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Sunday, October 28, 2012

What Does the "Tea Party" Really Want? (Part Two)

(Note:  This is the second segment in a three part series under the general heading of Recent Currents: From the "Tea Party" to the 2012 Election.  Click here to view the first segment.)

What does the Tea Party really want?  Is it just about making a case for a smaller federal government?  Or is there more to it than that?  Does the movement have a real, unstated agenda, which is a poorly kept secret?

Many ordinary citizens would sleep much better at night were they to understand that the Tea Party movement was just about cutting federal spending and the size of the federal government.  Interestingly, the Tea Party’s stated platform sounds quite similar to the Bush/“43” agenda for compassionate conservatism at its inception.  Which, given how that particular political movement turned out, should give ordinary citizens pause.

Some current events may present ordinary citizens with but a hint of what the Tea Party really wants.  One example, in particular, is informative.  In the words of Lindsay Graham, the respected moderate US Senator, R-SC, known for crossing political lines to get things done:

'Everything I’m doing now in terms of talking about climate, talking about immigration, talking about Gitmo is completely opposite of where the Tea Party movement’s at.'  …  On four occasions, Graham met with Tea Party groups.  The first, in his Senate office, was 'very, very contentious,' he recalled.  During a later meeting, in Charleston, Graham said he challenged them: 'What do you want to do?  You take back your country --- and do what with it?  …  Everybody went from being kind of hostile to just dead silent.'

Another example, subtle as it may be, consists of the present movement among some Republican members in Congress to eliminate funding for National Public Radio (NPR).  Congress had passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which then-President Lyndon Johnson signed into law, creating NPR.  Millions of listeners have come to rely upon NPR, which receives about $90 million in federal funding annually.  But the Congressional Budget Office calculated that the net savings from defunding the network would be zero.  Some say the proposed legislation is no more than an ideological attack on public radio, masquerading as a fiscal issue.  For it is well known that Republicans have long been critical of public broadcasting and accuse it of having a liberal bias.

In a final example, in working towards final passage of the new national health insurance law, President Obama had said that all options were on the table, except the status quo, which was no longer working.  And as the president had said, Republicans simply offering to do “nothing” was indefensible.  Since the system was in need of reform, it was the correct approach.  Against the advice of many experts, including some of his own personal advisers, the president braved great political risk, continuing to push the issue.  His own perseverance was rewarded.  In March 2010 a triumphant President Obama signed into law his landmark national health care overhaul, saying it enshrined “the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care.”  The passage of this signature legislation had escaped every American leader that has tackled the issue dating back to T.R. more than 100 years ago.

While much of the new law is still unclear, ordinary citizens are made to understand that the main benefits of the law are not designed to kick in until 2014, after the upcoming 2012 presidential election.  Among the important benefits include the elimination of an insurance company’s previous right to deny coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions, the ability of a child to remain on his or her parents’ family insurance plan to age 26, and documented cost savings of $1.3 Trillion spread over a 20 year period, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (as compared to an “alternative” model where “nothing” was done).

Republicans and Tea Party activists nonetheless want to “repeal and replace” the law, believing, rightly or wrongly, that their success in the 2010 midterm elections was a mandate to do so.  But, when asked what their “replace” law should look like, they can cite no additional benefits which the new law does not already contain.  They are completely lacking on specifics.

There are yet other examples of what appears to be a secret, hidden agenda: from union stripping bills through the elimination of the right to collective bargaining; to attempts to “privatize” Medicare; to restricting access to the voting booth to those with a valid driver’s license or state picture ID card on the guise of a disingenuous claim of previous voter fraud (designed to make it harder for students, the sick and disabled, people of color, all of whom typically vote the Democratic ticket); to making it difficult if not impossible for a woman to get a legal abortion; to implementing mandatory drug tests for citizens receiving public assistance; to opposing same sex marriage laws; to declaring war on the EPA and the provisions of the Clean Water Act.

These examples may provide but a preview of the real agenda.  The results of the 2010 midterm elections are perhaps best viewed in the context of a play in a football game where an offensive lineman moves before the ball is snapped.  The official throws the yellow penalty flag, blows the whistle and a false start is enforced.  The offense re-huddles.  When it re-sets at the line of scrimmage, meanwhile, the play formation itself does not change.  It consists of a moral agenda, so indicative of the Neocon religious movement which appears to have effectively infiltrated the Tea Party.  The two ideological cousins, the evangelicals and the Tea Party, seem to have fused into a new force which may be more appropriately described as the “Teavangelicals.”

The 2012 presidential election represents the actual play that will be run.  Will ordinary citizens allow the Teavangelicals to advance?  Or will the Teavangelicals be stuffed at the line, turned back and thrown for a loss?

(The third and final segment in this three part series contemplates the primary features of life among the ordinary following a Teavangelical victory in the 2012 presidential election.)

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Recent Currents: From the Tea Party to the 2012 Election (Part One)

(Note: This is the first segment in a three part series.)

With a de-regulated, sinking economy, hemorrhaging debt and spiraling downward toward depression, the ordinary citizen turned away from the Neocon movement in the election of 2008. In a cartoon analogy, it was as if the voters swooped in just in time to snatch the Neocons from a train racing toward the cliff’s edge. In its place President Barack Obama’s message of hope, a relief train, was embraced. Perhaps a bridge to the future did appear to look like a more promising alternative than the status quo...

Following its defeat in the election of 2008, the Republican Party has been engaged in the healthy process of re-examining and re-organizing its political priorities. Rescued from destruction and once safely upon the relief train, the Republican Party has had the opportunity --- the luxury in fact --- to sit down, relax and catch its breath. What it had just been through, and put the nation through, was indeed traumatic. Once the picture stopped spinning, there would be time for a shave, a shower, a hot meal and a beverage. It could re-group. It would thereafter claim a re-doubled effort on the elusive goal of smaller government. After all, this had been the stated goal at the inception of the Bush/“43” administration. In the meanwhile, previous efforts to ban abortion in the US would be abandoned.

Consequently, entering the 2010 Congressional midterm elections, the Republican Party was re-energized through its conservative base. The phenomenon of the Tea Party had been born. Beginning as a “headless” movement, not attached to either party, it quickly began to flex its new vocal cords, finding a home among conservative Republicans on the political stage. Its main platform seemed a familiar one in Republican Party circles going back at least several decades: to reduce the size of the federal government --- and curtail its involvement in the daily lives of ordinary citizens --- by shrinking its budget. The Tea Party cited effective examples of a federal government continuing to grow unchecked and out of control, among them the financial bail out of Wall Street and the newly enacted national health care law. And a stalled economy with a stubborn jobless rate persisted.

The message resonated. The 2010 midterm elections would serve as a backlash to President Obama, as they had similarly set back then-Presidents Reagan in 1982 and Clinton in 1994 before. Some say that this time it was as a direct result of the Tea Party. In one evening the Republican Party would re-capture the US House of Representatives in an election that just about put Republicans on equal footing with the president's party. The Republican Party would also re-claim a significant number of state governorships, important in positioning for the presidential election of 2012. Through its new ally, the Tea Party, the Republican Party had claimed another “mandate” to reduce the size of government.

In the summer of 2011 the Tea Party utilized its influence to effective end in the political imbroglio surrounding the raising of the nation’s federal debt ceiling. The timing, however, was interesting. History had reflected that Congress had previously raised the federal debt ceiling some 17 times during the Reagan presidency, 6 times during the Bush/“41” presidency, 4 times during the Clinton presidency, 7 times during the Bush/“43” presidency and 3 times during the Obama presidency. That’s a total of 37 times since 1980.

It was a high stakes game of political brinkmanship, the Tea Party using the threat of US government default as a political weapon. Treasury officials warned that the failure to act to raise the national debt ceiling, which the then-Reagan administration had claimed was a matter of “routine housekeeping,” would have calamitous consequences. Democrats even quoted Mr. Reagan’s words that the failure to act would result in consequences which were “impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate.”  Others, however, contradicted the conservative icon, expressing “no doubt that we will not lose the full faith and credit of the United States,” that the failure to act would presumably be of little consequence.

Tea Party advocates utilized what was described as a harsh, “cuts only” approach to negotiation, a necessary condition precedent before they would agree to raise the debt ceiling. In the process, and as President Obama pointed out, the Tea Party had flatly rejected a “balanced approach” which had been utilized previously by former Presidents Reagan, Bush/“41” and Clinton. This balanced approach featured a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, requiring the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share by giving up tax breaks and special deductions.  In fact, many of the leading Congressional Republicans who voted in favor of the Tea Party’s “cuts only” approach had also voted in favor of the previous spending binges of Mr. Obama’s Republican predecessors.

When a budget deal was finally hammered out, it was not without consequences. The nation’s credit rating had been downgraded by one of the major national credit rating agencies for the first time in US History.  As a result, financial markets both in the US and around the world continued to wobble.

In the aftermath of the Congressional battle, both sides were left bruised and exhausted. But President Obama was conciliatory and inclusive. “The reason I am so hopeful about our future --- the reason I have faith in these United States of America --- is because of the American people,” the president said. And although individual opinions can and do differ, the president identified what has always made America great, and distinguishes us from the others: “It’s because of their perseverance, and their courage, and their willingness to shoulder the burdens we face --- together, as one nation.”

(Next week's second segment tackles the provocative question: What does the Tea Party really want?)

-Michael D'Angelo

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Distinguishing the Wheat from the Chaff

Is separating the wheat from the chaff as easy as it sounds?  How does the ordinary citizen tell the difference?  How do we try to make it real?  Compared to what? …

One of the more challenging and less talked about difficulties of human existence involves distinguishing what is real from that which only appears to be real.  Some use the old farmer’s cliché of separating the wheat from the chaff.  Perhaps it is easier on a farm.  In real life, for example, when the vices of greed and pride are presented or appear as virtue, it’s not so easy.  Beneath every truth and appearance there seemingly lies a measure of paradoxical opposite.  Although confounding at times, that which has one guessing keeps life interesting.

In my impressionable years, my father taught me many things I have not forgotten.  He was an insurance broker and had done quite well for himself, as far as I could determine, having raised five children with my traditional, stay at home mom.  Dad was a great speaker, not so great at changing a light bulb, however.

One day, dad was pontificating about the various traps and pitfalls which one must encounter on the way up the corporate ladder of success.  As one of my good friends likes to say, “Remember, the toes you're stepping on today could be attached to the ass you're kissing tomorrow.”

Anyway, my dad was starting to sound a bit frustrated, his passion catching my attention, and so I began to listen.  Sensing this, dad continued: “You know, Michael, when you get to the top, there’s only two things, basically, which you’ll find there: cream and human excrement (actually, he used a different word that began with “sh” and ends with “it”).  They both float to the top.  And, as incredible as it may seem to you, it’s exceedingly difficult sometimes to tell the difference between the two!”

At the time, given the folly of relative youth, I had no idea what he was talking about.  But, I remembered his words and learned later that dad had been right about this.  Such that today, in mid-life, I continue to find it amazing how smart my dad really was about certain things.  One of his strengths was that he could always seem to judge the character of people extremely well.

Perhaps, this was because dad was a salesman, who lived in a professional world not necessarily of “what was,” but rather, “what do you want it to be?”  In other words, his world was about image making or creative marketing.

For example, US History paints the mid-20th century American Western man as being basic in his needs, fiercely independent, individualistic and self sustaining, without the need for (government) assistance.  The image was of John Wayne, the cowboy, and the Madison Avenue marketing creation of the “Marlboro Man.

Some swear they are the sole torch bearers, the reality on which the hope of enlightened progress depends.  The gray suit, heavily starched white dress shirt figure of the White Anglo-Saxon Prostestant (WASP) male Ivy Leaguer fits that particular bill to a tee.  But can we count on it to be it real?

There are yet other people who walk the walk, talk the talk, and actually sound quite real and legitimate, except that they are fake through and through.  The pathological liar is the most egregious example.  They live in a nebulous world, their brain short curcuited from the ability to separate fact from fiction.  What sets them apart is one would swear they were telling the truth, even when it became certain that they were not.  There is no intention to deceive, but the message is clearly disconnected.

A terrific, concrete example of dad's metaphor in action came to America by way of the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas for the position of Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.  Thomas had been nominated for appointment by then-President Bush/“41” to succeed the celebrated Hon. Thurgood Marshall, holder of the so called “black, liberal seat.”

At Thomas’ US Senate confirmation hearing, things got strange.  A witness was put forth to testify in such a fashion as to discredit Thomas and thereby attempt to dissuade the Senate from voting in Thomas’ favor.  The witness, Anita Hill, was an attractive, educated black woman, who had initially been hired by Thomas in connection with his first federal job appointment.  Ms. Hill also worked under Thomas later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where Thomas had headed up that agency as appointed by then-President Reagan.

Day after day the battle raged on during the confirmation hearings, which were broadcast via live television into the living rooms of ordinary citizens, who watched in fascination.  The public was mesmerized, one day by Thomas, the next day Hill, then Thomas again in a final rebuttal.  And it seemed all but impossible to tell who was telling the truth.  Perhaps we’ll never know for sure, the only certainty being that such is the way of the political process. 

Finally, distinguishing what is real from what is merely a facsimile was boiled down to its essence by Bill Parcells, the successful, former NFL head coach with two Super Bowl rings to his credit.  Coach Parcells lamented players who made excuses for poor or unacceptable performance.  Those players  typically attempted to rationalize their particular team’s slow start, for example, an 0-3 record out of the gate, with a proviso that the team really was “good” and would turn it around.  Coach Parcells would have none of it, however, formulating his standard response: “You are what your record is.”

For anyone who has played team sports, it is apparent that such a statement is unassailable.  Rarely in life does reality tend to be that black and white.

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Face of Capitalism (Part Three)

(This is the concluding segment in a three part series. The first segment traced the economic system of capitalism to its birth during the administration of President George Washington and through the winding course of US history. The second segment discussed how the face of capitalism goes about the business of amassing wealth in present day America.)

What ever happened to Henry Ford’s simple but then radical idea to double the wages of his assembly line workers? After all, Ford reasoned correctly, it was the workers who would be buying the cars coming off the assembly line. They couldn’t buy the cars without money. Henry Ford seemed to know instinctively that his own success would be fleeting without the participation of the middle class...

Instead, today we have outsourcing. Outsourcing is but an example where human labor is viewed merely as a line item expense on an income statement. It seems to be all about the maximization of profit, nothing more. Everything is viewed as a commodity, including human beings. Why is the manufacturing base vital to the health and vitality of society? The main economic component, as well as the glue that binds our society together, is a job.

But when a business outsources, it unwittingly constructs a dependency which destroys individual initiative and self worth. Consider this as an unintended consequence. Think of the American Indians both before and after the arrival of the white man. We remove the buffalo herds. We remove their livelihood. We make it impossible to sustain themselves. We set up government agencies. The net result is lines of people waiting for basic subsistence. They wait for food, cooking materials and alcohol.

Ordinary citizens are essentially “kept” at a subsistence level, yet dependent on the power structures that would mean their destruction. Today, some call it a “Wal-Mart economy.” At about 30 hours per week, Wal-Mart wages place their workers below the poverty line. Together with an employment application, a would-be Wal-Mart worker is also provided an application for food stamps. The net result is the government subsidizing the Walton family fortune.

Others see outsourcing plainly as a “frightening window into the primacy of (monetary) profit over human dignity and human life.” And that’s just American human life. It does not address the particular horrors to human life on distant shores. Workers swelter through sweatshop conditions, the kind we had here during the Industrial Revolution, until Theodore Roosevelt weighed in on the side of the worker. T.R.’s example reminds us that human welfare comes before profit. But is that what drives the face of capitalism in America today?

Typically, the “exploitation of human beings is always accompanied by the exploitation of natural resources, without any thought given to sustainability.” In this model global warming is and will forever be a fiction, a liberal plot to thwart the legitimate aims of business. Will it remain this way until it is too late and the effects of global warming have become irreversible?

By definition and in practice, American capitalists idolize individual initiative as the holy grail. What they seem to miss is the vision of the founding fathers: the idea of individualism within the larger context of the commitment to a collective social identity, that we are all in this together. When individualism becomes extreme or indiscriminate, the net result is praise for leading citizens like Mr. Romney, the head capitalist. The face of capitalism is the hero among the hoarders of gold.

An “I built that without help” mentality. Even though very few build anything without a lot of help. Some may be able to borrow money from their parents, as the face of capitalism suggests if there are no better alternatives. But most ordinary citizens do not have that luxury. Selfish, proud of it and greedy. When a successful person says “Nobody helped me,” what they're really saying is “Don't expect me to do anything for anyone else.”

Presently we are a nation which needs many things. Among our national priorities, many would include the return of jobs to American shores to re-build the middle class and our manufacturing base. Many more would include paying down our federal debt through a balanced, sensible approach, combining tax increases and spending reductions.

This would necessarily include the reformation of our tax code to restructure and simplify rates and close loopholes so that all, including the wealthiest individuals and corporations, pay their fair share. Consider it a reformulation of the old Jesse James rule. When asked why he robbed banks, James said that’s where the money was.

But the larger question is: Who will lead us forward? Can we place our trust in the face of capitalism whose fortune derived through benefit from things that need fixing now?

-Michael D’Angelo

(Note: Portions of the second and third segments were written in reliance upon the following source material:

1. Drucker, Jesse, “Romney ‘I Dig It’ Trust Gives Heirs Triple Benefit,”, September 27, 2012;
2. Ford, Henry, “When Capitalists Cared,” New York Times opinion section, September 3, 2012;
3. Moyers, Bill, “Capitalism’s Sacrifice Zones,” interview with Chris Hedges, July 24, 2012).