How American Society Unravelled After Greedy Elites Robbed the Country Blind

By George Packer, The Guardian, June 20, 2013  – posted on Alternet.org

In or around 1978, America’s character changed…Americans were no less greedy, ignorant, selfish and violent then than they are today, and no more generous, fair-minded and idealistic. But the institutions of American democracy, stronger than the excesses of individuals, were usually able to contain and channel them to more useful ends. Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did… In Washington, corporations organised themselves into a powerful lobby that spent millions of dollars to defeat the kind of labour and consumer bills they had once accepted as part of the social contract. Newt Gingrich came to Congress as a conservative Republican with the singular ambition to tear it down and build his own and his party’s power on the rubble…The large currents of the past generation – deindustrialisation, the flattening of average wages, the financialisation of the economy, income inequality, the growth of information technology, the flood of money into Washington, the rise of the political right – all had their origins in the late 70s….A fuller explanation of the Unwinding takes into account… the way they were exploited by US elites – the leaders of the institutions that have fallen into disrepair…there was nothing historically determined about the poisonous atmosphere and demonising language that Gingrich and other conservative ideologues spread through US politics…..American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero [17]. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing…It is no wonder that more and more Americans believe the game is rigged. It is no wonder that they buy houses they cannot afford and then walk away from the mortgage when they can no longer pay. Once the social contract is shredded, once the deal is off, only suckers still play by the rules.

Full text

In or around 1978, America’s character changed. For almost half a century, the United States [3] had been a relatively egalitarian, secure, middle-class democracy, with structures in place that supported the aspirations of ordinary people. You might call it the period of theRoosevelt [4] Republic. Wars, strikes, racial tensions and youth rebellion all roiled national life, but a basic deal among Americans still held, in belief if not always in fact: work hard, follow the rules, educate your children, and you will be rewarded, not just with a decent life and the prospect of a better one for your kids, but with recognition from society, a place at the table.

This unwritten contract came with a series of riders and clauses that left large numbers of Americans – black people and other minorities, women, gay people – out, or only halfway in. But the country had the tools to correct its own flaws, and it used them: healthy democratic institutions such as Congress, courts, churches, schools, news organisations, business-labour partnerships. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a nonviolent mass uprising led by black southerners, but it drew essential support from all of these institutions, which recognised the moral and legal justice of its claims, or, at the very least, the need for social peace. The Roosevelt Republic had plenty of injustice, but it also had the power of self-correction.

Americans were no less greedy, ignorant, selfish and violent then than they are today, and no more generous, fair-minded and idealistic. But the institutions of American democracy, stronger than the excesses of individuals, were usually able to contain and channel them to more useful ends. Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did.

At the time, the late 1970s felt like shapeless, dreary, forgettable years. Jimmy Carter was in the White House [5], preaching austerity and public-spiritedness, and hardly anyone was listening. The hideous term “stagflation”, which combined the normally opposed economic phenomena of stagnation and inflation, perfectly captured the doldrums of that moment. It is only with the hindsight of a full generation that we can see how many things were beginning to shift across the American landscape, sending the country spinning into a new era.

In Youngstown, Ohio [6], the steel mills that had been the city’s foundation for a century closed, one after another, with breathtaking speed, taking 50,000 jobs from a small industrial river valley, leaving nothing to replace them. In Cupertino, California, the Apple Computer Company released the first popular personal computer, the Apple II [7]. Across California, voters passed Proposition 13 [8], launching a tax revolt that began the erosion of public funding for what had been the country’s best school system. In Washington, corporations organised themselves into a powerful lobby that spent millions of dollars to defeat the kind of labour and consumer bills they had once accepted as part of the social contractNewt Gingrich [9] came to Congress as a conservative Republican with the singular ambition to tear it down and build his own and his party’s power on the rubble. On Wall Street, Salomon Brothers pioneered a new financial product called mortgage-backed securities [10], and then became the first investment bank to go public.

The large currents of the past generation – deindustrialisation, the flattening of average wages, the financialisation of the economy, income inequality, the growth of information technology, the flood of money into Washington, the rise of the political right – all had their origins in the late 70s. The US became more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic, more individualistic and less communitarian, more free and less equal, more tolerant and less fair. Banking and technology, concentrated on the coasts, turned into engines of wealth, replacing the world of stuff with the world of bits, but without creating broad prosperity, while the heartland hollowed out. The institutions that had been the foundation of middle-class democracy, from public schools and secure jobs to flourishing newspapers and functioning legislatures, were set on the course of a long decline. It as a period that I call the Unwinding.

In one view, the Unwinding is just a return to the normal state of American life. By this deterministic analysis, the US has always been a wide-open, free-wheeling country, with a high tolerance for big winners and big losers as the price of equal opportunity in a dynamic society. If the US brand of capitalism has rougher edges than that of other democracies, it is worth the trade-off for growth and mobility. There is nothing unusual about the six surviving heirs to the Walmart fortunepossessing between them the same wealth as the bottom 42% of Americans [11] – that’s the country’s default setting. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are the reincarnation of Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie,Steven Cohen [12] is another JP Morgan, Jay-Z is Jay Gatsby.

The rules and regulations of the Roosevelt Republic were aberrations brought on by accidents of history – depression, world war, the cold war – that induced Americans to surrender a degree of freedom in exchange for security. There would have been no Glass-Steagall Act [13], separating commercial from investment banking, without the bank failures of 1933; no great middle-class boom if the US economy [14] had not been the only one left standing after the second world war; no bargain between business, labour and government without a shared sense of national interest in the face of foreign enemies; no social solidarity without the door to immigrants remaining closed through the middle of the century.

Once American pre-eminence was challenged by international competitors, and the economy hit rough seas in the 70s, and the sense of existential threat from abroad subsided, the deal was off. Globalisation [15], technology and immigration hurried the Unwinding along, as inexorable as winds and tides. It is sentimental at best, if not ahistorical, to imagine that the social contract could ever have survived – like wanting to hang on to a world of nuclear families and manual typewriters.

This deterministic view is undeniable but incomplete. What it leaves out of the picture is human choice. A fuller explanation of the Unwinding takes into account these large historical influences, but also the way they were exploited by US elites – the leaders of the institutions that have fallen into disrepair. America’s postwar responsibilities demanded co-operation between the two parties in Congress, and when the cold war waned, the co-operation was bound to diminish with it. But there was nothing historically determined about the poisonous atmosphere and demonising language that Gingrich and other conservative ideologues spread through US politics. These tactics served their narrow, short-term interests, and when the Gingrich revolution brought Republicans to power in Congress, the tactics were affirmed. Gingrich is now a has-been, but Washington today is as much his city as anyone’s.

It was impossible for Youngstown’s steel companies to withstand global competition and local disinvestment, but there was nothing inevitable about the aftermath – an unmanaged free-for-all in which unemployed workers were left to fend for themselves, while corporate raiders bought the idle hulks of the mills with debt in the form of junk bonds and stripped out the remaining value. It may have been inevitable that the constraints imposed on US banks by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 would start to slip off in the era of global finance. But it was a political choice on the part of Congress and President Bill Clinton to deregulate Wall Street so thoroughly that nothing stood between the big banks and the destruction of the economy [16].

Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero [17]. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing.

Earlier this year, Al Gore made $100m (£64m) in a single month [18] by selling Current TV to al-Jazeera for $70m and cashing in his shares of Apple stock for $30m. Never mind that al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, whose oil exports and views of women and minorities make a mockery of the ideas that Gore propounds in a book or film every other year. Never mind that his Apple stock came with his position on the company’s board, a gift to a former presidential contender. Gore used to be a patrician politician whose career seemed inspired by the ideal of public service. Today – not unlike Tony Blair [19] – he has traded on a life in politics to join the rarefied class of the global super-rich.

It is no wonder that more and more Americans believe the game is rigged. It is no wonder that they buy houses they cannot afford and then walk away from the mortgage when they can no longer pay. Once the social contract is shredded, once the deal is off, only suckers still play by the rules.

George Packer’s The Unwinding is published by Faber & Faber.

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Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/how-american-society-unravelled

Links:
[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/george-packer
[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/usa
[4] http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/franklindroosevelt
[5] http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/jimmycarter
[6] http://www.allthingsyoungstown.net/articles/in_youngstown_we_made_steel/article.htm
[7] http://oldcomputers.net/appleii.html
[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_13_(1978)
[9] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/newt-gingrich
[10] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2008/03/what_is_a_mortgagebacked_security.html
[11] http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2012/07/walmart-heirs-waltons-wealth-income-inequality
[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_A._Cohen
[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass%E2%80%93Steagall_Act
[14] http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/useconomy
[15] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/globalisation
[16] http://www.salon.com/2012/09/14/clintons_no_liberal_hero/
[17] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/03/apple-tax-havens_n_3378935.html
[18] http://www.businessinsider.com/al-gore-wealth-money-current-sale-al-jazeera-2013-5
[19] http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/dec/01/mystery-tony-blair-finances
[20] http://www.alternet.org/tags/al-gore
[21] http://www.alternet.org/tags/america
[22] http://www.alternet.org/tags/american-enterprise-institute
[23] http://www.alternet.org/tags/andrew-carnegie
[24] http://www.alternet.org/tags/apple-computer-company
[25] http://www.alternet.org/tags/bill-clinton
[26] http://www.alternet.org/tags/bill-gates
[27] http://www.alternet.org/tags/ceo
[28] http://www.alternet.org/tags/california
[29] http://www.alternet.org/tags/congress-0
[30] http://www.alternet.org/tags/council-foreign-relations
[31] http://www.alternet.org/tags/cupertino
[32] http://www.alternet.org/tags/economy-united-states
[33] http://www.alternet.org/tags/glass-steagall-act
[34] http://www.alternet.org/tags/henry-ford
[35] http://www.alternet.org/tags/ipo-0
[36] http://www.alternet.org/tags/jp-morgan
[37] http://www.alternet.org/tags/jay-gatsby
[38] http://www.alternet.org/tags/jay-z-0
[39] http://www.alternet.org/tags/jimmy-carter
[40] http://www.alternet.org/tags/mark-zuckerberg-0
[41] http://www.alternet.org/tags/natural-disaster-0
[42] http://www.alternet.org/tags/newt-gingrich
[43] http://www.alternet.org/tags/ohio
[44] http://www.alternet.org/tags/person-career
[45] http://www.alternet.org/tags/political-positions-newt-gingrich
[46] http://www.alternet.org/tags/president-0
[47] http://www.alternet.org/tags/qatar
[48] http://www.alternet.org/tags/salomon
[49] http://www.alternet.org/tags/senator
[50] http://www.alternet.org/tags/steven-cohen
[51] http://www.alternet.org/tags/tony-blair
[52] http://www.alternet.org/tags/usd
[53] http://www.alternet.org/tags/united-states-federal-banking-legislation
[54] http://www.alternet.org/tags/united-states
[55] http://www.alternet.org/tags/walmart
[56] http://www.alternet.org/tags/washington-0
[57] http://www.alternet.org/tags/white-house
[58] http://www.alternet.org/tags/youngstown
[59] http://www.alternet.org/tags/bank-failures
[60] http://www.alternet.org/tags/finance-0
[61] http://www.alternet.org/tags/financial-product
[62] http://www.alternet.org/tags/information-technology
[63] http://www.alternet.org/tags/investment-bank
[64] http://www.alternet.org/tags/investment-banking
[65] http://www.alternet.org/tags/oil-exports
[66] http://www.alternet.org/tags/patrician-politician
[67] http://www.alternet.org/tags/steel-mills
[68] http://www.alternet.org/tags/steel
[69] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

How the Right Has Turned Everything Into a Culture War — And Why That’s Terrible for Our Democracy

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet, February 28, 2012

Excerpt

The political press takes it as a given that there is a sharp dividing line between the “social issues” propelling the culture wars (abortion, school prayer, gay rights) and matters of substance (the economy, foreign policy, immigration and safety-net programs like unemployment benefits). But as the American conservative movement has veered sharply rightward over the past 30 years, that line is no longer so clean. Today, conservatives have a social argument for every subject of debate – everything has become part of the culture wars…
the intermingling of social and concrete issues has accelerated in the age of Obama… today cultural narratives dominate conservatives’ arguments.
This is not just a matter of academic interest. It’s helping to fuel the growing reality-gap between conservatives and liberals – and not just because we continue to see these issues as matters of substantive policy while increasingly they see them as cultural. It’s also because people tend to be more defensive about social issues, and less likely to be open to counter-arguments or new information.

In his new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science, Chris Mooney explores years of research into the cognitive and neurobiological features associated with our ideologies. “The way the mind works,” Mooney writes, “suggests that good arguments only win the day when people don’t have strong emotional commitments that contradict them.” Scientists, he writes, have long noted that “cold reasoning (rational, unemotional) is very different from hot reasoning (emotional, motivated).”

We are better able to have a cool, unemotional debate about the merits of, say, higher or lower corporate taxes. But cultural beliefs resonate more deeply, especially with conservatives; these beliefs become integrated into their identities, and once fixed, are difficult to dislodge with factual arguments. One area where conservatives and liberal tend to differ, according to Mooney, is “in their need to defend their beliefs, their internal desire to have unwavering convictions that do not and cannot change.” The culture wars are ultimately tribal, and as Mooney notes, conservatives are more likely to “be sure that their group is right, and the other group is wrong – in short, their need for group solidarity and unity, or for having a strong in-group/out-group way of looking at the world.”

So, having turned substantial issues into cultural debates, the right is more deeply invested in their outcomes, and less likely to be swayed by the reality we see around us. That “facts have a liberal bias” has become more than just a quip, and this is part of the reason why…consider some of the specific ways that what we think of as debates over concrete matters of public policy have been “culturalized” by the right.

The Economy and the Role of Government…this is the area where the culturalization of formerly non-social issues is most apparent.

Gun control…at this moment in our history, the substantive debates over guns are virtually nonexistent….Guns are too critical to the culture wars; they represent what Karl Rove called an “anger point” that stokes the passions of the conservative base…

a fringe conspiracy theory…reinforces the “othering” – the in-group/out-group dichotomy – at the heart of the culture wars…
Foreign Policy…
Immigration…

Everything Has an Element of Culture Wars…We have entered into an era of public discourse where issues like solar energy are being framed as issues of liberty and freedom…All of this does not serve our democracy well….

Full text

The political press takes it as a given that there is a sharp dividing line between the “social issues” propelling the culture wars (abortion, school prayer, gay rights) and matters of substance (the economy, foreign policy, immigration and safety-net programs like unemployment benefits). But as the American conservative movement has veered sharply rightward over the past 30 years, that line is no longer so clean. Today, conservatives have a social argument for every subject of debate – everything has become part of the culture wars.

Viewing tangible matters through a cultural lens is not new. In the 19th century, dime novelist Horatio Alger wrote a series of formulaic books about poor, young, street urchins meeting some wealthy benefactor who teaches them the value of hard work and living a clean life. Once the urchins get on a properly Protestant, chaste path, their fortunes grow and they end up rising to the middle-class. It’s a narrative that resonates with the right today.

But the intermingling of social and concrete issues has accelerated in the age of Obama. Many on the right consider Barack Obama alien – consider birtherism, or Dinesh D’Souza’s claim that the president is influenced by “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior.” Whereas social issues once served as a distraction from matters of substance, today cultural narratives dominate conservatives’ arguments.

This is not just a matter of academic interest. It’s helping to fuel the growing reality-gap between conservatives and liberals – and not just because we continue to see these issues as matters of substantive policy while increasingly they see them as cultural. It’s also because people tend to be more defensive about social issues, and less likely to be open to counter-arguments or new information.

In his new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science, Chris Mooney explores years of research into the cognitive and neurobiological features associated with our ideologies. “The way the mind works,” Mooney writes, “suggests that good arguments only win the day when people don’t have strong emotional commitments that contradict them.” Scientists, he writes, have long noted that “cold reasoning (rational, unemotional) is very different from hot reasoning (emotional, motivated).”

We are better able to have a cool, unemotional debate about the merits of, say, higher or lower corporate taxes. But cultural beliefs resonate more deeply, especially with conservatives; these beliefs become integrated into their identities, and once fixed, are difficult to dislodge with factual arguments. One area where conservatives and liberal tend to differ, according to Mooney, is “in their need to defend their beliefs, their internal desire to have unwavering convictions that do not and cannot change.” The culture wars are ultimately tribal, and as Mooney notes, conservatives are more likely to “be sure that their group is right, and the other group is wrong – in short, their need for group solidarity and unity, or for having a strong in-group/out-group way of looking at the world.”

So, having turned substantial issues into cultural debates, the right is more deeply invested in their outcomes, and less likely to be swayed by the reality we see around us. That “facts have a liberal bias” has become more than just a quip, and this is part of the reason why.

That is not to say that conservatives have stopped deploying non-cultural arguments – many still do. But consider some of the specific ways that what we think of as debates over concrete matters of public policy have been “culturalized” by the right.

The Economy and the Role of Government

Many conservative policy experts and politicians still make the same substantive arguments they have for years about corporate taxes sending jobs overseas or “entitlements” breaking the budget, but this is the area where the culturalization of formerly non-social issues is most apparent.

Consider one of the most enduring and pernicious untruths in our political economy. As I wrote last summer, most conservatives have come to embrace the view that poverty and inequality don’t actually result from tangible economic factors.

Rather, the poor are where they find themselves as a consequence of some deep-seated cultural flaws that keep them from achieving success. They’re held back, the story goes, by what is known alternatively as a “culture of poverty,” or a “culture of dependence.” It’s a popular fable for the right, as it absolves the political establishment for public policies that harm the working class and the poor.

It’s also thoroughly and demonstrably untrue, flying in the face of decades of serious research findings. Yet it reinforces the in-group/out-group dynamic at the center of the culture wars and raises conservative defenses to factual information.

An excellent example of this is the simple fact that there are now 4.5 unemployed people for every full-time job opening (and 7.5 people looking for a full-time gig if you include those stuck “involuntarily” working part-time jobs), yet it remains a core belief on the right today that the unemployed are simply lazy – a cultural flaw — and therefore unemployment benefits (which are extremely modest in the United States relative to other wealthy countries) contribute to the problem.

The hottest book in conservative circles right now is Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, which calls for dismantling the social safety net based on a cultural analysis of inequality and has been touted by everyone on the right, from raging social-con Rick Santorum to David Brooks, the New York Times’ Upper West Side-friendly “center-right” columnist.

As far as taxation, the stand-by claim that taxing the wealthy leads to lower business investment has been overtaken by another cultural narrative – the Randian view of a world made up of a few virile, virtuous “producers,” and the many “parasites” who feed off their labors. It’s the producers who create wealth and make a better world, and they do so by pursuing their own dreams of success. In Ayn Rand’s books, though, moochers and petty, visionless bureaucrats persistently bite at the ankles of her capitalist “supermen,” which has the effect — unintended, but pernicious nonetheless– of harming all of society. Therefore, freeing the wealthy from their obligations, freeing the elite from their social contract with the rest of us, is the apex of morality. Rand may have been a staunch atheist, but this argument resembles a religious viewpoint more than it does a matter of simple economics.

Guns

Last week, Newt Gingrich claimed that “you can’t put a gun-rack in a Volt” – drawing a cultural line between gun-owning “real Americans” and granola-eating hippies who want to drive electric cars. (As is so often the case, Newt happened to be wrong.)

A few weeks ago, Talking-Points Memo covered a panel on dating at the Conservative Political Action Conference. At one point, participants were asked what one might do on a good right-wing date, and one of them replied, “A gun club works really well for that thing… It’s conservative, it’s fun, most women haven’t done that before…you get to look like you know what you’re doing.”

Gun control is an issue that has always cleaved more neatly along rural-urban lines, a gap that’s both substantive and cultural, than the left-right ideological divide. A lot of otherwise conservative mayors and police chiefs in densely packed cities have long favored stricter gun controls, and otherwise liberal politicians representing wide-open rural expanses have not.

But at this moment in our history, the substantive debates over guns are virtually nonexistent. In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a decisive ruling in favor of those who oppose restrictions on gun ownership. It was the last in a string of moves by the courts that have made Americans’ right to own firearms as secure today as they have ever been. The 5-4 decision established that all Americans have a fundamental, individual right to bear arms that constrains not only the actions of the federal government, but states and municipalities as well. It was a long-sought victory for gun rights advocates and a resounding defeat for those who favor stricter controls. In the words of conservative legal scholar Glenn Reynolds, the ruling meant that the Second Amendment “is now a full-fledged part of the Bill of Rights.”

In the wake of the ruling, gun control advocates now dedicate themselves to objectives with which the vast majority of gun owners agree – closing the so-called “gun show loophole” and keeping guns out of the hands of felons and potential terrorists. A 2009 poll by conservative messaging-guru Frank Luntz found that “NRA members and gun owners support sensible new measures to combat illegal guns, including closing the terror gap (82 percent NRA members support, 86 percent non-NRA gun owners support), closing the gun show loophole (69 percent / 85 percent), and requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen guns (78 percent / 88 percent).” Luntz, in an op-ed, characterized what remains of the issue as a social one, writing, “The culture war over the right to bear arms isn’t much of a war after all. As it turns out, there is a lot everyone agrees on.”

But the gun lobby hasn’t allowed the bitter debate over the scope of the Second Amendment to be settled. Guns are too critical to the culture wars; they represent what Karl Rove called an “anger point” that stokes the passions of the conservative base.

It’s worth adding that, among the more paranoid elements of the conservative movement, the idea that gun owners are not secure with their firearms springs from a fringe conspiracy theory about Barack Obama supporting a UN treaty that amounts to a “back-door” attempt to disarm America. This, again, reinforces the “othering” – the in-group/out-group dichotomy – at the heart of the culture wars, framing the issue as a conflict between (“real”) Americans and foreigners.

Foreign Policy

After killing Osama Bin Laden, escalating the war in Afghanistan and drawing down troops in Iraq, polls show that President Obama has evaporated Republicans’ traditional advantage on “national security.” Aside from portraying cuts in the defense budget as apocalyptic, if you watch the right’s current discourse on foreign policy, it’s now almost entirely cultural in nature.

Consider the conservative charges against Obama in the realm of foreign policy. As a factual matter, Robert Schlesinger noted that Obama had, as of last January, mentioned “American exceptionalism” far more frequently than his predecessor, George W Bush. But that didn’t keep Kathleen Parker from writing at the time that exceptionalism is a “word that isn’t much heard from this president but that tumbles so easily — and adamantly — from the lips of Republican[s],” and it hasn’t prevented the right from obsessing on the supposed failure.

Or consider Mitt Romney’s frequent and wholly erroneous claim that Barack Obama “went around the world and apologized for America.” Or consider the words of Franklin Graham, a prominent figure on the religious right, who questioned Obama’s religion based in large part because, “[Under] President Obama, the Muslims of the world, he seems to be more concerned about them than the Christians that are being murdered in the Muslim countries.” These words belong squarely in the category of the culture wars.

Even before Obama was elected, a great deal of the right’s views of foreign policy were culturally informed. With his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington had an enormous impact on Republican foreign policy rhetoric, helping to inform George W Bush’s “war on terror.” Huntington was explicit in his social analysis of geopolitics, writing:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural… The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

Immigration

Here is where this hypothesis is on its shakiest ground, not because immigration isn’t a cultural issue, but because one can argue that it has always been so. We talk about competing policies – “enforcement only” versus a more comprehensive approach – and those are certainly matters of substance. But the degree to which immigration has become a top-tier, litmus-test issue for the right, the degree to which it’s become polarized, has everything to do with the culture wars, and this is apparent in the symbolic issues that come up in the debate. Think about the brouhaha over displaying Mexican flags, or the fight to keep states from printing government forms in multiple languages.

In 1986, the father of the modern anti-immigration movement, John Tanton, wrote a memo laying out what he saw as the potential problems with our immigration system. He discussed a range of issues, including the economic and political impacts of large numbers of immigrants arriving in the United States, but much of his concerns centered around cultural issues. “Will Latin American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe), the lack of involvement in public affairs, etc.?” he asked. “What in fact are the characteristics of Latin American culture, versus that of the United States?” Arguing that Hispanics are inherently harder to educate than other groups, he wrote: “We’re building in a deadly disunity. All great empires disintegrate, we want stability.”

Twenty-five years later, the same social fears continue to inform conservative arguments about immigration. Lamenting the push for comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly claimed that advocates of the bill, “hate America, and they hate it because it’s run primarily by white Christian men. Let me repeat that. America is run primarily by white Christian men, and there is a segment of our population who hates that, despises that power structure.”

Samuel Huntington’s follow-up to The Clash of Civilizations, the influential book Who We Are, stems from the same premise, but covered with a more academic veneer. Reviewing the book for Foreign Affairs, Alan Wolf wrote that it’s riddled with “ moralistic passion — at times bordering on hysteria.”

He eschews realistic treatment of American history in favor of romantic nostalgia for Anglo-Protestant culture. And then there is the book’s fatalism: Huntington tells his readers that he is a “patriot … deeply concerned about the unity and strength of my country based on liberty, equality, law and individual rights,” but he portrays the United States as haplessly without resources in its struggle with immigration, as if the country’s identity were too fragile for the challenges it faces. Although Huntington was deeply troubled by the 1960s and their aftermath, he managed to maintain his cool in subsequent books. Immigration has touched his nerves in a way that flower children and protesters never did. Who Are We? is Patrick Buchanan with footnotes.

It was also, at heart, a social argument for limiting immigration.

Everything Has an Element of Culture Wars

Those are but a few examples of once-concrete debates over public policy having been tainted by the culture wars. There are others: The right’s obsession with light-bulbs and scorn for Priuses; justifying voting restrictions based on unfounded fears of undocumented immigrants voting; and conservatives’ blind insistence that because we supposedly “have the greatest healthcare in the world,” we can turn our backs on the data that belie that claim and ignore the plight of the uninsured. As the Policy Shop’s Mijin Cha wrote this week, “climate change has been slowly entering into culture war territory for a while now.”

We have entered into an era of public discourse where issues like solar energy are being framed as issues of liberty and freedom. Not to mention the backlash against seemingly innocuous policies, like bike lanes and smart growth. To see the somewhat dry issues of renewable energy and sustainable development discussed in the same vein as reproductive choice and marriage equality is strange, to say the least.

All of this does not serve our democracy well. While it may be difficult to find common ground on matters of public policy in a closely divided country, it’s all but impossible when the emotional heat of the culture wars – the tribal affinities – is added to the mix. It makes the right guard its positions more closely, and causes conservatives to defend themselves from any inconvenient facts that conflict with their positions.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.

© 2012 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at:

http://www.alternet.org/news/154339/

The Young are the Restless

By CHARLES M. BLOW, New York Times, April 5, 2013

Excerpt

The surge of generational change continues in this country, altering the cultural landscape with a speed and intensity that has rarely — if ever — been seen before…millennials (defined by Pew as people born in 1981 or later), Generation Xers (those born between 1965 and 1980) and baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964)…The millennial generation is the generation of change. Millennials’ views on a broad range of policy issues are so different from older Americans’ perspectives that they are likely to reshape the political dialogue faster than the political class can catch up…a generation bent on rapid change — even if that means standing alone…Young people also are the least religious (more than a quarter specify no religion when asked), and they are an increasingly diverse group of voters. Fifty-eight percent of voters under 30 were white non-Hispanic in 2012, down from 74 percent in 2000. Like it or not, younger Americans are thirsty for change that lines up with their more liberal cultural worldview. Advantage Democrats.

Full text

The surge of generational change continues in this country, altering the cultural landscape with a speed and intensity that has rarely — if ever — been seen before.

The latest remarkable change concerns the decriminalization of the use of marijuana. A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center found that for the first time more Americans support legalizing marijuana use than oppose it.

It was rather unsurprising that more young people would support the move, but it was striking how quickly they adopted a more liberal position. About seven years ago, millennials (defined by Pew as people born in 1981 or later), Generation Xers (those born between 1965 and 1980) and baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) shared the same view on marijuana: Only about a third thought it should be legalized. Since then, the share of millennials supporting its legalization has risen more than 90 percent. Meanwhile, the number of legalization supporters in Generation X and among the baby boomers has risen by no more than 60 percent.

The millennial generation is the generation of change. Millennials’ views on a broad range of policy issues are so different from older Americans’ perspectives that they are likely to reshape the political dialogue faster than the political class can catch up.

I surveyed the past six months of Pew and Gallup polls, to better understand the portrait of a generation bent on rapid change — even if that means standing alone.

ON GAY MARRIAGE Much has been made of the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage in this country, but a Pew poll last month found that that the change is driven mainly by millennials. Theirs was the only generation in which a majority (70 percent) supported same-sex marriage; theirs was also the only generation even more likely to be in favor of it in 2013 than in 2012, as support in the other generations ticked down. The longer-term picture is even more telling. Support for same sex-marriage among Generation X is the same in 2013 as it was in 2001 (49 percent). But among millennials, support is up 40 percent since 2003, the first year they were included in the survey.

Some of this no doubt is the result of younger adults’ having more exposure to people who openly identify as LGBT. According to an October Gallup poll, young adults between 18 and 30 were at least twice as likely to identify as LGBT as any other age group.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that millennials overwhelmingly agree, on a moral level, with same-sex relationships. In fact, a survey released last year by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in conjunction with the Public Religion Research Institute found that they “are nearly evenly divided over whether sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable.”

ON GUN CONTROL According to a February Gallup report, Americans ages 18 to 29 are the least likely to own guns, with just 20 percent saying that they do. That is well under the national average of 30 percent of Americans who own guns.

And in a Pew poll taken shortly after the Newtown, Conn., shootings, younger Americans were the most likely to say that gun control was a bigger concern in this country than protecting the right to own a gun. (Younger respondents barely edged out seniors with this sentiment.)

In fact, a Gallup poll found that the percentage of those 18 to 34 years old saying they want the nation’s gun laws and policies to be stricter doubled from January 2012 to 2013. No other age group saw such a large increase.

It is remarkable that young people’s opinions shifted so dramatically, especially since a December Pew poll found that young adults under 30 were the least likely to believe that the shootings in Newtown reflect broader problems in American society. This age group was, in fact, the most likely to believe that such shootings are simply the isolated acts of troubled individuals.

Young people also are the least religious (more than a quarter specify no religion when asked), and they are an increasingly diverse group of voters. Fifty-eight percent of voters under 30 were white non-Hispanic in 2012, down from 74 percent in 2000. Like it or not, younger Americans are thirsty for change that lines up with their more liberal cultural worldview.

Advantage Democrats.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/06/opinion/blow-the-young-are-the-restless.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130406&_r=0

President Barack Obama, Editorial

New York Times, January 21, 2013

President Obama’s first Inaugural Address offered a clear and bracing vision for a way out of the depth of an economic crisis and two foreign wars. His second, on Monday, revealed less of his specific plans for the next four years but more of his political philosophy.

He argued eloquently for a progressive view of government, founded on history and his own deep conviction that American prosperity and the preservation… explain what it means in the broadest sense to be “we the people,” Mr. Obama’s most eloquent description of our common heritage…President Obama rejected any argument that the American people can be divided into groups whose interests are opposed to each other

He spoke only obliquely of the persistent gridlock in Congress, where he will face right-wing Republicans whose bleak agenda would weaken civil rights, shred the social safety net and block important programs that could help put millions of jobless Americans back to work. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.  We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.

Instead, he took the fight to the people, laying out his principles and priorities: addressing the threat of climate change, embracing sustainable energy sources, ensuring equality of gays and lesbians, expanding immigration and equal pay for women….Throughout his first term, he clung to a hope of bipartisanship even when it became obvious that his Republican adversaries had no interest in compromise of any sort…With this speech, he has made a forceful argument for a progressive agenda that meets the nation’s needs. We hope he has the political will and tactical instincts to carry it out.

Full text

President Obama’s first Inaugural Address offered a clear and bracing vision for a way out of the depth of an economic crisis and two foreign wars. His second, on Monday, revealed less of his specific plans for the next four years but more of his political philosophy.

He argued eloquently for a progressive view of government, founded on history and his own deep conviction that American prosperity and the preservation of freedom depend on collective action. In the coming days, there will be no let up of political combat over the debt ceiling, gun control, national security and tax policies that can either reduce income inequality or allow such inequality to stifle economic growth and opportunity for all but the very wealthiest in this society.

But, on Monday, the president stepped back from those immediate battles to explain what it means in the broadest sense to be “we the people,” Mr. Obama’s most eloquent description of our common heritage.

“We have always understood that when times change, so must we,” he said, “that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

In every sphere of life — improving education, building roads, caring for the poor and elderly, training workers, recovering from natural disasters, providing for our defense — progress requires that Americans do these things together, Mr. Obama said.

That applies, he said, to “the commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

President Obama rejected any argument that the American people can be divided into groups whose interests are opposed to each other. The choice is not “between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” he said.   “For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.  We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.”

He spoke only obliquely of the persistent gridlock in Congress, where he will face right-wing Republicans whose bleak agenda would weaken civil rights, shred the social safety net and block important programs that could help put millions of jobless Americans back to work. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.  We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.

Instead, he took the fight to the people, laying out his principles and priorities: addressing the threat of climate change, embracing sustainable energy sources, ensuring equality of gays and lesbians, expanding immigration and equal pay for women. Disappointingly, the need for stricter gun controls was noted solely in a reference to the safety of children in places like Newtown, Conn.

On foreign policy, President Obama expressed with fervor a view of the role of the United States in a world that is threatened by terrorism on many continents. “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” he said. “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”

Mr. Obama is smart enough to know that what he wants to achieve in his second term must be done in the next two years — perhaps even in the first 18 months. Throughout his first term, he clung to a hope of bipartisanship even when it became obvious that his Republican adversaries had no interest in compromise of any sort.

Time is not on his side. It is pointless to wait for signs of conciliation from the extreme right, whose central ideology is to render government ineffective. He has gotten off to a good start by putting forward a comprehensive plan to tighten gun laws, despite outrageous propaganda against sensible controls from the gun lobby.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that there is much left to be done to shore up the economic recovery and invest in education and opportunities for the next generation. And, above all, he stressed the importance of the middle class to America’s economic survival. “Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” he said.

It’s natural for a second-term president to be thinking about his place in history. There is no doubt that Mr. Obama has the ambition and intellect to place himself in the first rank of presidents. With this speech, he has made a forceful argument for a progressive agenda that meets the nation’s needs. We hope he has the political will and tactical instincts to carry it out.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/opinion/president-obamas-second-inauguration.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130122&_r=0

In four short years, how the world changed

By Ken Smith, Washington Post, January 14, 2013

…We can’t know what travails and triumphs the next four years will send President Obama’s way, but we can be certain that the list won’t be what’s on his docket this Inauguration Day. In Obama’s first term, revolution swept the world’s most volatile region, the American Dream was redefined, the economy collapsed and gasped its way toward recovery, nature turned destructive to an almost unprecedented degree, and a man murdered a small town’s children. As Obama prepares to shoulder whatever comes next, we look back on 10 trials of one presidential term:

1. Economic Crisis

2. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

3. Occupy Wall Street

4. Gay Marriage

5. Natural Disasters

6. Affordable Care Act

7. Arab Spring

8. Automotive Bailout

9. Apple’s iPad

10. Gun Violence

Full text

In four years, presidents age a decade, sometimes two. They turn gray, their faces sag, their voices grow huskier. Whatever mandate they’ve been elected to fulfill, whatever sense of control they felt on that first January morning when the crowd’s hopes carried them down Pennsylvania Avenue, quickly runs up against a cold fact:

The world stops for no president.

We can’t know what travails and triumphs the next four years will send President Obama’s way, but we can be certain that the list won’t be what’s on his docket this Inauguration Day.

In Obama’s first term, revolution swept the world’s most volatile region, the American Dream was redefined, the economy collapsed and gasped its way toward recovery, nature turned destructive to an almost unprecedented degree, and a man murdered a small town’s children. As Obama prepares to shoulder whatever comes next, we look back on 10 trials of one presidential term:

1. Economic Crisis:

The collapse hurt everyone, then things got weird. In the first months after Obama took office, it seemed that the entire nation had been dealt a body blow: Stocks plummeted, foreclosures mounted, factories shuttered, jobs evaporated. But in the following years, even as corporate profits rebounded nicely and stocks proved resilient, unemployment remained stubbornly high. The yawning inequality between the rich and the rest expressed itself in a realigned economy, with most Americans facing suddenly and unhappily lowered expectations. Basements filled with 20-somethings who had neither careers nor clear trajectories, the nation’s birthrate dropped to a record low, Europe’s woes provided a warning about the deeper pain that austerity could bring, and meanwhile, the rich were doing better than they had pre-collapse. Thus do fairness and populism poke their way back into the nation’s politics.

2. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

It never even had a name; it was just the war in Iraq. For the war’s entire nine-year history, debate raged over what would constitute a win. The president who started it said this was part of a war that might never end, a war not against a country, but against an idea, an -ism. Obama ran for office promising to end that war and win the one in Afghanistan, another war with no name. When we finally declared the end to the fighting in Iraq, we had neither ended terrorism nor created a vibrant democracy. But had we planted the roots of the Arab Spring? And when the president doubled down on Afghanistan, just as we had in Vietnam, did he do so knowing there would be no victory, just a never-ending rearguard action against something worse? We couldn’t claim to have made life much better for Afghanis, we lost thousands of our own men and women, we spent ourselves into unfathomable debt, and the best we could say is that we maintained a grim status quo.

3. Occupy Wall Street:

American history offers this constant: When times get tough, the frustrated turn back to the principles that got us started. Suddenly, people who had never had much interest in politics were carrying copies of the Constitution, allying themselves with the Founders, revving up their inner Tom Paines. As unemployment soared and foreclosures flourished, the tea party flared, fed by cynicism about Washington and anger aimed at corporate powers. Then came Occupy Wall Street, similarly cynical. Despite their ideological differences, both movements were wonderfully American and almost irrationally optimistic, attracting people who truly believed they could change the system just by making themselves known and clear. Not long after they flared, both began to drift into history. Coming together in frustration is one thing; governing is harder.

4. Gay Marriage:

It was the biggest shift in social attitudes since the civil rights movement, but this change happened without lunch counter sit-ins or shameful images of men in uniforms wielding fire hoses against people asserting their humanity. By the time the president announced what most people had long assumed, that he supported the right of men to marry men and women to marry women, there was no shock. This social revolution occurred not in the public square, but at home, in kitchens and living rooms where family and friends learned that their loved ones loved people of their own sex. It was a revolution of private persuasion, helped along by popular culture, and by the new shape of the American family — single parents, childless couples, people in ever more complex stepfamilies. By the time laws and votes and presidential pronouncements started piling up, the change was pretty much done.

5. Natural Disasters:

The heavens raged. Storms with the names of sirens, Sandy and Irene, altered the coastlines. Quakes ravaged Japan and jostled Washington. Hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis — for years, experts on both sides of the global warming debate warned us that weather does not equal climate: Stuff happens, and it’s only the long, long run that makes the case. But although a few big weather events don’t prove that the planet is warming, climate change in the form of warmer sea temperatures is contributing to the strength of the recent megastorms. For now, the insurance industry and government, like 3-year-olds after they’ve knocked down their blocks, gamely pick up the pieces. But like any reasonable toddler, the taxpayer will eventually tire of repeated cleanups. And then?

6. Affordable Care Act:

The history of economic security, from feudalism (bless you for feeding me, lord!) to fraternal organizations (the Masons and Elks take care of their own) to the modern nation-state (poorhouses to pensions), is a story of slow expansion of the minimum we think people need to get by. There have been times when thousands marched on Washington to demand more security. That kind of uprising — and the crushing, nearly universal pain of the Great Depression — brought us Social Security. Three decades later, Lyndon Johnson expanded the definition of security to include health care for the elderly and poor, with Medicare and Medicaid. Half a century after that, Barack Obama — for once able to set his own agenda — asked Americans to see health care as a basic right for all. Like Social Security and Medicare before it, Obamacare — the wholesale acceptance of the term is the best evidence that the program will stick — aroused horrified visions of American socialism. But its provisions proved immediately popular (covering preexisting conditions, keeping young adults on their parents’ policies). As ever with expansions of security, the new minimum is quickly accepted, even if the price continues to sting.

7. Arab Spring:

In a part of the world where long-gone colonial powers drew artificial borders and a few men wielded awesome and autocratic authority, revolution came not with guns or fires, but through videos posted on YouTube and messages sent via Facebook. Dictators fell across North Africa and in the heart of the Arab world: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya. Ordinary people, newly able to see what they were missing out on in other lands, used the newfangled — social media — to facilitate the old-fashioned — people power in public squares. Tyrants were also toppled through traditional means: American power and ingenuity finally got Osama bin Laden, and natural causes claimed Kim Jong Il, but the Arab Spring demonstrated that cellphones trump truncheons and tanks. What next? Technology is a superb disrupter, but taking apart is always a lot easier than building anew.

8. Automotive Bailout:

Almost two years passed between a big bailout that rubbed millions of Americans the wrong way and two moments that provided a patriotic pick-me-up. Wall Street and the banks had received all manner of federal support in their time of need, so when GM and Chrysler — makers of the product most associated with the American Dream — started into the death spiral in 2009, the president saw himself with little choice but to lavish them with billions. Many disagreed, of course, seeing the bailout as a symbol of a society grown soft, a country where failure no longer had consequences. But then, after the automakers’ near-death experience, Chrysler recruited Eminem and Clint Eastwood for 2011 and 2012 Super Bowl ads that would prove far more powerful than any Obama reelection spot. From “a town that’s been to hell and back,” Chrysler made a gut-wrenching, emboldening case for American cars, American jobs and American spirit. “We’re certainly no one’s Emerald City,” the voice of Detroit said. Eminem pointed at us and said: “This is the Motor City — and this is what we do.” A year later, Eastwood captured our anxiety: “We’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.” But “all that matters now is what’s ahead. … The world’s gonna hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime, America, and our second half is about to begin.”

9. Apple’s iPad:

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010, it seemed to be the culmination of his 1983 dream to “put an in­cred­ibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes.” But the tablet computer and advances in smartphone technology offered far more than simplicity and convenience. Ordinary people could now manipulate systems previously controlled by experts. The latest burst of innovation smashed borders and hierarchies, allowing Wikileaks, Anonymous and other hackers to gain power previously reserved to nations and corporations, presidents and CEOs. The new gadgets brought people together digitally but also atomized our lives, making it ever harder for a president to rally the country to his agenda. “We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine,” said Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, reacting to his teammate Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide. “But … it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.”

10. Gun Violence:

Mass shootings are powerfully effective at making parents hug their children tighter. What they don’t do is change the rules on guns. A Batman-batty gunman killed 12 and injured 58 in a movie theater in Colorado; a schizophrenic college dropout killed six and injured 13, including his congresswoman, at an Arizona shopping center; a psychiatrist who fancied himself a terrorist is charged with killing 13 and injuring 32 on an Army base in Texas — and the political calculus across the ideological spectrum was that the best course of action is to change the subject. There was a time when mass crimes and assassinations and attempts — King, RFK, Reagan — prompted debate about who gets to buy which weapons. But of late, gun control advocates were unable to find traction; gun control opponents could relax. Last month brought Newtown and the murder of 20 first-graders and their teachers. Would politicians merely express sorrow, attend a funeral and wait for the next big story to distract the nation, or would a moral imperative kick in as a president shaped his final term?

Marc Fisher is a Washington Post senior editor. Comment at washingtonpost.com/magazine or send e-mail to marcfisher@washpost.com.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2013/01/14/in-four-short-years-how-the-world-changed/?wpisrc=nl_headlines

Far-Right John Birch Society 2010

ABC News, Feb 19, 2010

ABC’s Jonathan Karl reports: This week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington has a co-sponsor from the far-right fringe of American politics:   The John Birch Society. According to Ian Walters, a spokesman for CPAC, it’s the first time the John Birch Society has sponsored the conference.  That’s not surprising, considering that the Birch Society has long been considered wacky and extreme by conservative leaders. William F. Buckley famously denounced the John Birch Society and its founder Robert Welch in the early 1960s as “idiotic” and “paranoid. “  Buckley’s condemnation effectively banishing the group from the mainstream conservative movement.  Welch had called President Dwight D. Eisenhower a “conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy” and that the U.S. government was “under operational control of the Communist party.”  Buckley argued that such paranoid rantings had no place in the conservative movement or the Republican party.  Two years after Buckley’s death, the John Birch Society is no longer banished; it is listed as one of about 100 co-sponsors of the 2010 CPAC. Why is the Birch Society a co-sponsor? “They’re a conservative organization,” said Lisa Depasquale, the CPAC Director for the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC.  ” Beyond that I have no comment.” On its website, the Birch Society describes it mission as to “to warn against and expose the forces that seek to abolish U.S. independence, build a world government, or otherwise undermine our personal liberties and national independence. The John Birch Society endorses the U.S. Constitution as the foundation of our national government, and works toward educating and activating Americans to abide by the original intent of the Founding Fathers. We seek to awaken a sleeping and apathetic people concerning the designs of those who are working to destroy our constitutional Republic.”

http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2010/02/farright-john-birch-society-2010/

Beware Stubby Glasses

By DAVID BROOKS, New York Times, January 10, 2013

If you want to deter crime, it seems that you’d want to lengthen prison sentences so that criminals would face steeper costs for breaking the law. In fact, a mountain of research shows that increases in prison terms have done nothing to deter crime. Criminals, like the rest of us, aren’t much influenced by things they might have to experience far in the future.

If a police officer witnesses the death of his partner, it seems that you’d want to quickly send in a grief counselor. In fact, this sort of immediate counseling freezes and fortifies memories of the trauma, making the aftershocks more damaging.

If you want to get people to vote more, it seems you’d want to tell them what a problem low turnout is. In fact, if you want people to vote, tell them everybody else is already voting and they should join the club. Voting is mostly about social membership and personal expression.

These are three examples of policies and practices that are based on bad psychology. The list of examples could go on and fill this page. That’s because we spend trillions of dollars putting policies and practices into place, but most of these efforts are based on the crudest possible psychological guesswork.

Fortunately, people in the behavioral sciences are putting policies to the test. I know of groups at Duke and Penn that are applying behavioral research findings to policy issues. Eldar Shafir of Princeton has edited a weighty new book, “The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy,” which is a master compendium of what we know.

One of the things we know is that seemingly trivial changes can have big effects. People who are presented with a wide variety of choices of, say, yogurt, will eat more than people who are presented with a small array of choices or no choice. People who were randomly given a short, wide 22-ounce glass, poured 88 percent more juice or soda into it than people who were offered a tall, narrow 22-ounce glass, but they believed they only poured in half as much as they actually did.

Sometimes the behavioral research leads us to completely change how we think about an issue. For example, many of our anti-discrimination policies focus on finding the bad apples who are explicitly prejudiced. In fact, the serious discrimination is implicit, subtle and nearly universal. Both blacks and whites subtly try to get a white partner when asked to team up to do an intellectually difficult task. In computer shooting simulations, both black and white participants were more likely to think black figures were armed. In emergency rooms, whites are pervasively given stronger painkillers than blacks or Hispanics. Clearly, we should spend more effort rigging situations to reduce universal, unconscious racism.

The research is also leading to new policy approaches. The most famous involve default settings. Roughly 98 percent of people take part in organ donor programs in European countries where you have to check a box to opt out. Only 10 percent or 20 percent take part in neighboring countries where you have to check a box to opt in.

In one clever program, dieters were told to phone in their weight to a nurse daily. Every day they called, they got an encouraging text and a lottery ticket, with a chance of winning a small amount. These dieters lost three times more weight than people who didn’t get tickets. Another ingenious program automatically diverts some money into your savings account every time you buy a state lottery ticket.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s government in Britain has gone furthest in implementing these sorts of programs. Personalized text messages were found to be six times more effective in getting people to pay fines than warning letters. If you tell people what percentage of their neighbors has already paid their taxes, you are more likely to get late filers to actually pay than if you nag them another way.

My problem with these efforts is that they are still so modest. What about the big problems? How do we get people to restrain government commitments now so that debt down the road won’t be so ruinous? How do we calculate the multiplier effects of tax cuts or spending increases among different subgroups of the population, or under different emotional conditions? How do we rig the context of budget negotiations so participants can actually come to a deal? How are people in different cultures likely to react to drone strikes? How do we structure sanctions against Iran to cause the greatest psychic humiliation?

These are the big questions, and most of our policies rely on crude folk psychology from a few politicians. But there’s hope. As Brian Wansink notes in Eldar Shafir’s volume, the 20th century saw great gains in sanitation and public health. The 21st century could be a great period for behavior change.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/11/opinion/brooks-beware-stubby-glasses.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130111&_r=0

We must change – Uptown Neighborhood News, Jan 2013

Commentary by Phyllis Stenerson, Uptown Neighborhood News, January 2013

“We must change.”

President Barack Obama clearly and emphatically stated this at the December 16 prayer vigil for vic­tims of the shoot­ing at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School in New­town, Connecticut.

This public declaration was prompted by the tragic, senseless killing of 26 people, including 20 first-grade school children, with an assault rifle designed for combat on a battlefield. That this lethal weapon came to be fired at astonishing speed at innocent children in a classroom says volumes about our country’s misplaced priorities and broken political system.

Examining the history of the proliferation of guns, including those with no discernible civilian purpose, and the dismal failure of gun control initiatives, can serve as a case study for how things happen, and don’t happen, in the political/governmental process.

In a word – power.

The legislative, legal and regulative systems are absurdly complex enabling convoluted thinking and barely legal tactics to prevail by those who amass the power to get what they want. In this case power is wielded primarily by the National Rifle Association that is richly funded by all facets of the firearms industry from manufacturers to retailers like Walmart.

Financial power translates into political power that can be used to help elect Members of Congress who are friendly to their agenda and, perhaps more dangerously, to aggressively work against those who resist following in lockstep. Targeting and defeating, often humiliating, a few non–compliant representatives sends a powerful message. Intimidation is one of the key strategies used by the National Rifle Association, as well as many other special interest groups.

The gun lobby cites the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution to justify and legalize its demands:

The Second Amendment:  A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.

That’s all it says.

At the time this Amendment was adopted regular citizens had to be ready to defend the new nation. Rifles at the time were slow and clumsy. It is preposterous to claim the founders intended to legalize the right for any person to obtain, through purchase or theft, a weapon that can kill 26 people in a matter of minutes. This is not maintaining a well-regulated militia, it’s a breakdown in our civilization.

The tragedy in Newtown brings into sharp focus one major crisis – gun violence. The solutions to countless other critical national and international problems including climate change, childhood poverty and, closely related to this tragedy, adequate provision of mental health services are impeded by similar abuse of power in the political system. A disgusting, real aspect of our democratic system and one we must confront head-on.

At the prayer vigil in Newtown, President Obama went on talk about how our responsibility to our children must be our nation’s top priority. He said “this job of keep­ing our chil­dren safe and teach­ing them well is some­thing we can only do together, with the help of friends and neigh­bors, the help of a com­mu­nity and the help of a nation….We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this…”

Surely, we can and must do better than this in keeping our children safe as well as housed, fed and educated. That the United States of America is ranked among third world countries on these criteria shows how we are failing at this most critical responsibility.

Again, about power.

“I’ll use what­ever power this office holds to engage my fel­low cit­i­zens, from law enforce­ment, to men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als, to par­ents and edu­ca­tors, in an effort aimed at pre­vent­ing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine,” said the President.

We individuals have enormous power if we take our responsibility as citizens seriously and organize to change America. The power of citizens working for the common good can overcome the power of money and special interests. Now is the time.

“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

More commentary from various sources related to the nexus of culture, politics, religion, spiritualty and intellect can be found at www.ProgressiveValues.org.

Phyllis Stenerson is the previous Editor of the Uptown Neighborhood News and lives in the CARAG neighborhood.

Cliff After Cliff

By CHARLES M. BLOW, New York Times, January 2, 2013

We have a deal. But please hold your applause, indefinitely.

We momentarily went over the fiscal cliff but clawed our way back up the rock face. Unfortunately, we are most likely in store for a never-ending series of cliffs for our economy, our government and indeed our country. Soon we’ll have to deal with the sequester, a debt-ceiling extension and possibly a budget, all of which hold the specter of revisiting the unresolvable conflicts and intransigence of the fiscal cliff. Imagine an M. C. Escher drawing of cliffs.

Be clear: there is no reason to celebrate. This is a mournful moment. We — and by we I mean Congress, and by Congress I mean the Republicans in Congress have again demonstrated just how broken and paralyzed our government has become, how beholden to hostage-takers, how vulnerable to extremism.

A fiscal cliff deal was cut at the last possible minute, covering a minimal number of issues. It was far from perfect and barely palatable. It was a compromise, and compromises are inherently imperfect. No one likes the whole of it, but they balance the bad parts against the good and see beyond dissension.

As the fiscal cliff votes came down to the wire, many repeated the aphorism: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But sadly, we are beyond even that. Now the perfunctory has become the victim of the grueling.

The American people suffered through another moment of manufactured suspense brought on by political malpractice. There was no grand bargain. There was only a begrudging acquiescence.

Not only is the era of grand bargains “over,” as Jennifer Steinhauer wrote in The Times on Tuesday, I believe that the era of basic governance is screeching to a halt.

As Steinhauer pointed out in September:

“The 112th Congress is set to enter the Congressional record books as the least productive body in a generation, passing a mere 173 public laws as of last month. That was well below the 906 enacted from January 1947 through December 1948 by the body President Harry S. Truman referred to as the ‘do-nothing’ Congress, and far fewer than even a single session of many prior Congresses.”

That’s an abominable shame. The one function of a lawmaker is to make laws. They can no longer seem to do that in any meaningful way.

It is no wonder that Gallup finds Congress’s approval rating stuck in the teens.

We have moved from a type of governance where the art of the compromise was invaluable to one where adherence to ridiculous pledges is inviolable. (By approving this fiscal cliff deal, many Republicans voted to broadly raise taxes for the first time in decades and many are still grousing about it.)

The change has taken place primarily among Republicans, who have struggled to balance the responsibilities and prerogatives of minority-party status with the anxiety of losing their long-held power at the expense of the growing influence of minority and historically marginalized constituencies like women and gays.

Smaller federal government! Out-of-control federal spending! States’ rights! Defense of Marriage! Defund Planned Parenthood! There is an individual argument (merit not withstanding) to be made about each of these issues in its own right. But only a person who is willfully blind or hopelessly ignorant would not acknowledge the common thread that runs through them: the fear of a future in which income, wealth and cultural inequalities dissipate and traditional power structures dissolve.

The country’s debt and solvency are real and legitimate concerns, but the true crux of the friction lies in the implicit arguments about the cause of our troubles. It is the tired and worn takers vs. makers argument just slathered in lipstick — Resistance Red, I suppose.

And since some of these Republicans are from safely gerrymandered districts, they have little to lose and something to gain by holding the line even if it continually pushes the country to the brink.

House Republicans like to say that Americans voted for a divided government and this gridlock is what becomes it. But that’s not entirely correct. As The Economist pointed out in November:

“The Democrats won 50.6% of the votes for president, to 47.8% for the Republicans; 53.6% of the votes for the Senate, to 42.9% for the Republicans; and… 49% of the votes for the House, to 48.2% for the Republicans (some ballots are still being counted). That’s not a vote for divided government. It’s a clean sweep.”

Republicans control the House in part because of the geography of ideology — cities tend to have high concentrations of Democrats and rural areas have high concentrations of Republicans — and because of the way district lines were redrawn, in many cases by Republican-led state legislatures.

So we will be soon be pushed back into a state of panic because Republican members of Congress demand a state of paralysis.

We are stuck with this reckless, whining and ultimately dangerous gaggle of wounded spirits. As many people can attest, an animal is often at its most dangerous when it’s sick, wounded or afraid. Brace yourselves.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/03/opinion/blow-cliff-after-cliff.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130103

9 Stories That Will Change Your World in 2013

by Sarah van Gelder January 3, 2013 by YES! Magazine

2012 was a year of superstorms, mass shootings, debt strikes, and the most spendy election ever. Here’s how last year’s most important stories will shape 2013.

While the Earth didn’t end on December 21, 2012, the year’s end was marked by a new awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis. Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the preciousness and fragility of life on Earth. That and other cultural shifts are setting the stage for significant change in the year ahead.

Nine key trends tell the story:

1. Climate Crisis: Alarm Translates Into Action

The climate crisis is the top story of 2012, with record-breaking heat, severe drought that led to the declaration of more than half of U.S. counties as disaster zones, wildfires that burned more than 9 million acres, and superstorm Sandy, with costs reaching into the billions. Four out of five Americans now believe that the climate problem is serious, according to an AP-Gfk poll.

The Obama administration has done little to address this problem—in part because of congressional resistance—but did set higher fuel emissions standards for automobiles, an important step in curtailing greenhouse gases.

The real action, though, is at the grassroots. Bill McKibben and 350.org launched a national movement in the fall of 2012 to press colleges and universities to divest their holdings in big energy companies. Texas and Nebraska landowners, Canadian tribes, and environmentalists everywhere are taking action to block the construction of a tar sands pipeline to ocean ports. Thousands turned out at hearings in Washington state to oppose the transport of millions of tons of Powder Basin coal through the region for export to China. And resistance to natural gas fracking is spreading throughout the Northeast.

Meanwhile, coal plants across the U.S. are closing, and a West Virginia coal company is giving up mountaintop removal as a result of pressure from environmental groups and falling demand in the wake of low prices for natural gas.

With widespread alarm at the extreme weather events, conditions are now ripe for a strong popular movement to take on the fossil fuel industry and its threat to human civilization.

2. U.S. Politics Get More Colorful

2012 saw the number of babies born to families of color exceed the number for white families. But the clout of non-whites is growing for other reasons. African Americans, Asians, and Latinos, along with women of all races, overcame discriminatory voter suppression tactics to hand President Obama the majority he needed to win a second term. The growing clout of communities of color has consequences, putting immigration reform firmly on the national agenda.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s radical platform has alienated large majorities of women and people of color, and more than half of Americans call Republican policies “extreme.”

The failure of policies unfriendly to women, people of color, and many others in the 99 percent has the Republican Party in disarray. There is now space for a progressive and inclusive agenda to emerge aimed at raising everyone up (including white men, but not privileging them).

3. Tolerance for Gun Violence Runs Thin

The school shooting in Newtown, Conn., may be the event that finally turns public opinion firmly against tolerance of gun violence. The Sandy Hook tragedy came on top of mass shootings in an Aurora, Col., movie theater, in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., in a shopping mall in Clackamas, Ore., and elsewhere, for a total of 151 killed and injured, according to Mother Jones. This continues a trend of more than 2,000 children and teens killed by guns each year, according to a 2012 study by the Children’s Defense Fund.

The good news is that a majority of Americans now supports bans on assault weapons, and, in spite of spikes in gun sales, the number of American households that own guns is actually down from the last few decades. Research shows that having a gun in the house increases the risk of homicide and suicide in that household.

4. U.S. Global Military Posture in Question

Pursuing the most globally aggressive military posture on the planet is causing a level of blowback little discussed in mainstream media. U.S. drone attacks are killing and terrorizing civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It remains unclear how the United States will extract itself from Afghanistan and wrap up the longest war in U.S. history. And American men and women in the armed services are now killing themselves at a higher rate than they are dying from any other cause, including combat. The year ended with the apparent suicide of Job W. Price, a Navy Seal.

The long-term costs to service members and their families coupled with the financial costs of carrying out wars, responding to the inevitable blowback, preparing for hypothetical wars, maintaining hundreds of foreign military bases, and paying top dollar to military contractors may be doing to the U.S. what Al Qaeda couldn’t do. Other empires fell after exhausting their people’s morale and treasure through protracted warfare. The United States is in danger of falling into a similar trap, while neglecting to invest in sources of real security, like the well-being and productive employment of citizens, and the abundance and resilience of the natural systems that supply food, water, livelihoods, and a stable climate.

In 2013, look for a reassessment of our policies of international violence. We will see efforts to rebuild our national self-worth, not based on our capacity to project death and mayhem, but on our contributions to health and well-being, climate stability, and life-enhancing technology.

5. The 99 Percent Got Inventive (and Got Some Respect)

By early 2012, as the Occupy camps were disbanded, many thought the Occupy Movement had died out. But this fall, Strike Debt arose and the Rolling Jubilee raised thousands of dollars to dissolve millions of dollars of medical debt of individuals. Both actions raised questions about why we allow the banking system to transfer so much wealth from the 99 percent to the 1 percent.

Then, when Superstorm Sandy hit, a movement that had become expert at leaderless mobilization rose up to help those harmed by the storm. Occupy volunteers hiked up stairwells to supply elderly tenants of high-rise housing projects with food and water. Distribution centers were set up throughout neighborhoods that had been flooded and lost power. Police, who had once arrested occupiers, were themselves aided by Occupy Sandy volunteers when their neighborhoods were flooded. Even the big disaster relief agencies began referring volunteers and those in need to Occupy Sandy.

The Occupy movement is inventing new forms of action and grassroots power, reinventing social movements, and building the solidarity and ethics of a new society. Watch for more powerful and creative interventions ahead in 2013.

6. Low-wage Workers Stood Up

This was a year of new labor militancy, with Walmart workers picketing for basic rights, Hot and Crusty bakery workers winning a union contract, and the original Republic Windows and Doors workers founding a worker-owned enterprise in Chicago. Still, there remains powerful pushback against labor rights. A so-called right to work bill passed in Michigan—one of many similar bills promoted by the corporate lobby group, ALEC. And the new “free trade” deal, the TransPacific Partnership, looks likely to prevail and to further benefit large transnational corporations at the expense of workers.

Look for labor organizing to continue taking creative and original forms in 2013, mobilizing unorganized workers, confronting low-wage poverty, drawing in formerly middle-class workers who are now confronting the reality of surviving in a low-wage economy, and challenging the power of the 1 percent.

7. Election 2012 Spending Spurs Backlash

What does it mean to hold an election costing nearly $6 billion? Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, 2012 was the year we learned just how many annoying advertisements billions of dollars can buy. The fundraising arms race boosted the power of those in the 1%, since their contributions became more essential than ever to both parties’ victory strategies.

Eleven states have now passed resolutions recommending a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. More than 300 town councils have done likewise, and  President Obama has endorsed the movement. The election of Elizabeth Warren to the U.S. Senate showed you can take on Wall Street and win. Look for more efforts to confront the power of corporations in 2013.

8. Love Won

In an otherwise bitter political sphere, love showed up. The image of Michelle and Barack Obama embracing became the most tweeted and Facebook “liked” image of all time. Our hearts broke when we learned of the loss of the children and the brave teachers and staff who gave their own lives to protect their students in Newtown, Conn. The president encouraged a response to the Sandy Hook shootings built on the love of our children rather than on vengeance, on the complexity of the issue rather than on simplistic solutions. He led the national mourning with his tears.

An archetypically feminine approach (to respond to a crisis with “tend and befriend” responses that look out for the best interests of all) could come to balance out the “fight or flight” responses that frequently dominate political discourse. Having record numbers of women elected to Congress in 2012 can’t hurt.

9. More Love: An Outbreak of Marriage

Here’s another place love stepped in. In an election that saw the defeat of candidates promoting an anti-gay/anti-women platform, gay marriage initiatives passed in Maine, Maryland, and Washington. The Seattle City Hall opened at midnight on the first day such marriages were legal to accommodate the flood of weddings; judges and city staff volunteered their time, and well-wishers, both straight and gay, lined the entrance to throw petals and rice, and to cheer on the newlyweds. The festivities were an eruption of unexpected joy on a cold December day.

2012 was the year when the word “love” made a comeback. This valuing of each and every life could undercut partisan bickering, a culture of violence, and political attacks, and set the tone for a new radically inclusive agenda for change.

2013’s Big Story?

The year 2013 may offer our last chance to take on the climate crisis. If we fail to take action that is up to the challenge, we may be like the passengers of the Titanic, arguing over entertainment choices while the real threat looms. With climate disasters mounting, 2013 must be the year we commit ourselves to action at the scale needed to—literally—save our world.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and executive editor of YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. She is also editor of the new book: “This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.”

http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/01/03-2