As another political season (leading to the midterm elections) winds down here in the US, people get wound up. Here’s part of something I wrote to a friend who happens to be a Tea Party sympathizer – which surprised me when I found this out, but life is full of surprises, and meeting them mindfully keeps things interesting.
[. . .]
“I completely agree with you about special interest groups being too powerful in the U.S. It’s one of the reasons why I originally hesitated to move here when I was offered a job at the University of Wisconsin ten years ago. (The U.S. has ten times as many people, and ten times as many universities, than Canada, so it was likelier that I’d find a job – which I was looking for at the time – in the U.S. than at home.)
“From the perspective of someone who’s lived much of his life outside the U.S. – I grew up in Canada, but also lived for a year in Italy, a year in Ukraine, and short periods in the U.K. – but who has paid attention to U.S. politics most of his life, and who has traveled to or through all but about five of the 50 states, it seems to me that the special interests that are most powerful in this country are the corporate lobby groups, especially the fossil fuel lobby, the pharmaceutical lobby, the big-agriculture lobby, the financial lobby (the banks), and, until recently, the tobacco lobby. These have turned the American political system into one that’s strongly skewed in their favor, and in the favor of wealthy industrial interests in general.
“Over the last century or so, the Democratic party has done a better job reining in some of those interests, and developing workable compromises with others, than have the Republicans. Under Clinton and Obama, it’s probably been less “reining in” than “compromising with” – most recently with the banks (the bailout that Bush started but Obama continued), the drug companies (the health care bill), big-ag (very powerful still), and the fossil fuel lobby (which had been much happier under Republicans, but is still doing quite well). Democrats tend to balance these interests out against the plural set of constituencies that make up their “base” – women, environmentalists, labor unions, non-white minorities, civil rights groups, et al. That kind of “big-tent” social-industrial compromise is fairly similar to what one finds in many western developed countries. Arguably, it’s what’s allowed this and other countries (Germany, Japan, the Scandinavian countries, et al.) to prosper. In other countries it’s been carried further, leading to at least marginally better working conditions, longer lives (because of better health care systems), and, in some countries (since this is a culturally conditioned outcome), greater general satisfaction, or what in Bhutan is called “Gross National Happiness.” More recently, it’s also giving these countries the ability to begin transitioning to post-fossil fuel economies – which the world needs to do as fossil fuels run out and resource conflicts grow. (Having just traveled to Portugal, I was very impressed with their successful push to develop wind power and alternative sources of energy, and generally with the kinds of changes they’ve made to build a fair, vibrant and creative society since the revolution that brought down the dictator Salazar in the 1970s. They have their problems, but who doesn’t?)
“Republicans, in recent years especially, have tended to be more interested in giving free rein to industrialists (i.e. minimal taxes, when compared to other countries, fewer regulations guaranteeing reasonable standards of safety for its citizens, unavailability of health care to many citizens because it “costs too much,” an education system in decline). They “balance” those interests out with their own base, which in recent decades has become the large minority of white (largely) Protestant Christians who feel the country has become too diverse, too pluralistic, too “different” from the way they idealize it. In situations where they see Democrats trying to change things (such as Obama’s effort to provide health care to all), it’s hard for them to argue directly that this is a bad thing, so they have become “the Party of No” – a kind of blanket “if it’s not my way, it’s the highway” approach to governance (or non-governance).
“The virtue of a two-party system is that there’s always a choice, and the two parties make for big tents. The limitation is that there isn’t much variety to choose from, and if both parties are equally dependent on financial interests that fund their campaigns, the political choice becomes one between rival oligarchic clans rather than one of ideas and values. I believe that a healthy society, in a modern world like ours, must consist of strong, representative, responsive, and accountable democratic institutions – institutions that maximize the common good, in which everyone feels they have a say, in which different interest groups balance each other out (business interests versus labor unions, etc.). That’s the kind of society the “best minds” of America – from Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson to (UVM’s own) John Dewey and many others – had envisioned, and I think it’s a promise worth fighting for.
“It seems to me that some “special interests” are threatened by democracy, at least a democracy in which their own interests are no longer shared by the majority, and that Fox News – which has fueled the Tea Party movement to a large extent, no matter what the intentions of actual Tea Party activists might be – has become the voice of those special interests. I study media and believe in freedom of speech and in media pluralism, so I can’t complain about the diversity Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network has brought to American public culture. But I also see in Fox a seeming, and growing, dedication to weakening and disrupting the functioning of democratic institutions – by inflaming divisive passions that suggest that “if we don’t get what we want through democratic means, we’ll get it through other means.” It’s hard for me not to see the rhetoric of Fox News “behind” the Tea Party movement, and I believe that to the extent that it fuels divisiveness, hatred, and ultimately violence (as the example of the guy in California shows, but also as the regular rhetoric about the Second Amendment among some Tea Party activists is intended to suggest), it’s a force that threatens the stability of American democracy. I think the only way to deal with it, however, is through dialogue, reasoning, and intellectual exchange – which is why I’m in academia, after all.
“I’m aware that there are people on the Right who believe that labor unions, minorities, immigrant groups, “socialists,” or some other groups have become too powerful – that they are the “special interests” that now “control” government. But I don’t think the facts support those beliefs. Unions, for instance, are weaker in the U.S. than they are in almost every other western democracy; the balance in this country leans far more in the direction of corporations than unions. Socialism – by which I mean social democracy, democracy that’s intended for the common good – is much better established in other countries (like the Scandinavian countries that regularly top quality-of-life indexes) than it will ever be in the U.S.; it’s just not as deeply rooted in this country than it is elsewhere, and I don’t see Obama’s policies as socialist in the least. (The only elected federal representative who even calls himself a socialist is our own Bernie Sanders, and if he built socialism when he was mayor of Burlington, then the results haven’t been bad for the city at all.) Minorities are still, on the whole, disadvantaged and rarely in positions of power when compared to the white majority. Immigrants, on the whole, do not take away American “jobs” – rather, as socio-economic studies have shown repeatedly, by accepting jobs white Americans don’t want, they have strengthened our economy. Fox News’s complaints about all these forces seem intended to rile up the Republican base, to make them feel disenfranchised and to want to rebel; this seems extremely partisan to me, and not oriented toward strengthening any sense of common interest.
[. . .]
“I completely agree with you about the need for dialogue, open discussion, and collaborative solutions – I believe that’s really the only way forward. I think that candidate Obama believed that himself, and if he’s been forced to retreat from that belief in order to get anything done (and in his situation, with so much that needs doing, there’s been little alternative), it’s because Republicans gave him so little to work with – they have simply become the “party of No,” and that’s very saddening. But I hope things will change.
“As I hope you can see, I actually share some of the sentiments expressed by folks in the Tea Party – that politics have gotten “out of our control,” etc. I just disagree on the (very important) details.”
Note: For more on the gun-toting “progressive hunter,” Byron Williams, who took Glenn Beck’s taunts at the ACLU and the Tides Foundation to heart and went out to shoot him some “progressives,” see the Christian Science Monitor article “Did Glenn Beck’s rhetoric inspire violence?”, Bill Press’s New York Daily News piece on “The Poison Tongue of Glenn Beck,” Media Matters’ detailed piece on it, Tides founder Drummond Pike’s call to advertisers to stop supporting FOX News until they
refrain from broadcasting Beck’s inflammatory rhetoric, and this series of Beck’s invective-laced assaults on Tides, liberal philanthropist George Soros (who Beck sees as a kind of all-purpose demon lurking behind everything that’s wrong with this country), and environmental filmmaker Annie Leonard (who Beck accuses of “brainwashing” – something he should know about).