Has American public discourse ever been as vitriolic and dangerous as it is now? If not, what’s the explanation? Is it protecting the wealthy by concentrating on relatively distractions such as the Obama “takeover,” and other issues that don’t go to the heart of the inegalitarian character of American society? It is possible for us to reverse the trend? What steps are needed to do so? Last night a cable station broadcast presented an exchange between a preacher and a gay talk show host. The preacher indicated that he would not have a problem with someone assassinating the president and told the talk show host that he should die of brain cancer like Teddy Kennedy. Can we just write this off as the Kooky fringe? Or should we be alarmed? And if the latter, what’s the remedy? The only remedy can be a concerted effort on the part of the responsible figures–are there any left?–on all sides of the political spectrum to denounce such discourse. Vitriol can lead to violence and even when it doesn’t, it certainly prevents intelligent discussion about fundamental matters of national concern.
Archive for the ‘Deliberative Conversationalism’ Category
The question of the role of corporate funds (“speech”) in the marketplace of ideas is one that is vital to democracy. Again Bill Moyers provides a forum for an essential debate soon to be heard before the Court.
September 4, 2009
BILL MOYERS: Joining us now is Trevor Potter who had a hand in creating the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation. On its behalf, he has filed one of the more than 50 friend-of-the-court briefs submitted in this current Supreme Court case.
Trevor Potter heads the political activity law practice of the firm Caplin & Drysdale in Washington and served as general counsel to John McCain during the Senator’s 2000 and 2008 Presidential Campaigns. He’s former chairman of the federal election commission. And he’s the founding president of the campaign legal center. A nonpartisan group committed to quote: “Representing the public interest in the enforcement of campaign and media law.” Good to have you.
TREVOR POTTER: Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the public interest in this case?
TREVOR POTTER: The public interest in this case is enormous. It has grown significantly as the Supreme Court has changed the case. It started with a question of whether a particular film funded with for-profit corporate money could be advertised on television. It has morphed, or the Supreme Court has turned it, into a case about whether 100 years of American tradition of regulating the speech of for-profit corporations in election should be changed. Whether the Supreme Court should legislate that what the government has done for 100 years, starting with Theodore Roosevelt, what more than 22 states do, in terms of restricting corporate spending in elections should be overturned. That’s a big deal.
BILL MOYERS: I’ve read your brief. And you clearly think it’s dangerous– you didn’t use that word. But dangerous to allow corporations and unions to spend so much money in an election, and at certain times. I mean, but don’t they have important questions to address?
TREVOR POTTER: Well, let’s start with a couple things. First, everyone says corporations and unions and it sounds as if there’s some parody here. This is a case about corporate money. If this case is won by the corporation, we will be in the ironic situation where corporations will have no limits on what they can spend in elections and unions still will. So, it’s important to remember we’re talking about corporations.
BILL MOYERS: But aren’t those corporations, don’t they have important things to say, important issues?
TREVOR POTTER: They probably have a lot to say. The question is, first of all, who are they? Now, you and I have never seen a corporation walking down the street and we haven’t seen one in the voting booth. That’s because corporations are creatures of the state. That sounds like some piece of law school mumbo jumbo, but it’s not. Corporations exist, because government said, “We’re going to give you limited liability for commercial, for economic purposes. We’re going to take somebody who might have lost everything they invested and we’re going to say you can limit your liability by having a corporate form. You only lose what you invest.”
That was an economic revolution when it happened. But it was done for economic purposes. Corporations exist because somebody creates them, goes down, files the paper with the state. The state blesses them and gives them a special status. So, what I think is that corporations exist for economic purposes, commercial purposes. And that the notion that they have full First Amendment free speech rights, as well, doesn’t make any sense for this artificial creation that exists for economic, not political purposes.
BILL MOYERS: In the briefs she filed for the government, our Solicitor General, Elena Kagan, makes that same case. She says they’re artificial persons. They don’t die. They don’t get sick. They amass great wealth. And because the state created them, the state has the right to try to limit their activities in non-economic or political–
TREVOR POTTER: I think that’s true, but it goes beyond that. Corporations exist solely to make money. Amassing economic power. They want, if they could get it out of government, monopolies. They want the ability to defeat their competitors. And if they can use government to do that, they will. Individuals have a whole range of interests. Individuals go to church, they care about religious and social issues, they care about the future of the country. They’re voters.
So, they have a range of issues at stake that corporations don’t have. Corporations just want to make money. So, if you let the corporation with a privileged economic legal position loose in the political sphere, when we’re deciding who to elect, I think you are giving them an enormous advantage over individuals and not a healthy one for our democracy.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think will be the result if Floyd Abrams and his side prevail next week with the Supreme Court?
TREVOR POTTER: I think we would see an enormous change in the way our democracy is conducted. And that’s really dangerous to think that that would happen in a case that, you know, as I say, the Supreme Court has largely created, because there are very narrow ways to deal with this issue, and one that would be contrary to what the Congress has done again and again in 1907, ’25, Taft-Hartley in ’47, federal campaign law in ’74, McCain-Feingold. All of these are part of that tradition of saying that individuals speak and vote and are citizens and corporations have a different status. And they ought to be focused on the economic marketplace and not the political marketplace.
TREVOR POTTER: I think there’s some risk here that the court will forget. That it is dealing with laws passed over a century by Congress, by the other branches of government, that, in my view, have worked well. And so, in some ways, what you have here is a solution in search of a problem. And that’s worrisome.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think as you heard Floyd talk about the fact that yes, maybe in a corporation there should be some limitations, but when it comes to free speech, no limitation.
TREVOR POTTER: I respectfully — and I have enormous respect for Floyd and his career as a First Amendment lawyer — I thought it was backwards, because it seemed to me that corporations ought to have great latitude as economic competitors, restricted by the laws that Congress has put in place on competition. But basically, corporations exist for economic reasons. That’s where you want them competing. These courts have never said corporations have full First Amendment rights.
And I think that’s the right balance. Floyd talked, “Well, if corporations are too powerful, then we should make them smaller.” But I don’t think that makes sense in society, when we’re trying to have corporations competing in a global marketplace. So, to me it’s backwards to say we’re going to give them political rights and then we’re going to turn them into different size corporations to deal with that.
Seems to me you want them to be good competitors in the world and you don’t want them to be overpowering the political marketplace at home. And that raises another issue here which no one has really been talking about. And that is corporations are global. We have international corporations. We have had a long tradition in this country of saying that foreign nationals may not participate in U.S. elections and that includes a ban on political speech. What about foreign corporations? What about multi-national corporations? I think you’re opening a can of worms on that.
BILL MOYERS: Are you opening a can of worms?
FLOYD ABRAMS: You’re opening the faucet, so to speak, so that more speech can occur. I don’t think it’s a can of worms to say that corporations, and it is unions as well, ought to be able to participate in the give and take of the democratic processes in the country. From my perspective, at least, the notion of saying that corporations and unions should be out of the picture either because they’re too powerful, or because of the way their money has been created, is so inconsistent with the sort of First Amendment approach that we take in everything else, where we say over and over again, we don’t care who the speaker is, we don’t care where the speaker’s coming from. And speech, we think, is, as a generality, a good thing.
TREVOR POTTER: We do think speech is a good thing. The question though is should it be citizens, individuals, voters, who are speaking? Or should it be this artificial corporate entity, which we have, through law, given enormous economic power to. And what the court has said all along is there is a difference between the two. The court has never said that corporations have the right to unlimited independent political speech.
BILL MOYERS: This movie’s not the issue.
TREVOR POTTER: The movie started as the issue. And as Floyd has noted, it’s becoming a much bigger case with a fundamental issue in it. And I look at it and say, “Why? What is wrong with the law as it stands?” And I don’t see the answer.
FLOYD ABRAMS: I think one of the reasons it’s become a much bigger case is the candor of the representative of the Solicitor General’s office. Who, answering a hypothetical question asked, during the argument in March, said, yes — as a constitutional matter, Congress has the power not just to deal with television and cable and the like, but books. Yes, if — he said — yes, if a book is partially funded by a corporation, Congress has the power to say that within certain time zones, et cetera, during an election campaign, that the publication of the book can be a crime. And there was some audible intakes of breath on the Supreme Court when that was said. Now I happen to agree, that’s been the law for awhile.
FLOYD ABRAMS: But I don’t think we can live with that.
TREVOR POTTER: I’m laughing, because I think that is the epitome of a red herring here. The Solicitor General was answering what Floyd correctly says was a hypothetical. That’s where you are in law school, and they say, “Well, just supposed the facts weren’t as they are, but they were something else entirely.” The reality is there has never been a case in all the years we have had these laws prohibiting corporate spending prosecuting anyone for publishing a book.
The law itself has an exemption for commercial speech. So, if somebody is engaged in selling a book, it’s completely exempt anyway. There’s an exemption for press activity. So, this goes to my point, what we’re doing here — and I think this is why it’s dangerous — is we’re essentially having a high level law school seminar on the Supreme Court about hypothetical, constitutional questions. But the potential result of that, because it is the Supreme Court, is they could end up changing the real world, when the real world actually functions without any book banning at all.
FLOYD ABRAMS: See, but what I think is going on is that the court acting properly, acting it should, is sort of exclaiming if you can do it to a movie, you can do it to a book. Tell us the difference. The answer is, “There’s no difference.”
TREVOR POTTER: No, the answer is the law doesn’t do it to books. And the law–
FLOYD ABRAMS: But–
TREVOR POTTER: –only restricts corporate money for movies, if you construct this sort of a case to make sure that the activity is not covered by any of the exceptions that are in existing law.
BILL MOYERS: But both of you have conceded that this is about more than a movie or a book. This is go fundamentally to the role of corporations in our political elections. And this concerns you, because you say in your brief that this is dangerous.
TREVOR POTTER: Well, if you just look at the numbers here you are dealing with a world we just have never seen in elections. Exxon Mobil has a political action committee, which means voluntary contributions given by shareholders and executives, about 900 thousand dollars in the last cycle. It made last year 85 billion dollars.
Now, there’s just a world of difference in the resources available if you say to a corporation, “You can spend money to defeat global– candidates who are in favor of global warming legislation.” If coal companies can go out and say, “If you don’t sign our pledge to support coal we’re going to defeat you. We’re going to spend money against you.” You take those enormous economic resources and you use them for something that we’ve never seen before. That I think is the radical nature.
FLOYD ABRAMS: I think that’s a real exaggeration about the likely impact if the side I’m on happens to win this case. We have 28 states now that allow unrestricted contributions, as well as independent expenditures. We haven’t seen anything in the way of corporate control. And it’s easier to control a state than it is the country. Coming about or distortion of the processes coming about as a result of the fact that corporations can give and can spend in all these states.
So, I don’t think there’s a real reason to think that the large corporate entities in this country are going to run the risk of public wrath, stockholder suits, new attempt at legislation, coming out against, a popular president or an unpopular Congress? I mean, I think as a practical matter we really shouldn’t fear so much the impact of having a greater amount of corporate money in play in allowing them to speak out.
BILL MOYERS: Would you disagree with the claim that big business dominates the political discussion today? Whether it’s the drug industry or the health insurance industry? Big business is the dominant force in Washington. I mean, I see that as a journalist.
TREVOR POTTER: Well, if that’s true. Just wait till you have unlimited spending by corporations, because you’re saying they dominate in a world in which they have very limited PAC contributions. And they can’t go out and advocate the election defeat of candidates. I would disagree with Floyd, I think, on what we know about the states. First of all, there’s no record in this case, because this issue was not litigated on this basis at the lower courts. So, we don’t– there’s no opportunity to brief for the Supreme Court–
FLOYD ABRAMS: Well, I think we’ve had a lot of–
TREVOR POTTER: What we have learned–
FLOYD ABRAMS: –supplemental briefs.
TREVOR POTTER: Well, I mean, they’re 15 pages long. We haven’t had a trial court look at the information from the states. There was just a recent study out of California, which is one of the states that allows full corporate spending, in which that state’s campaign finance board said there’s an enormous amount of corporate spending. It is directly influencing candidates and elections. And it’s hidden, because it’s going through all these groups that are front groups and sound like the, you know, Committee for a Better California. And it’s really corporate spending, which, of course, avoids those angry shareholders, ’cause they don’t know about it.
In judicial elections, there is an increasing record of spending by the chamber of commerce and other business groups to elect judges who will rule in their favor, because that’s in their economic interest. If you open this up at the federal level, just imagine the incentive for a corporation that only needs a little piece of this bill, a little piece over there to make their competitive position better than their commercial opponents.
FLOYD ABRAMS: And that’s why we’ve banned contributions. But in terms of having speech from the corporations, speech from the unions, the notion that allowing that will therefore result in vast changes in the political system is not only untested but unlikely. And I’d add another note. And that is I don’t know and none of us know the consequences of allowing more speech in this area. We don’t usually judge in the First Amendment area on the basis of what we suspect consequences might be.
If speech is allowed, it’s allowed. If speech is of the sort that we permit, which is just about everything, from just about everybody and just about everything, we don’t say, “You know, come to think of it, if we have too much Glenn Beck the country is going to really suffer from it.” We don’t live like that. We start–
BILL MOYERS: But we’re not talking about free press issues here. We’re talking about the power of an organized economic interest to spend vast sums of money that individuals can’t spend.
FLOYD ABRAMS: I don’t hear you using the word speech. I mean, it’s all very well just to characterize this and diminish the problem by calling it just spending a lot of money. It’s more than that. It is participating in the political process. It is speaking out. It is being heard. I’m in favor of more disclosure to deal with the secret sort of problems that Trevor has correctly identified. But in terms of saying that it is as a policy matter, let alone a legal matter, but even as a policy matter something we should avoid and fear if we have more active, loud, public participation in the political process, my reaction is that is the core indeed of what the First Amendment has always been thought to be about.
BILL MOYERS: Do you really believe that the founders, the men who wrote the Constitution included corporations in the idea of free speech
FLOYD ABRAMS: I don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: Jefferson in 1816 wrote a famous letter about the aristocratic, moneyed corporations, and how they were a danger to us. And the evidence seems to me to the contrary, that they were worried about the power of these economic entities to dominate the political process.
TREVOR POTTER: Well, they thought we were a representative– they wanted us to be a representative democracy, representing the electors. And the electors are not corporations, which are not individuals and don’t vote.
BILL MOYERS: What about that? That seems to me, the real basis of this. Is a corporation the same as an individual for the purposes of free speech?
FLOYD ABRAMS: Well, media corporations certainly are, are they not?
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s First Amendment free press.
FLOYD ABRAMS: Thanks a lot. But that’s free press, you say. Why is it that large corporate entities, which own newspapers and broadcasters are treated, indeed as I think they should be, but treated as if Congress can’t touch them in this area. The notion of saying, General Electric ought to get more power and more rights than General Motors? I don’t find that in the Constitution.
TREVOR POTTER: Absolutely not. But what–
FLOYD ABRAMS: And the fact that General Electric owns NBC doesn’t change that dynamic. And the fact that Viacom had ownership interest of CBS doesn’t change that or shouldn’t change that. I mean, the First Amendment is not just the property of the press. The press deserves, and gets, but deserves the broadest protection. But so do all other speakers. And once we get an institutional press-only First Amendment we’re going to have a lot more problems than we’re bargaining for.
TREVOR POTTER: My point is I think we’ve had a press First Amendment for almost 100 years and we have not had problems. The example that Floyd gives I think proves it. Which is NBC has freedom of the press, because that’s its function. Its owner, GE, has a more limited speech freedom, which is, under current law, to speak to its shareholders speak to its executives, internally endorse candidates, but not go out and spend the billions of dollars it has in the general political marketplace. The press is in a position where it is able to speak with full constitutional protection. That is not true of the seller of shoes or automobiles, where you and I go out and buy them irrespective of their political views and may not know their political views. We just want their product where their shareholders are in it for economic gain, not to advance political views.
BILL MOYERS: But this is not an issue of free press. It really isn’t. This is an issue of free–
FLOYD ABRAMS: This is an issue of free speech.
BILL MOYERS: And you’re– I come back–
FLOYD ABRAMS: And why are we limiting free speech? If the movie had been funded in a different way, if the funds had come from different sources, then respectfully, but thanks very much– then it would be protected. But because the funding came from a corporation. Because of that, we can make it a crime to put the movie out. That I think is an unacceptable articulation of not only what the First Amendment has meant. But what it ought to mean, as well. We should not make technical distinctions about the degree of First Amendment free speech rights, depending on the nature of the entity that engages in the speech.
If a company wants to speak out beyond an issue. If they want to condemn a Senator who is opposing legislation that has an impact on the company’s interest, economic or otherwise to me it’s just anathema to the notion of free speech to say, “Well, you have to understand it’s a company. Their funding is different.” That’s not the way we ought to go about deciding the limits of free speech.
TREVOR POTTER: I think you, though, understate the enormous amount of speech that exists in the current system, which is essentially full free speech for individuals; the ability of a corporation or a union to have a political action committee gather individual funds and spend that, the exemption that exists for the press; the commercial exemption that exists; the exemption that the Supreme Court created for nonprofit corporations, as long as they’re not a conduit for corporate funds.
Everybody has the ability to participate in the political process, meaning here the election or defeat of candidates, except the for-profit corporations using the shareholders’ treasury funds. That, it seems to me, is a appropriately narrow exemption given whose money that is, the shareholders and the circumstances under which it was created. They can still go out and attack a Senator. They do all the time.
BILL MOYERS: Why should the executive of a board of a big corporation be able to take– you know, I have 401(k)s and retirements and I’m invested in those firms. Why should they be able to take money from the shareholders and back particular candidates or run particular-ads?
TREVOR POTTER: Well, that, of course, is a whole different issue, which we really haven’t talked about. Which is, wait a minute, whose money is this anyway? It is not the CEO’s, who’s making the decision. If you’re going to say corporations should have speech, then you open the whole question of, “Well, who decides what that speech should be? Don’t you consult the shareholders? Do you allow shareholders to opt out? The way you allow union members to opt out of having their money used?”
FLOYD ABRAMS: But–
TREVOR POTTER: But it seems to me you don’t need to get there, because you have the political action committee already.
BILL MOYERS: There’s no shortage of corporate speech in this country, right?
TREVOR POTTER: That would appear to be the case if you look at–
FLOYD ABRAMS: Well, I think you’re wrong, Bill.
TREVOR POTTER: –any daily television.
FLOYD ABRAMS: I think you’re wrong. To say, “Well, we can just carve out this area. We can carve out the speech of these entities, the entities, corporations, not their officers. Not their boards. The corporation, as determined by the folks that run it and the shareholders and whatever way state law determines to say that those entities may not be heard in their own voice, with respect to continue with the–”
BILL MOYERS: Their own voice? Whose voice?
FLOYD ABRAMS: The corporate voice. Who runs the corporation? Management runs a corporation. Shareholders can–
BILL MOYERS: So, this is the speech of the managers of the corporation?
FLOYD ABRAMS: No, it’s not just that. I mean, you’re not objecting to the notion of corporations, in general, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: I object to the notion–
FLOYD ABRAMS: I mean, corporations–
BILL MOYERS: –that a corporation is equal to an individual.
FLOYD ABRAMS: The fact that we’re suspicious of corporations sometimes and of unions, sometimes, not only because of what they say, but because of their power and what they might do, is just not a good reason to say that they have to be silenced.
TREVOR POTTER: I think the difference here is that Floyd presents that as a dangerous and novel idea. And says we shouldn’t go there. I respond by saying, we are there. We have been there for many, many years. The system has functioned, I think, well. So, to me, it is Floyd who has the dangerous and novel idea, which is we should change what has worked, has been held constitutional and go to a system when we have no idea what the effect will be, but based on what we can see, and have seen in the past, we could really have some bad affects on our democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Well, the–
FLOYD ABRAMS: My novel idea goes something like this. “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” I don’t think that those words are consistent with a regime, a system of law, which bars the amount of speech that we’re talking about today.
TREVOR POTTER: I think that my historical perspective is oddly longer than Floyd’s. And that we would be going back before 1907 and Theodore Roosevelt and the prohibitions on corporate activity in federal elections. We’d be going back to the senator from Standard Oil. That would be a very different world and one that no one alive has ever seen.
BILL MOYERS: We know all this started because it was revealed that Theodore Roosevelt had received secret contributions from New York insurance companies, when he was running, because they wanted legislation out of Congress that would benefit their position. And when the revelation was made, not before, but when the revelation was made, Roosevelt was so embarrassed, he raced right up to Congress and said, “We’ve got to do something about this.”
FLOYD ABRAMS: That’s why we have to be afraid of Congress and politicians making decisions in this area.
BILL MOYERS: But these are positions that you leave to legislatures. I thought conservatives–
FLOYD ABRAMS: You don’t leave free speech decisions to legislatures.
TREVOR POTTER: I would say that legislatures are uniquely knowledgeable here about how legislation has actually made. And your point is that legislators then knew that corporate money was influencing their decisions.
BILL MOYERS: Senator from Standard Oil.
TREVOR POTTER: And what came out of Congress to govern the rest of us. That was what was shown in the long record in the McCain-Feingold litigation. Members of Congress said corporate money is affecting directly amendments, what is voted on, the final language of legislation that has a disproportionate, corrupting influence on what is happening in Congress.
FLOYD ABRAMS: I asked Senator McCain–
TREVOR POTTER: That’s the worry.
FLOYD ABRAMS: –when I took his deposition, in that case, to give me an example of a vote that was changed because of contributions or independent expenditures. And he did not and could not do that.
TREVOR POTTER: Senator McCain is a very polite man, who respects his colleagues and if you go back and look at the record there were a number of affidavits from former members. Interestingly, it’s the former members in this who are the truth tellers. They’re always the ones who say, “Let me tell you what happened when I was there.” And why is that? Because they don’t have to deal with their colleagues, they’re not up before the voters and admitting something terrible. So, they can say, “This is what I really saw.”
And I think that’s the other piece of this whole case, is we’re not just talking about the ephemeral or the broad idea of what is a free speech right of a corporation. We’re talking about how does the legislative process actually work. And what sort of corruption or apparent corruption would you have if you had the ability to spend this money?
BILL MOYERS: As a journalist, I have seen over the years, done documentaries, have reported on this issue, money and politics. And I’ve seen the consequences of huge sums of money in our political process result in legislation biased for the corporation.
But on this point, we will close now. But I want to give both of you a chance to wrap up your case by giving me your response to what the Solicitor General of the United States, Elena Kagan, will say to the Supreme Court next Wednesday. In her brief, she argues that the use of corporate treasury funds is quote, “inherently likely to corrode the political system, both by actually corrupting public office holders and by creating the appearance of corruption.” Do you think that is a justifiable concern?
FLOYD ABRAMS: I don’t think it’s true. I also know the record from the McConnell case. God knows how long it is. And there wasn’t any proof of corruption. So, my reaction is, I think she’s exaggerating on the one hand. And I think she’s ignoring on the other because she doesn’t even acknowledge that this is a free speech issue.
We are confronted with competing values here. And the values of speech are at odds in this area with the desire of well-meaning and very serious people, to do what they think they should to make the system work better. And my view is that the speech interests here are very high, very important, very serious and that when you take them into account you can’t sustain the sort of statutes that we now have on the books and that the Supreme Court is, essentially, taking a second look at.
TREVOR POTTER: Well, I think the Solicitor General’s comments to the court are a warning bell in the night. That she is right that there are enormous implications to this case. I think, ironically, one of the reasons she’s right is because of the very natures of corporations. As we’ve discussed, they exist to make money. They are profit-maximizing. That’s their job.
So, we’re not talking about political speech by people who care about their country, who are concerned about changes in society, who are dealing fairly with friends and neighbors and all the things that get involved in politics. We’re talking about a potential spender here that has a single-minded purpose, which is to make more money, to maximize their value. And I think what we’re looking at here is not a First Amendment speech right, because the individuals who head those corporations have that now, their PAC’s have it now, their shareholders have it now. We’re talking about using the funds that are amassed under the preferential corporate treatment, to go out and seek economic gain, what they call economic rents, through legislation, by electing people who will give the corporation what it wants, whether or not is in the greater good. And I don’t think that’s the essence of democracy. And I don’t think it has been or should be the way the First Amendment is read.
Bill Moyers is quickly becoming the most sane and balanced progressive American voice. Check out the conclusion to his most recent Journal.
September 4, 2009
BILL MOYERS: The editors of THE ECONOMIST magazine say America’s health care debate has become a touch delirious, with people accusing each other of being evil-mongers, dealers in death, and un-American.
Well, that’s charitable.
I would say it’s more deranged than delirious, and definitely not un-American.
Those crackpots on the right praying for Obama to die and be sent to hell — they’re the warp and woof of home-grown nuttiness. So is the creature from the Second Amendment who showed up at the President’s rally armed to the teeth. He’s certainly one of us. Red, white, and blue kooks are as American as apple pie and conspiracy theories.
Bill Maher asked me on his show last week if America is still a great nation. I should have said it’s the greatest show on earth. Forget what you learned in civics about the Founding Fathers — we’re the children of Barnum and Bailey, our founding con men. Their freak show was the forerunner of today’s talk radio.
Speaking of which: we’ve posted on our website an essay by the media scholar Henry Giroux. He describes the growing domination of hate radio as one of the crucial elements in a “culture of cruelty” increasingly marked by overt racism, hostility and disdain for others, coupled with a simmering threat of mob violence toward any political figure who believes health care reform is the most vital of safety nets, especially now that the central issue of life and politics is no longer about working to get ahead, but struggling simply to survive.
So here we are, wallowing in our dysfunction. Governed — if you listen to the rabble rousers — by a black nationalist from Kenya smuggled into the United States to kill Sarah Palin’s baby. And yes, I could almost buy their belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, only I think he shipped them to Washington, where they’ve been recycled as lobbyists and trained in the alchemy of money laundering, which turns an old-fashioned bribe into a First Amendment right.
Only in a fantasy capital like Washington could Sunday morning talk shows become the high church of conventional wisdom, with partisan shills treated as holy men whose gospel of prosperity always seems to boil down to lower taxes for the rich.
Poor Obama. He came to town preaching the religion of nice. But every time he bows politely, the harder the Republicans kick him.
No one’s ever conquered Washington politics by constantly saying “pretty please” to the guys trying to cut your throat.
Let’s get on with it, Mr. President. We’re up the proverbial creek with spaghetti as our paddle. This health care thing could have been the crossing of the Delaware, the turning point in the next American Revolution — the moment we put the mercenaries to rout, as General Washington did the Hessians at Trenton. We could have stamped our victory “Made in the USA.” We could have said to the world, “Look what we did!” And we could have turned to each other and said, “Thank you.”
As it is, we’re about to get health care reform that measures human beings only in corporate terms of a cost-benefit analysis. I mean this is topsy-turvy — we should be treating health as a condition, not a commodity.
As we speak, Pfizer, the world’s largest drug maker, has been fined a record $2.3 billion dollars as a civil and criminal — yes, that’s criminal, as in fraud — penalty for promoting prescription drugs with the subtlety of the Russian mafia. It’s the fourth time in a decade Pfizer’s been called on the carpet. And these are the people into whose tender mercies Congress and the White House would deliver us?
Come on, Mr. President. Show us America is more than a circus or a market. Remind us of our greatness as a democracy. When you speak to Congress next week, just come out and say it. We thought we heard you say during the campaign last year that you want a government run insurance plan alongside private insurance — mostly premium-based, with subsidies for low-and-moderate income people. Open to all individuals and employees who want to join and with everyone free to choose the doctors we want. We thought you said Uncle Sam would sign on as our tough, cost-minded negotiator standing up to the cartel of drug and insurance companies and Wall Street investors whose only interest is a company’s share price and profits.
Here’s a suggestion, Mr. President: ask Josh Marshall to draft your speech. Josh is the founder of the website talkingpointsmemo.com. He’s a journalist and historian, not a politician. He doesn’t split things down the middle and call it a victory for the masses. He’s offered the simplest and most accurate description yet of a public insurance plan — one that essentially asks people: would you like the option — the voluntary option — of buying into Medicare before you’re 65? Check it out, Mr. President.
This health care thing is make or break for your leadership, but for us, it’s life and death. No more Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. President. We need a fighter.
The word is that President Obama will crack down on the progressives on health care reform. Hopefully, the progressives won’t crack. The President seems to be capitulating to the notion that any health care reform bill is better than none. But that’s, at best, a political calculation, not a commitment to principle. Obama promised to be different. Let’s see whether he can keep his promise.
Bullies galore! The recent attacks on speakers in Democratic town hall meetings who are guilty of nothing more than trying to explain the various health care proposals to the American people is nothing less than a frontal attack on deliberative democracy, the life-blood of the American republic. Everyone should have a chance to speak at these events, even those who choose to speak vigorously and with passion, but not all at once, and not with the purpose of cancelling out debate if that’s what their purpose is. Yet, teams of bullies have descended on these meetings in various parts of the nation apparently orchestrated by Republican deep-pockets to shut down debate. The only ones who benefit from these disruptions are the insurance companies and their corporate backers. But the cost of transmogrifying democratic discourse into targets for attack dogs cannot be underestimated regarding the stability of deliberative democracy. It’s not just defeating health care that’s the problem, although that’s certainly a significant problem; more important, is the harm such intimidation does to public discourse. Democrats must learn how to respond–through advertisements among other appropriate ways–so that the anti-democratic dimension of this warfare is revealed. In America, to reverse Von Clausewitz’s sentiment that war is politics by other means, in contemporary America, politics seems to be warfare by other means. This trend needs to be reversed; public discourse must be a no bully zone.
A deliberative democracy should inter alia address a diverse range of views to take seriously, critically evaluate, reject or accept as the circumstances indicate. Ghettoizing particular perspectives to that they are insulated from serious confrontation with other perspectives is anathema to deliberative democracy. While, American political argument thrives within the parameters of particular political paradigms, cross-paradigm argument is brutal, hostile, and blatantly dishonest. Consider the posturing of the Rush Limbaughs and Bill O’Reillys in the media, and the Dick Cheneys in politics. (Yes, the Left has its share also.). Until fair, honest, and compassionate political attitudes define our political conversations, deliberative democracy will remain illusory and though we will speak and write volumes little consensus building will be possble.
Jon Voigt has joined the Republican distillers of venom and vitriol absent facts, arguments, and reasoning. Consider: “Are we supposed to sitting and waiting, watching for the possibility of a new Holocaust? Who’s going to take the responsibility to keep America, I mean Israel, safe. I’ll tell you why this really scares the hell out of me. Everything Obama has recommended has turned out to be disastrous. . . . It saddens me greatly to think we were the great powerful good in the world. We as Americans knew America to be strong. We were the liberators of the entire world. We are becoming a weak nation. . . . Obama really thinks he is a soft-spoken Julius Caesar. He think he’s going to conquer the world with his soft-spoken sweet talk and really think he’s going to bring all of the enemies of the world into a little playground, where they’ll swing each other back and forth. . . . We and we alone are the right frame of mind to free this nation from this Obama oppression. Let’s give thanks to [Republicans] for not giving up and staying the course to bring an end to this false prophet, Obama.” The utter lack of content in this diatribe and the fact that some people believe it serves as legitimate public dialogue is anathema to everything the Founders of this great nation hoped to achieve by “beginning the world anew.” Yet, Voigt and his cohorts steeped in this visceral American superiority have no idea what a deliberative democracy and its public discourse is supposed to be like. Obama, like any other American leader, should be subject to severe, reason, and insightful criticism. Voigt has got the severity right, but where’s the reason and insight? The inanity of much of what passes for Republican political discourse does a great disservice to republican democracy and the Constitution upon which it is based. I do not believe that thoughtful Republicans would take this even remotely seriously if responsible Republican political leaders and journalists spoke up against its poisonous effect on the future of the nation.
What is bipartisanship and why do we think it represents an attractive form of politics? First, bipartisanship is an elementary form of political community. It requires taking other people seriously. Rather than attempt to brow beat our political opponents into submission, bipartisan politics seeks to appreciate their conscientious convictions and genuinely try to incorporate them into the final version of a statute or other governmental action. Bipartisanship is committed to the probability that one’s political opponents might, just might, have something of value, a perspective that once sincerely examined might find itself a welcome place in our own reflective judgments about political reality. Bipartisanship seeks to bracket [set aside] intractable political conflicts and turn our attention to questions that might generate a consensus. In order to achieve bipartisanship and consensus, we must exorcise the lesser angels of a nature, namely, that reflexive attitude that “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Bipartisanship is the recognition that the political community is constituted by individuals all committed to some sort of non-ideological conception of the common good. Bipartisanship, therefore, is committed not only to mutual respect of one’s political opponents as human beings, but more importantly, as individuals contributing potentially to political truth with a perspective that complements, supplements, or reforms one’s own perspective.
Based on the catastrophic lack of accountability of the past administration, perhaps Congress should form a committee-in-waiting to conduct information gathering on whether the 44th president should at some time in the future be impeached. By appointing such a committee the President has notice that his actions must be transparent, based on the good of the nation and its sacrosanct principles and values, and live up to his philosophy of governing, a philosophy I’ve dubbed “deliberative conversationalism.” Doesn’t this sound like a good plan? Okay, I’m not in earnest. I’m not seriously proposing we begin hearings, now or int the future, to consider the propriety of impeaching President Obama. After all, if we, as a nation, failed to impeach Bush-Cheney, there’s no conceivable reason to impeach any president. Moreover, President Obama promises to be a great American leader and he will have my general support. But general support does not mean he should not be criticized for particular untoward commissions or omissions. Each of his supporters should support him when he’s right while at the same time insist that they do not rubber stamp his decisions. So, impeachment no, but a watchful eye yes.
President Obama’s political philosophy–what I call “deliberative conversation–has at its center piece, the idea of community. The moral imperative of the idea of community is simply that human beings are members of a community ab initio, but it’s a community we must work to perfect. The sense of community, constructed and fought for inextricably connects Dr. King and President-elect Obama. It is a sense of community that America have been haltingly building–brick by blood-filled brick–for over two centuries, and one that we can now build in earnest.
One word of caution. Our celebration of Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency should not blind us to the fact there are those who are now devising plans for his defeat. Their cynical commitment to hegemony over others cannot tolerate community. Instead, they are conspiring to return to a stratified society, a society that they can dominate. Beware these cynics. Convert them if we can, but resist them if we must. America forms a precious, but delicate community, and it falls to this generation to continue its perfection.
Unfortunately, progressives have often allowed the cynics, the naysayers, those who loath change, to dictate the terms of our national dialogue. Barack Hussien Obama’s campaign has explicitly and implicitly said enough to these cynics. They can no longer dominate the terms of our national dialogue. In its birth this nation, begun by those like Thomas Paine who saw the American Revolution as beginning the world anew. This is our time. It’s the time of everyone from eighteen to eighty to relish in the beauty of a multicultural and multiracial nation. Ours is a nation seeking inclusiveness, committed to the desire to expand the American community to anyone who wants to live in freedom, equality, and community. Obama’s administration is the first step in perfecting the foundation principles behind the American Revolution, a process that never ceases in attempting to improve ourselves and the community that we’ve constructed.
The American Revolution and its constitutional expression—at least in the Constitution’s Preamble, the Bill of Right, and the Civil War Amendments–represent a commitment to the critical political values of liberty and equality. Ours was the first nation to be committed to an idea, to popular sovereignty. This involves requiring the allegiance to the people not to Kings, theocrats, and such. Instead, the people governed would also be the governors. This idea would sweep away other forms of political commitments. It is an idea that anyone could adopt, anyone committed to self-government. In theory, one didn’t have to be a member of a particular nationality or religion. It was a new beginning that one chose to adopt, not one that was imposed by other people or traditions. The beauty of this polity was that each generation, if it chose, could begin the world anew. This was the theory, but it often fell short in practice. The power of domination to which other nations adhered also had expression in American political and social practice. The most onerous form of domination was slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and presently, subtle forms of discrimination. Could America’s aspirations every truly be realized?
That question has now the beginning of an answer and that answer is yes we can. Today, after forty-three white presidents, Americans will swear in their first African American president. We will begin our world anew. This, of course, does not mean racism will be extinguished in America today or even in this decade. But now we see the beginning of the end of virulent racism. Committed racists are now a severely endangered species and like the dinosaurs are headed for extinction. Other forms of racism will take longer to extirpate. But the dye has been cast. With the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama we have turned a new chapter in the American narrative. No longer will an entire group of Americans be cast out of America’s highest office because there skin color is not “correct.” No longer will other minorities be similarly shut out.
What is genuinely inspiring, for me, about America’s greatness lies, not in its attainment of perfection whatever that would be like, but rather its capacity for change, its commitment to remediating wrongs, and perhaps most importantly and most relevant today, its penchant for expanding the idea of who counts as a full and equal citizen. The new president represents the promise of transformative change, of righting its wrongs and expressing its revolutionary and constitutional aspirations in a new birth of freedom.
But President Obama represents more than simply the first African American to win the presidency. He brings to the presidency a new political philosophy. The commitment to liberty and equality, as important as it is, fails to complete the idea of self government. Added to the fundamental values of liberty and equality, must be an aspiration to community. Consider his own words:
Communities had never been a given in this country, at least not for blacks. Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men—and [in the civil rights movement] I saw the African-American community becoming more than just the place where you’d been born or the house where you’d been raised. Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned. And because membership was earned—because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself—I believe that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.
President Obama’s commitment to community is illustrative of what this extraordinarily intellectual, and morally grounded, man will contribute to the idea of America. We must attend to our commonalities; we must strive to see ourselves in others. The poison of factionalism, special interests, and demonizing our opponents must give way to respecting our opponents in the hope of achieving principled compromise with them. But a sensitivity to community is not a given; it is not easy. Each American, in his or her own way, must contribute, must sacrifice, must exude patience to bring forth a transformation in American political culture. No, this will not be easy, but then again, it is never easy to begin the world anew. It is, however, our legacy, a legacy that empowers and invigorates like no other legacy can. The challenges facing America are enormous and grave, and we must give the new president a chance. Welcome to the age of Obama, where we can begin the world anew by revivifying our precious values of liberty and equality, and add to these values the value of community. Within the vast diversity in the American nation, the new president challenges us to recognize our interconnectedness. We are one people, not because our religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity makes us one people, but rather because our commitment to American ideals, to the better angels of our nature; that’s what makes us one. Congratulations, Mr. President! Congratulations America!