in Congress.
First, the assumption that a representative should simply reflect the views of their constituents is flawed because on any given issue it is difficult to know exactly what “the people” think. Even if Representative Ted Poe took a tally of the district’s political views on specific issues it would be difficult to perfectly reflect the will of the people. And whose voice counts? Only those who voted for him? Does he not also represent the other people within the district? What if a majority of the district decides that it supports same-sex marriage? Should he also support it? What if those who elected him are only a small percentage of registered voters? Is his job really to please them with every vote?
Elections certainly matter and the people or organizations influential in electing a representative do have legitimate expectations that the representative will in many instances vote “as they themselves would vote,” but a representative’s job is not to be a mirror image of the loudest faction within one party. In a conservative state like Texas, the Republican primary in many districts decides who the representative will be, but the representative’s job is to represent the district as a whole. It is a flawed view to assume that your representative is “not doing their job” or is “betraying the people” simply because they disagree sometimes with the base of the party. “The people” are the people as a whole, not the faction of one party.
Second, the assumption that a representative should “vote how the voters would vote” is an incomplete view. While it is reasonable to expect the representative to somewhat reflect the will of the people, the representative is also an individual with his or her own beliefs, conscience, and intelligence. Political scientists often distinguish between “delegates” and “trustees” when discussing the role of the representative. A “delegate” reflects the views of the people (vote how I would vote!), while the “trustee” exercises independent judgment on behalf of the people. In reality, a representative attempts to do both at the same time.
Those who assume that representatives are delegates and therefore should be “punished” in the primaries for daring to not follow orders from a specific group (usually the base of the party) fail to consider that representatives are also trustees who in many instances simply know more than the people on many specific issues. Are we really to assume that our representative doesn’t in many instances possess intelligence, insight, and experience that we lack? Are we really to expect them to vote how we would vote? Representatives are elected to make difficult decisions, work out compromise, make necessary deals, and above all else govern.
Too many representatives have been elected by people who focus solely on the “delegate” side at the expense of the “trustee” side and the result is that representatives now seek to reflect the views of the loudest faction at all times in order to stay in office. We must ask ourselves: what good is a representative who seeks to reflect the views of people who are the victims of lies, misinformation, or ignorance? At times the representative must play an educative role by explaining complex issues to their constituents rather than cowering from the mob’s irrational tantrums. You may think that a “trustee” is an elitist, but often what we need are statesmen whose judgment is wiser than our own. On some level, we want leaders superior to ourselves.
All of this aside, voting matters. If we want representatives whose sole purpose is not to crusade on behalf of the Tea Party then we have to elect them to office. The stability and effectiveness of our government depends on it. If we want a government that works well, then we have to elect representatives who believe in government. The government shutdown was a reflection of our own expectations. We need discerning statesmen, not anti-government crusaders. In 2014 let us find them and elect them so we can leave this unfortunate chapter in our history where it belongs: in the past.
August 26, 2013
While the Tea Party and their Republican hostages have often been accused of having a non-reality based worldview, one individual may be able to point the way towards the light outside of the cave. Senator Ted Cruz, albeit unintentionally, has actually been preaching some common sense lately. He has been in the news recently due to the fact that he apparently has dual-citizenship in both Canada (the country of his birth) and the United States. The media toyed with the “birther” question prompted by the fact that Senator Cruz was not born in the United States and may choose to run for president in 2016, but he was quick to point out that such a concern was “silly” because anyone with one parent who is a U.S. citizen is automatically a U.S. citizen, as well. Senator Cruz’s mother was born in Delaware, so case closed according to him! If only Cruz’s Tea Party supporters had used such matter-of-fact logic during their previous, well actually, still lingering doubts about President Obama’s citizenship. Still, it is refreshing to see common sense prevail amongst the GOP. Hopefully, Senator Cruz’s response to questions about his eligibility to run for president will finally end all discussion amongst the Tea Party about whether President Obama is a citizen.
Aside from being an American citizen at birth, Senator Cruz explained that, “because I left Calgary when I was 4 and have lived my entire life since then in the U.S., and because I never have taken affirmative steps to claim Canadian citizenship, I assumed that was the end of the matter.” It seems that Senator Cruz feels that he is an American because he has lived here so long, loves the United States, and never sought to belong to any other country. Oddly, Senator Cruz fails to connect his personal history with that of so many immigrants who, as children like him, were brought to the United States, have lived here since, have never claimed ties elsewhere, and love this country just as much as he does. Senator Cruz continues to oppose comprehensive immigration reform despite having the same personal story as many of his fellow Texans. Senator Cruz was fortunate enough to have one American parent, which apparently makes him more deserving of the American Dream than the children brought here as infants and the parents who risked their lives crossing the border to work harder than most Americans for less money so their children will have a better future.
Yet, the most reasonable assertion that Senator Cruz has made recently is that Republicans should seek to defund Obamacare before it becomes fully enacted. Senator Cruz and his Tea Party colleagues have begun to argue that Obamacare must be stopped immediately because it will be impossible to get rid of once people begin to enjoy its benefits. The argument now is that, like Medicare and Social Security, Obamacare will prove too beneficial for ordinary Americans to part with. What an insight and admission! The Tea Party has now changed its justification for opposing Obamacare more times than the Republicans changed their rationale for invading Iraq. Cruz even said in an interview that he thinks President Obama would willingly defund Obamacare, his signature domestic policy achievement, if pressured to do so. Will the Right ever be reconciled to reality?
Some political commentators have suggested that the United States is at present more polarized politically than before the Civil War. Such a comparison seems accurate enough given the rhetoric of the Tea Party and the obstructionism of the Republicans in Congress. In his First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln lamented, “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security, are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension.” While a similar sentiment is captured in the anti-Obama bumper sticker “I will keep my guns, money, and freedom; you can keep thechange,” the main obstacle to everyone’s property, peace, and personal security is the corporate corruption of our political system.
Yet, as Lincoln argued in 1861, an apprehension seems to exist among the Southern States, specifically fundamentalist Christians, that Obama’s accession represents a threat to their worldview, one that has already lost the battle over beliefs on same-sex marriage and how gays and lesbians should be treated within society. A vocal minority within the country is obsessed with the idea that the nation is in decline due to a lack of religious uniformity, and increasingly desires to “save” the nation by imposing its absolute truth of Christian morality.
Likewise, another vocal minority of radical libertarians, those who categorically equate government involvement in any aspect of society or the economy with a corresponding loss of personal freedom, and who consequently seek to undermine the welfare state, even those programs that work well for people individually and society as a whole, is obsessed with the idea that the nation is in decline due to its debt, and desires to “save” the nation by imposing its absolute truth of supply-side economics and austerity.
Both groups, fundamentalist Christians and radical libertarians, embrace ideas, policies, and tactics that are at odds with the founding ideals of the United States. Thus, one might argue that they pose a threat to the nation’s political stability, but while both groups make governing a modern, industrial, and pluralistic society more difficult, the United States of 2013 is quite different from the United States of 1861. In summarizing the political divisions that led to the Civil War, Lincoln stated, “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended.”
While similar divisions exist today, people either believing that homosexuality is a choice or not, people either believing that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels or not, such divisions between the people do not pose as serious of a threat to political stability because the people have increasingly ceased to matter due to the corporate corruption of the political process itself. In other words, the peopleassume that they are competing with each other for power, when in actuality the government is controlled by corporate interests.
Lincoln reminded his audience that, “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it.” Yet, as we have recently experienced with Monsanto, corporations are now writing legislation that places them above the U.S. Constitution, and therefore, beyond the influence of the will of the majority. The Supreme Court itself has facilitated the corporate corruption of democracy, and a constitutional amendment has been proposed by Move to Amend to overturnCitizens United, but how will the people convince the same politicians who regularly side with corporate interests at the expense of the general good of society to pass an amendment that would weaken the power of their own campaign contributors? How can we hope to find virtue in those who have none?
The most significant division within society today is not between people who favor gun regulation or not, or those who support the Affordable Care Act or not, but between those who facilitate the growing corporatocracy and those who recognize that corporate power is slowly undermining the popular sovereignty of the people.
In 1858, Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech to the Republican State Convention in Illinois, which he began by stating: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.” In the context of global warming, it is clear where we are and whither we are tending, but the answer as to how to proceed is less than obvious from a political standpoint. Those who understandably claim that global warming is the most pressing issue currently facing humanity must seek to deal first with the corporate, media, and political forces that are preventing solutions from being implemented.
Groups such as the Tar Sands Blockade are directly confronting the corporate forces, independent media such as 350.org provides the information necessary for people to understand the reality of the current crisis, but the political process itself remains beholden to the fossil fuel industry and other powerful financial groups. Occupiers, liberals, and progressives should publicly support Move to Amend in order to confront the political forces, which are essentially corporate forces, preventing meaningful reform.
When Lincoln referenced Christ in saying that “A house divided against itself cannot stand” he was assuming that the peoplecontrolled the house. The question facing us is whether we will continue to control our own house or become powerless tenants living under the roof of a corporate landlord. Right now, the will of the majority still influences the political process on certain issues. For example, the people will largely determine the fate of how gays and lesbians will be treated in society. So far, it seems less likely that the people will determine the fate of how society will respond to global warming. Within the legislative process, the people only have a voice on issues that do not question or interfere with corporate interests.
While our house is indeed divided, the real problem facing us is the question of ownership itself. The house cannot have two owners, but our government currently looks as though it is half corporate-controlled, and half people-controlled. Those solely focused on the revival of traditional religion and the dismantling of the welfare state unknowingly facilitate the corporate corruption of democracy. Lincoln stated, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
We need to confront the corporate corruption of democracy in order to ensure that our American family still has a house to fight in. We will either become a corporate state, or we will reclaim our democracy. The corporate corruption of democracy requires that we embrace Lincoln’s famous plea that “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” If we want to preserve our popular sovereignty, if we want the divisions between the people to matter, then we need a political system controlled by the people. Both conservatives and liberals, the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, need to rally around the American family to keep the corporate landlords at bay.
March 24, 2013
The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which symbolized the beginning of the womenʼs rights movement in the United States, occurred 72 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which prohibited any U.S. citizen from being denied the right to vote based on sex. Most Americans take the fact that women can vote for granted, and assume that it was an inevitability that women would receive the right to vote. But few appreciate the fact that it took more than seven decades for the idea to become law, for the self-evident truth to become reality.
In our 21st century digital culture, people hardly remain conscious of specific political issues that received press coverage seven weeks, let alone seven days, ago. Our political news is disseminated so quickly and changes so rapidly that many peopleʼs consciousness of specific political issues tends to reflect the pace of the news mediaʼs coverage. Our minds shift and jump with the day-to-day details of what is presented to us. Occasionally, we become more emotionally invested in a specific story or issue, but rarely do we become personally active on behalf of an issue. The individuals who successfully achieve reform find a way to make the issue ever-present, even if the media does not willingly aid them in the process.
The media will not remind people about the corporate corruption of democracy (not that it ever really nformed anyone to begin with). We are fortunate to have independent news media that provide the information necessary to hold government and corporations accountable, but the people themselves must ensure that an issue remains present in the minds of their fellow citizens. We are blessed to still have freedom of speech, but the people must use it conscientiously to bring awareness to the larger public. Brave people do this everyday. They chain themselves to audio equipment to disrupt fossil fuel conferences. They mic check politicians and school boards. They talk to their friends at church. They talk to a colleague at work or a stranger at a coffee shop.
The 19th Amendment took a long time, but it was necessary and it was worth it. The 28th Amendment, which is now being proposed as a means to reverse the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, will also take a long time, but it is necessary and it is worth it. If it takes more than seven decades it is worth it. If it does not happen during my lifetime but my future children enjoy the benefits, then it is worth it.
The 28th Amendment is being promoted most vocally by Move to Amend. According to its website movetoamend.org, Move to Amend is a coalition of organizations and individuals “committed to social and economic justice, ending corporate rule, and building a vibrant democracy that is genuinely accountable to the people, not corporate nterests.”
Our elected representatives have become hostages. Political scientists often talk about “delegates” vs. “trustees” when discussing what the relationship between a representative and the people ought to be. A “delegate” represents the will of the people and essentially votes how the people represented would vote. A “trustee” exercises independent judgment on behalf of the people represented. In reality, a representative does not choose to be one or the other, but attempts a balancing act between the two. Except, of course, when they do not have a choice because corporate money renders neither the will of the people nor independent judgment a viable option.
It used to be that a representativeʼs vote on any given issue would be influenced in various degrees by who their campaign contributors were, but todayʼs legislators are not simply “paying back” those who helped them get elected. Gone are the days when the past influenced the present. The threat of retaliation in the form of negative advertising in the future now hinders action in the present. Even if a representative wanted to voice support for grassroots efforts to halt the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, s/he would be unable to do so. Gun regulation? Not a good idea. Single-payer healthcare? We know how that went down.
In reality, an informed electorate could simply ignore the negative advertisements purchased by corporate power during elections and vote for candidates who promote legislation that is good for people. But politics happens in real time, and there is no pause button to hit that will enable someone to filter out all of the corporate news that has influenced the current debates, or to somehow start over with news coverage that is actually fair and balanced. Thus, educating the public about the corporate corruption of democracy and reforming the political system to reverse the corporate corruption of democracy become the same task. And the task will ultimately become self-reinforcing. Educating the public about the corporate corruption of democracy will lead to reform, and reform will undermine the ability of corporations to corrupt the democratic process.
The proposed 28th Amendment, which states in Section I that “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only,” and in Section II that “The judiciary shall not construe the spending of money to influence elections to be speech under the First Amendment,” must become the first half, along with the environmental crisis, of our top political priority. Again, the two issues are interrelated such that solving the first half will make solving the second half easier. The process will be self-reinforcing.
We must ensure that the 28th Amendment and the corporate corruption of democracy that it aims to reverse become and remain central to the political discourse. Write to your representatives. Mic check politicians. Talk about the 28th Amendment at church and at work. What if every individual running for office had to have an official position on the 28th Amendment? They will if we ceaselessly ask the question and refuse to be ignored.
January 21, 2013
The Tea Party-dominated House of Representatives can still cling to its fantasy of dismantling the welfare state, but Tea Party economics were arguably rejected last November. Now, as the Tea Partyʼs influence in the realm of ideas continues to wane, a real opportunity exists for Occupyʼs message to broaden its influence.
Some within the Occupy movement will undoubtedly view such hope as misguided, and they will argue that the Occupy movement is a tactic, a direct confrontation with the state; they will insist that attempts to influence the Democratic Party or the legislative process, that working “within the system,” is hopelessly naïve. Maybe.
The Occupy movement can take full credit for accomplishing two things: 1) Numerous successful direct actions to confront the state, and 2) Not quite shattering, but definitely redrawing the parameters of existing political discourse.
Some choose to highlight the direct actions, and believe that direct action is the only concrete task available. This group is relatively small because it takes a unique set of circumstances for an informed individual to participate in direct actions and risk arrest.
There is a much larger group that applauds those directly confronting the state, but who have for a variety of reasons chosen not to join them. This larger group tends to equally highlight and celebrate the impact that Occupy has had on the political discourse and believes, rightly or wrongly, that a broader movement based on many of Occupyʼs ideals can concretely impact the political process.
Moving forward, it seems paramount that these two groups peacefully co-exist, if not actively cooperate with each other. For example, the direct actions taking place in Texas in recent months opposing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline can be amplified and contextualized for the larger public by those not directly participating. Ten people directly confronting the state, who have the public support of 10 million people because their actions have been conscientiously explained to the larger public, may have more influence over the legislative process than previously assumed.
It may be true that no amount of public pressure will halt something like Keystone XL, and that direct action is the only alternative. However, it seems foolish not to attempt to garner as much popular support as possible for the direct actions already taking place. The sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement would not, by themselves, have accomplished anything concrete. Public awareness and support for those direct actions placed pressure on the political process.
If those within the Occupy movement who believe that working “within the system” is hopelessly naïve think that peaceful direct action is going to solve our environmental challenge, then they are just as naïve as those who still desire to influence the political process.
Peaceful direct actions have as their implicit goal legislative outcomes. The Occupy movement must now decide whether or not it believes that the state can be reformed. If the answer is yes, then the movement must continue to directly confront the state and, simultaneously, seek to directly influence legislation. History and morality would seem to indicate that peaceful direct action coupled with an increasingly broad public support is the direction that Occupy should pursue. Because while the movement’s tactics are not something the average person may choose to engage in, the ideals have wide support and that support can, however imperfectly, influence the political process.
During the last election, the suburbs were referred to as the battleground of American politics, and the suburbs are arguably where the Occupy movement should seek to spread its ideas and attempt to further influence public opinion.
The suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse, and the economic gap between the lower-middle class and the upper-middle class is becoming more pronounced in the context of the affordability of college, the stagnation of wages, and the prospect of budget cuts to Medicare and Social Security. It is within the suburbs that the lower-middle class reality, that government plays a constructive role in providing equal opportunity, clashes with the upper-middle class belief that government unfairly redistributes money in order to benefit the “lazy.”
Through conservative media and Tea Party activism, the upper-middle class narrative that Big Government is the problem tends to spread a libertarian false-consciousness to the lower-middle class. However, the recent election represents a rejection of the Tea Partyʼs social and economic policies, signaling an opening for a different narrative to become cemented in the suburban political mind.
The Occupy movement, along with liberals and progressives generally, is in a position to provide that narrative. A reminder of governmentʼs constructive role in ensuring access to education and healthcare can provide the foundation for an expanding recognition that government can and should play a role in addressing our common environmental challenges.
Again, the assumption must be that government does have a constructive role to play, and this will undoubtedly come into conflict with elements of Occupy that see the state as the enemy, not to bargained with. The choice that Occupy currently faces is how relevant it wants be in the next few years. If the primary assumption of those who lead the Occupy movement is that government is at a minimum beyond reform or, at worst, an actual enemy, then Occupy will remain as marginal as the radical elements of the fringe Right who see the state as the enemy.
Ultimately, to reform the government will require the Occupy movement to participate in the battle of ideas within suburbia. For example, Houstonʼs suburbs, according to Patchwork Nation.org are increasingly “swing” areas with middle-income, increasingly Hispanic populations. Combine demographic changes with state-level budget cuts to public education and health services, and you have a narrative void to fill due to the fact that upper-middle class dogma about shrinking government benefiting the lower-middle class is contradicted by lived reality.
Yet, if the liberals and progressives (still a general minority in the suburbs) who support the Occupy movement refuse to engage their local citizens, then public support for progressive policies and Occupy direct actions will remain low. Again, some within Occupy will laugh at this, insisting that their goal is not to win the support of suburbia or convince people to vote for the Democratic Party.
But the real question to ask is this: why shouldnʼt that be one of Occupyʼs goals? Would it be a hindrance to Occupyʼs goals if a majority of Houstonians supported the direct actions taking place against Keystone XL? Would it be a hindrance to Occupyʼs goals if a majority of Houstonians agreed that income inequality was a major issue in the United States? Would it be a hindrance to Occupyʼs goals if a majority of Houstonians supported further increases in tax revenue rather than spending cuts?
In the fall of 2011, a small group comprised of Democrats, Independents, Greens and socialists organized a local Occupy in the Houston suburb of Kingwood. Their tactic was to “occupy” the corner of the major intersection of town every Saturday morning to spread the ideas and goals of the Occupy movement. They held signs every Saturday for 52 consecutive weeks. The signs conveyed simple ideas such as: “Money is NOT speech,” “Corporations are NOT people,” “Healthcare for Everyone,” ”Support a Green New Deal,” or “Occupy Societyʼs Morals.”
They demonstrated and voiced their beliefs every week in order to make their ideas more acceptable to a town that often did not support what the group advocated. Yet, the presence had an impact. People had to confront the signs when they drove to the mall, or the grocery store, or the local high school. The ideas were out there. Local residents were publicly reinforcing Occupyʼs ideals, which barely received mainstream media coverage. Local residents provided a face for the movement that contradicted what right-wing commentators were saying about Occupy.
Some people would yell from their car as they drove by: Get a job! Needless to say, everyone participating was employed. Many of the organizers were local community college professors, one the sponsor of Students for Democratic Socialism. Another organizer, Egberto Willies, represented the local Democrats and on his website egbertowillies.com he chronicled the weekly Occupy events and provided political commentary supporting Occupyʼs ideals.
Everyone involved wrote opinion pieces to the local newspaper, which further demonstrated to the people in the community that their neighbors supported Occupy. All of this was taking place in a solidly Republican district. But the consistency of the activism made the ideas more acceptable and broadcasted to others, who may have privately sympathized with Occupy or progressive goals, that there were people in town who shared their views.
When asked why he bothered to express his views in such a conservative town, Egberto said, “I continue to express my views even though they disagree with me because I respect them and understand that their disagreement with me is caused in large part by misinformation from the Right. I respect them enough to understand that if change is to occur, then those of us that know the truth must take responsibility for speaking the truth.”
The Occupy movement knows the truth about the corporate corruption of democracy. The Occupy movement knows the truth about climate change, income inequality, social welfare and health care. The question is: what role will Occupy play in bringing that truth to bear on the political process? Occupy Kingwood, for example, has evolved into a local chapter of Move to Amend, a coalition of organizations committed to reversing the corrosive impact of Citizens United on the political process.
Occupy has directly confronted the corporate state, and everyone owes those brave individuals gratitude. Occupy has fundamentally changed the nationʼs political discourse, and everyone has benefited. Now, Occupy has the opportunity to confront the most powerful aspect of the state — the people — to enlist their support in a radical transformation of values that can be realized in legislation.
January 2, 2013
In 2008, the anti-war movement in the United States seemed to be reaching a boil, and the election of John McCain would arguably have resulted in demonstrations reminiscent of the Vietnam years. The election of Barack Obama, who ran as a cosmopolitan anti-war liberal, effectively neutralized the anti-war movement. The anti-war movement that had developed during the Bush years and had voted overwhelmingly for Obama was hardly heard from when troop levels were increased in Afghanistan. The liberals and progressives were willing to wait and see if Obama could turn the war into a constructive endeavor, but one can imagine the reaction to increased troop levels had McCain given the order. The question that should be on people’s minds now that Barack Obama has been re-elected to a second term is what will become of the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. The media and the average citizen may assume that the Tea Party platform was defeated during the election and that the Occupy Movement no longer plays a serious role in American politics, but what takes place over the next few years within these two movements, and whether or not they can unite in opposition to the corporate corruption of democracy, will have profound implications for the future of the United States.
The Tea Party Movement emerged out of opposition to the bank bailouts, which began under Bush in 2008 and continued under Obama in 2009. The movement matured in opposition to health care reform and repealing the Affordable Care Act has been the one goal motivating all Tea Party candidates. The Tea Party embraced every conspiracy theory offered about the president: Anti-Christ, Muslim, Kenyan, socialist, communist, anti-colonialist, and “director of death panels.” The Tea Party is radically libertarian in its economic views and extremely nationalistic in its cultural views. It is the culmination of thirty years of Right-wing propaganda that has gradually taken root in digital and print media thanks to corporate-funded think tanks and conservative education initiatives. Many in the Tea Party exist in a self-contained universe of conservative assumptions and opinions presented as mainstream, common sense fact.
The Tea Party was largely responsible for the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010, and the Tea Party equation of politics with religion played out in Congress as the new members refused to “compromise” their principles. Such obstructionism, while expected from the opposition party to some extent, went well beyond the bounds of reasonableness during the “debate” over whether or not to raise to debt ceiling. The Republicans in Congress believed that their tactics were justified because their party was on the ascendant, but now that Obama has been re-elected, and more Democrats were added to both the House and the Senate, it is clear that a majority of the country does not support the Tea Party agenda. The question to ask is whether or not the Tea Party cares. Again, this is a movement that equates politics with religion and embodies many anti-democratic tendencies. Much has been said since the election about what the GOP will have to do in order to appeal to the electorate, but a proper understanding of the Tea Party would indicate that they do not intend to change their beliefs, their message, or their tactics. They are convinced that the federal government is an oppressive power that increasingly infringes on their rights. They are convinced that the Affordable Care Act is socialized health care and they are stockpiling their guns. 95,000 people in Texas signed a petition desiring to secede from the Union.
Regardless whether the Republicans in Congress begin to work with Democrats on tax reform, entitlement spending, military spending, immigration reform, or God-willing environmental reform, the Tea Party believes that the government is the enemy of their freedom and liberty. They actually view the federal government as something that must be resisted, as if it is the 21st century British monarchy passing tyrannical laws from afar without any consent from the people. Much has been made since the election of the Hispanic vote, and the changing demographics of the country. The Tea Party sees itself as an embattled minority trying to preserve traditional values, which in their view conflict with multiculturalism, liberalism, progressivism, and even moderate libertarianism. The Tea Party members believe that their country is being taken away from them, and the notion that they will simply stop desiring to take it back is naïve. There are some true believers among their ranks, and they will increasingly view the peaceful political process with suspicion and contempt, as an ineffective means to achieve their goals, and they will embrace alternative methods to make their voices heard.
Elements of both the Tea Party and the Republican Party feel that “white, middle-class America” is under attack. Within the context of the culture wars, this argument has been around since the 1980s and gained momentum in the 1990s, but since the “Lost Decade” of the Bush years and the subsequent “Great Recession” of the Obama years, which conservatives fail to understand was caused by right-wing economic policies, the notion that “white, middle-class America” is a besieged minority has taken on cultural and economic undertones. Political sermons on libertarian “limited government” have taken on fresh meaning to many people since the reality of their economic hardship has crystallized. They blame the government, that is, the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party, for the reality that the middle and working classes are being shafted, and they equate the federal government’s attempt to reform health care and rebuild the middle class through public investments as evidence that “Big Government” is taking away their money and their freedom. Here’s the point: A large element of one of our two major political parties is convinced that government is the root of all of their social, cultural, and economic problems, and this group has the mentality of a besieged minority in possession of the “truth.” Such a group poses a threat to democracy due to their misdirected anger, which should be directed at the corporate corruption of democracy rather than the government itself, and their tendency to do the political bidding of corporate interests without being fully aware of it.
The Occupy Movement was formed largely in response to the same event as the Tea Party: the federal government’s bailout of Wall Street. The Occupy Movement understands that a government that is responsive to the people is the best security against unchecked corporate power and corporate greed. The Occupy Movement is properly concerned with the corporate corruption of democracy. However, Occupy is equally opposed to both major parties, and has been hesitant to directly influence the legislative process. The Tea Party elects people to Congress, while the Occupy Movement embraces non-violent direct action. The question that must be asked is whether or not the Occupy Movement will begin to apply more direct pressure on the political process itself, on promoting specific pieces of legislation.
Occupy has been motivated by two fundamental principles: 1) corporations are not people, and 2) money is not speech. Occupy must decide whether or not it wants to see those principles materialized in legislation. Doing so would be one of the most profound, constructive, and promising changes in our political system. Doing so is arguably the key to a peaceful 21st century because without a revival of civic engagement and the belief among the citizens that government is responsive to the people, without concrete evidence that democracy can continue to work long-term, elements of the left-wing are just as likely to embrace non-peaceful methods of expression as the right-wing, specifically within the context of the environmental challenges facing all of us.
The tendency for liberals and progressives may be to celebrate the fact that Obama was re-elected, that Democrats increased their numbers in both the House and the Senate, and that attempted Voter ID laws and massive increases in corporate campaign spending failed to translate into GOP victory. Yet, the state legislatures that failed to passed Voter ID legislation will continue to press for its implementation in the future, and corporate campaign spending will learn from this election and make strategic changes. The fear that voter suppression and corporate money would “steal” the election proved to be false, but the long-term challenges of both are still present. Our democracy can still be gradually undermined over the next few years. The fact that Obama and the Democrats retained power does not guarantee solutions to our problems. Now is the time for liberals and progressives to organize on a scale not seen since the Bush years. Now is the time to put pressure on the Obama Administration and Congress to address our long-term domestic challenges. The Occupy Movement should lead the charge.
At the risk of angering some people who without a doubt do more to help others than myself, it seems reasonable to suggest that the Occupy Movement undergo a makeover. The ideas of Occupy are supported by a majority of people, but the ideas are often articulated in radical terms. Furthermore, the image of Occupy is often perceived as radical from a mainstream, working and middle class cultural standpoint. How the movement is perceived matters. How people dress, and how they express themselves, wrongly or rightly, will influence how other people respond to the ideas being articulated. We increasingly live in what cultural critics refer to as an “image-based” society, and the image of Occupy impacts the success of Occupy. Obviously, many people will angrily reject this advice and say that people shouldn’t “sell out” or conform to arbitrary middle-class social norms, but at the end of the day what matters, if you truly care about political reform, is whether or not your ideas are materialized in legislation, whether or not they changed society.
If the ideas are what truly matter, then Occupy must present itself in a manner that will enable the ideas to be embraced by the mainstream. Some on the Left, primarily young people, have turned politics into a fashion statement. They cultivate their personal image above the real work of communicating ideas to society. They cultivate a lifestyle with politics on the side, embracing rhetoric that is self-indulgent and that does nothing to begin a dialogue with those who may disagree but are still open to new ideas. If Occupy wants to make radical ideas acceptable to the mainstream, and consequently enable those ideas to influence legislation, they may want to dress more like Republicans once in a while. If Occupy wants to succeed, it must remember that the society it seeks to change is also the audience it must enlist.
October 1, 2012
The Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower represented a form of political conservatism that made peace with the welfare state created by the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt. The Republicans and Democrats after WWII agreed that progressive taxation, investments in public education, investments in public infrastructure, investments in scientific research, and a commitment to the welfare state enabled the United States to be competitive internationally and prosperous domestically.
In the 1970s, the Republican Party began a gradual move towards libertarianism within Congress and ultimately won the White House in 1980 by appealing to a form of “Christian nationalism.” These two wings of the Republican Party, the libertarian and the fundamentalist, managed to coexist for over two decades. Today, the libertarians and fundamentalists are creating an insoluble division within the Republican Party, evidenced by the rise of Ron Paul and Rick Santorum as legitimate primary candidates in opposition to Mitt Romney.
I wish to speak to the libertarians who support Ron Paul and even to those who were enthusiastic about the Tea Party Movement in 2009 -2010, which has since ceased to exist on the national scene and merely causes havoc in state legislatures across the country. Libertarians and Tea Partiers ought to re-examine their positions and consider joining the Occupy Movement. Libertarianism’s two main concerns are individual liberties and unregulated free markets, but the notion that government should to “go away” is both misguided and impractical. Hear me out: libertarianism only makes sense in a society where corporations do not already control the government behind-the-scenes. There is no point in being “free from” the government in a society where corporations hinder the “freedom to” pursue individual goals due to their own abuse of power.
The Occupy Movement understands that government is the only institution that enables people to check the power of corporations to increasingly run society according to their corporate value system, which is the pursuit of profit at whatever cost to people. A society whose legal system and political structure serve corporate interests is no longer a society of individuals coming together for their collective benefit, it is a “state of nature” in which “survival of the fittest” is referred to as freedom and the powerlessness of the individual is referred to as consumer choice. Only government can protect workers from corporate abuse. Only government can protect the consumer from corporate abuse. Only government can protect the environment from corporate abuse.
The government is what makes a society worth living in because the government is accountable to the people. The government is what protects and empowers the people. The government is the voice of the people making laws for themselves. A corporate state is the voice of a few imposing laws on everyone else to the detriment of the common good. Libertarianism says the government should not regulate what is aired on television: let parents control whether or not kids are exposed to sex and violence. Libertarianism says the government should not force cigarette manufacturers to put health warnings on their products: people can weigh the risks on their own. Libertarianism says that government should not require automobile manufacturers to adhere to safety standards: businesses should be free to manufacture and market whatever they produce. Libertarianism says that employers should not have to pay a minimum wage: let the market decide how low wages can be. Libertarianism gives banks, insurance companies, and polluters everything they want: no government regulation on behalf of the citizenry.
The Occupy Movement understands that government is a good thing when it listens to the people rather than to corporate interests. The Occupy Movement also understands that the Democratic Party is continuing the type of “Big Government” begun under George W. Bush that is eroding our individual liberties. The Occupy Movement understands that the desire to have “freedom from” now applies more to corporate power exercised through government rather than government itself; and that government “of, by, and for the people” can ensure the “freedom to” pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
Libertarians have some noble, sincere, and patriotic concerns that can be combined with the Occupy Movement’s critique of neo-liberalism. “Big Business” is as much a threat to individual freedom as “Big Government’s” surveillance state. Let us join together, uniting the concerns of the Left and the Right, to challenge the abuses of power that threaten to fundamentally alter our way of life in the country we all love.
September 25, 2012
Mitt Romney made headlines last week when a video surfaced of him declaring that 47% of the country’s citizens do not take personal responsibility for their lives and are dependent on the government. He also mocked the idea that health care is an entitlement. Well, an entitlement is something that someone has a legal right to, something they are owed, based on legal principles and cultural values. In our political discourse, however, the word “entitlement” is often used to refer to something that someone does not deserve. Personally, I think everyone should have a right to health care because our society should value human dignity enough to guarantee access to medical treatment regardless of an individual’s ability to pay. I think health care should be an entitlement, in the sense that everyone should have a right to it based on our society’s laws and religious values.
Health care aside, it seemed to be Romney’s assertion that people are not taking personal responsibility for their lives that upset most people. Why? Because, personal responsibility is not simply a conservative value; it is also a progressive value. The disagreement between conservatives and progressives is over whether or not today’s society provides equal opportunity for success. Progressives argue that today’s society does not provide equal opportunity, which invalidates the outcome of the “competition” between individuals. Conservatives mistake the progressive demand for equal opportunity with a demand for equal results. Progressives stand for equal opportunity rather than equal results.
What makes equal opportunity possible? Education. Health care. Housing. Safety. Basically, the overall social and economic environment within which an individual grows up largely determines their opportunity for success. Something that conservatives tend to forget when they judge the personal failure or success of the individual, and from that judgment vote for economic and social policies, is that all adults were once children. Again, all adults, those individuals who succeed or fail, were once children growing up in a certain type of social and economic environment. Family values cannot always overcome social and economic conditions.
Progressives argue that today’s society does not provide equal opportunity to all citizens due to a lack of education, lack of health care, lack of affordable housing, and lack of safety. Thus, the idea that everyone is competing on equal terms is false. In order to create equal opportunity, our society must create the conditions that equalize the opportunities of all children as much as possible. The creation of a society that provides equal opportunity requires spending by the government in the form of public education, health care, housing assistance, and neighborhood safety.
Conservatives argue that spending money to create equal opportunity is accomplished by “punishing” those who are “successful,” but what conservatives fail to understand is that using tax revenue to create equal opportunity is the only way to provide equal opportunity for all children. Conservatives want to hinder the ability of children to get a good education, have health care, have housing, and live in a safe neighborhood simply because the children’s parents are “unsuccessful.” The argument, without conservatives being fully aware of it, is this: the parents are “lazy” and do not take personal responsibility for their lives; therefore the children do not deserve equal opportunity.
As a society, we cannot determine who deserves what, or who is truly “successful,” until everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. Progressives believe in personal responsibility, but they understand that social and economic conditions play a crucial role in determining whether or not a child can grow up to become what society defines as “successful.” Many people who view taxation as “punishment” fail to recognize how much their “success” was influenced by their own social and economic situation. They pride themselves on how responsible and successful they are, but fail to see that when they were children they did not teach themselves the K-12 curriculum, pay for their own doctor visits, build their own house, or choose what type of neighborhood they grew up in.
If our society wants to have a spectrum of economic inequality that is legitimate, that is the result of actual competition between people who had relatively equal opportunity to succeed, then our society must redistribute, yes, redistribute some wealth, in order to create a society that provides equal opportunity. Not only is the inequality within today’s society illegitimate, it is also immoral. Every child should have access to medical treatment when they are sick, regardless of how much money their parents have. Period. Every child should have access to a good school, regardless of how much money their parents have. Period. Education and health care should be guaranteed to everyone. They should be viewed as public goods, something that our society collectively guarantees, rather than private goods that people compete for in the marketplace.
Conservatives are currently defunding pre-school, eliminating college grants, and gradually eroding the funding for K-12 public education by emphasizing standardized test score accountability, supporting the expansion of for-profit charter schools, and promoting a voucher system. If pre-school is not available to everyone, if K-12 public education is privatized and if higher education continues to rise in cost, then the inequality that emerges within the next generation can hardly be considered the result of fair competition between people who had equal opportunity to succeed. The people who will succeed will be the people with money and they will continue to argue that they should not be “punished” for being “successful” and society will continue to become more unequal.
Progressives believe that education and health care are a right, not something to be earned. Education and health care are what make possible truly fair conditions for individuals to compete for success. Conservative arguments for “choice” and “competition” are really attempts to preserve existing inequality and increase corporate profits. Progressives reject the idea that everything is about competition and profit. Progressives and conservatives agree on many values, such as personal responsibility, but disagree on how society should be governed. What type of society do you want to live in: one where the common good is at least part of the goal (progressive) or one where everything is governed by the profit motive (conservative)? Mitt Romney is a businessman who views the government as a business. He intends to cut spending (education) and externalize costs (health care) in order to make the business as profitable as possible. Profitable? Yes, as profitable as possible for the wealthy and the corporate elite.
September 17, 2012
September 17th is Constitution Day and the anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Constitutionalism, the idea that a written set of laws and procedures establishes a supreme power and limits that same power for the collective benefit of society, is a wonderful human invention. Our own country has been on a 225-year journey of constitutionalism, wherein we have decided to extend the franchise to women, directly elect our senators, and amend our Constitution in other ways when necessary to appropriately adapt to changing circumstances. In our country the people have popular sovereignty, which means that the people are self-governing through the election of representatives. Throughout our history, concentrated wealth, both private and corporate, has exercised various degrees of disproportionate influence over government (the people and the people’s representatives), exercising a lesser degree of still disproportionate influence during times of popular “unrest,” periods when the people have organized on a mass scale to “take back” the government, which is essentially a reassertion of their right to govern themselves, to have their vision for society actually determine how society is organized and maintained.
Today, two political movements are trying to “take back” the government: the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers. In my opinion, the libertarians in the Tea Party movement have legitimate concerns about Big Government, but what they fail to see is that corporations and wealthy individuals who largely control the government (the people and the people’s representatives), pose a much bigger threat to individual liberties and American values than Big Government. The Occupy movement more appropriately focuses on the corporate corruption of democracy. I believe that some libertarians could find common cause with the Occupy movement, but the Christian nationalists within the Tea Party movement want to “take back” something else entirely; not the government as it ever actually existed, but as they imagine it to have been: some sort of “Christian,” and therefore homogeneous society, that was also “democratic.” The truth is that our country has never been a homogeneous society and that democracy has always been what the people make of it. Popular sovereignty is not a machine that runs on its own, but something that must be actively constituted and maintained by the people themselves. The Tea Party talks a lot about the U.S. Constitution and our nation’s founding, but the Tea Party itself, as well as the Republican Party that has been remade in the Tea Party’s image, embodies some severely anti-democratic tendencies that threaten our country’s tradition of popular sovereignty.
Here is what I see going on with the Republican Party: They (the representatives) appear to govern as “delegates,” as people carrying out the will of their local constituency, with the result that their policy positions supposedly reflect public opinion. In actuality, they (the representatives) govern as “elites” maintaining a necessary amount of material comfort for the middle and lower classes in order to preserve the existing social and economic inequality that benefits the elite class. How does this happen? How do the Republicans promote an elite agenda by claiming to do what their middle and lower class constituency wants them to do? The elite class delivers their version of society and morality, a story that says if you’re rich you deserve to be and that the world’s natural resources exist to be exploited by man, through various media outlets. The representatives then determine the parameters of discussion on specific policy issues through the same media outlets and present the people with choices from which to choose. The people express a collective position on a specific policy and the representative carries out “the will of the people.”
Sounds like a conspiracy theory, right? Let’s use health care reform as an example. All of the corporate-funded news organizations refuse to discuss single-payer, universal health care (Medicare for All). It simply is not included in the choices that people are given through the major media outlets. The representatives never include this option in their speeches or town hall meetings because they receive campaign contributions from the health insurance industry, which is opposed to any health care reform that would decrease their profits. How do insurance companies make money? By denying people health care at all or by forcing them to pay for as much of the treatment themselves as possible. Fortunately, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed by the Democrats addresses the pre-existing condition issue, but the Republicans vow to repeal the law if they can. The Republicans lie to the people and feed them disinformation, and then promote a corporate agenda disguised as “the will of the people.”
The evidence to support the claim that the Republicans are attempting to gradually use the idea of popular sovereignty to implement a corporate agenda at odds with the common good, the general welfare, and individual liberties is the overwhelming support from Republicans of Citizens United and corporate personhood. They do not see a problem with unlimited corporate or private money influencing the political process or the idea that money is speech because the corporations are the people they are truly representing.Citizens United undermines the idea of public funding for political campaigns and thereby limits who runs for office and what their legislative priorities will be. Citizens Unitedundermines the notion that the people are sovereign, that each individual has one vote, by legitimating and encouraging the disproportionate influence of wealthy individuals or corporations over our representatives. Further evidence that the Republican Party is actively undermining popular sovereignty is the attempt in many states to restrict access to the polls, to disenfranchise groups of people who generally do not vote in favor of corporate interests. Lastly, the refusal of the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives to govern and instead embrace obstructionism indicates that they are not concerned with the common good or general welfare. The Tea Party places ideological purity above pragmatism, which is anti-democratic and threatens the fabric of constitutionalism itself. The fact that they do so in the interests of wealthy individuals and corporations at the expense of middle and lower class citizens is especially dishonorable. The rhetoric used by the Tea Party and the Republican Party to manufacture support for their corporate agenda is increasingly fascist.
James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and our nation’s fourth president, insisted that popular sovereignty and constitutionalism rested on two assumptions: 1) That given enough time and information, the people will choose what is in their long-term, collective interests, 2) That the people possess the republican virtue to pursue the common good. Our Declaration of Independence was based on the idea that government should be abolished and replaced when it fails to perform the role it was created to fulfill. Gradually, our government has been hijacked by private and corporate interests who now use the government (the people and the people’s representatives) to pursue their own private gain. The general welfare of the people has been compromised to such an extent that the people may no longer be truly sovereign. The corporate agenda being promoted by the Republican Party and the Tea Party would erode the foundation of civil society and recreate the “state of nature” that government was created to improve upon. The corporate agenda supported by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would create a morally bankrupt “survival-of-the-fittest” society with no regard for the common good or common purpose.
The Democrats, in order to compete with the Republicans, have become just as beholden to private and corporate wealth for campaign contributions and their legislative priorities have adapted accordingly. Liberalism has been slowly dying, along with the welfare state, public institutions, and the environment. One year ago, Occupy Wall Street started a movement on Constitution Day. The Occupy Movement sees through all of the deceptive rhetoric being fed to us by the corporate media and the corporate-funded representatives who discuss corporate-friendly legislation as if it were the only possible choice. The Occupy Movement wants to conserve the planet and create a better society. The Occupy Movement wants to create a world in which to live, breathe, work, create, love, worship, and play. The alternative is to keep on living as if everything is okay and hope that tomorrow will magically be better than today. The alternative leads to an apocalyptic ending we ourselves allowed to take place. The Occupy Movement stands in opposition to the love of money that continues to corrupt our politics and destroy our planet.