Posts Tagged ‘Tea Party’

Notes on democratic fundamentalism

datePosted on 22:48, June 9th, 2011 by Lew

Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into Jordan Carter’s declaration that he’s a libertarian socialist — as he said on the tweets, “it’s just a pun, an oxymoron. Which I found amusing”. So I may be overreacting in the particular case, but if you’ll forgive that, it’s made me look at and consider my own perspective in a way which lends itself well to writing down.

I think Jordan is cherry-picking his definitions; co-opting two existing pieces of fashionable terminology for the sake of provocative pretension. I think what he’s described is really just liberal-social-democracy of the relatively ordinary modern kind — a pretty far cry from anything resembling either libertarianism or socialism in actual history — and I don’t see what’s gained by smacking an ill-fitting label on it. But there’s a fair bit to lose. For a start, by doing so you alienate all those who really do call themselves libertarians and the socialists (though perhaps that’s not a great loss).

Moreover, as a matter of political branding it’s braindead. By applying what is, unjustly or not, heavily loaded and controversial terminology to what is actually a thoroughly mainstream political movement you risk marginalising it. ‘Socialist’ and increasingly ‘libertarian’ are markers of political extremism, at least in the Anglo world. They breed mistrust and fear, and rightly so: you can carry on all you like about how the horrors of 20th Century socialism and communism weren’t worthy of the names, but the fact is those were the names which stuck. They’re beyond reclamation. (I’ve argued this before, and I understand it’s not a line which is popular with wishful socialists, and you’re free to disagree — but I’d prefer not to argue the toss at too much length again; it’s really a sidebar in this post.)

‘Libertarian’, although Ayn Rand hated the term and its baggage, has been similarly redefined from its original usage by her heirs, and the authoritarian-conservatives who are busily colonising that movement (Tea Party, UKIP, ACT etc; collectively I call them ‘liberthoritarians’). Association with that lot is anathema to social democracy and left praxis of any sort. On the other flank you have the link with anarchism, whose symbolic currency among the social mainstream to whom a political vehicle like the Labour party must appeal is little better.

That’s all really just a preamble, though, to the following more important bit of the post, which is about my own rather amorphously-defined political perspective (bearing in mind that this is also a massive topic which I hope do deal with in about a thousand words and a couple of hours). The reason I think it’s daft and a bit pretentious to adopt titles like ‘libertarian socialist’ is that I’m less interested in what people declare to be their philosophy and more interested in the mechanisms they choose to promulgate that philosophy. Being a “socialist” or a “libertarian” or whatever else is one thing, but if your commitment to achieving the aims of your chosen creed is via democracy, that implies a commitment to fulfilling the expressed wishes of your society whether or not they accord with your own. If the electorate really does decides it wants a full-scale neosocialist agenda and votes in a government which will deliver it, a genuinely democratic libertarian movement will not impede the progress of such an agenda except by legitimate legal means; and by the same token, if the electorate seriously votes for the neutering of government and the implementation of a social-Darwinist Nightwatchman State, then a genuinely democratic socialist movement will grudgingly accede to that. The trouble is that many, if not most, libertarian and socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient.

Although I think I have previously disclaimed the title, I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist — I consider the commitment to democracy to undergird the rest of a political-philosophical agenda, rather than sitting on top of it. The reasoning is a mix of principled and pragmatic arguments which I’ve also made many times before, mostly derived from uncontroversial old-fashioned liberalism — that people have the right to determine the shape and nature of their society (right or wrong), that the government must answer ultimately to the governed, that there’s no other proven method of ensuring smooth, regular and nonviolent power transfer, and so on. For these reasons I have no truck with non-democratic movements on either side of the aisle; the authoritarian socialists who killed a millions in the last century, or the modern-day liberthoritarians who call for the violent overthrow of legitimate governments with which they happen to disagree, or those who argue that democracy is broken because voters make ‘bad’ choices (with the inference that, for society’s sake, the power to make such choice should be stripped from them).

Such movements don’t hold with democracy; they may tolerate democracy as long as it gives them results they like, but democracy doesn’t work that way. You take the bad with the good, on the understanding that you will have the opportunity to win back the fort and set things to rights again, if you can persuade the electorate that you’re worth supporting. So to merit consideration as a legitimate political movement, this commitment to democracy is a necessity. And to a large extent such a commitment — assuming bona fides can be demonstrated — is sufficient to grant legitimacy. For this reason, as much as I despise the ACT and New Zealand First parties, for instance, I do accept that they have legitimacy inasmuch as they generally conform(ed) to and support(ed) the robust, existing democratic norms of society. Regardless of the policy mix which sits on top of it, I can tolerate a genuinely democratic movement because in a robust democracy, you should only get away with doing what the electorate permits you to do.

Explained this mechanical sort of way it’s a naïve view, but to be useful, notions such of these do need to be considered in light of what lies beneath. Determining whether a given system constitutes a democracy worthy of the name is often non-trivial, particularly at the margins. Even within generally robust democratic systems, there exist distortions and imbalances which warp access to and exercise of power in favour of one group or another. There is even a pretty wide tolerance within which a democratically-elected government with a mandate to do so can fiddle with the levers, creating advantages for itself while not fundamentally rendering the system undemocratic. The authority of democracy is also not ironclad, it does not obtain outside the existing normative moral, ethical and legal frameworks of humanity; if 51% of an electorate decide it’s ok to slaughter all blue-eyed babies, it being democratically certified does not make such a provision legitimate. So in this way what I’m talking about it isn’t really democratic fundamentalism at all — there are sound arguments to be had all down the line about these and other factors, and indeed recognising and addressing the (many) limitations of democracy isn’t something to be shied away from.

The question of ultimate sovereignty also can’t be ignored. The ultimate authority for how a society ought to be configured rests with the people, and if this means that a government, democratically-elected or not, is acting egregiously counter to the electorate’s wishes in ways which democracy can’t fix, stronger medicine must sometimes be applied.

This is the reasoning the Tea Partiers claim when calling for Obama to be overthrown; and that Lindsay Perigo (now shilling for a noted authoritarian who is the parliamentary leader of a noted authoritarian party) appealed when he declared the Clark government illegitimate. But while some legitimate grievances exist(ed) in both cases, those calls were and are vexatious. In reality a stronger standard is needed to maintain the balance between democracy and ultimate sovereignty. Of course, in both cases the calls for insurrection came to nought — they were manifestly idiotic and consequently did not attract support; and moreover, in both cases subsequent democratic elections under the systems that both provocateurs claimed were invidious returned strongly in favour of the opposition parties, utterly disproving the assertion. In the New Zealand case, the incoming government repealed the offending Electoral Finance Act, doubling that proof (and then proceeded to enact something very substantively similar, to very scarce outrage from anyone).

Of course, this principle of the peoples’ sovereignty means the electorate can relinquish its power, vest it permanently or semi-permanently in some other mechanism of power. I’ll get the obvious out of the way now: this is what happened to the Weimar Republic; the existing democratically-legitimate rulers of Germany ceded their authority to Hitler, who enjoyed impunity from democratic censure (and, it must be said, who brilliantly exploited the constitutional arrangements of the republic to engineer the ongoing popular support for his cause and the ineffectuality of his opponents). What happened in the years following 1933 is an example of why a movement’s commitment to robust democracy must be treated as fundamental, but the ultimate recourse to power must remain with the people.

For me what it all really boils down to is the comment usually attributed to Tocqueville, that a democratic society gets the government it deserves. But this is both misattributed and misquoted — it was Joseph de Maistre, and the original quote omits ‘democratic’. The implication is that any society gets the government it deserves. A sham democracy exists because those governed by it do not demand more — more representation, more transparency, more robustness, more accountability. A dictatorship is such because its victims didn’t do enough to prevent one from becoming entrenched, or overthrow it once it had become entrenched. This is a harsh view, and strictly incorrect — there is little the Ukrainian peasantry of the Holomodor could have done to prevent their expurgation as a result of Stalin’s decrees, and nothing they did to deserve such a fate, for instance — but the essence of truth in the quote is generally that, in the final analysis, nobody has a greater responsibility or ability to ensure that their government carries out the wishes of the people it governs than the people themselves.

L

Bloody liability

datePosted on 10:41, January 19th, 2011 by Lew

Sarah Palin, as has been clear for some years now, has an unmatched talent for drawing the spotlight. A week after the infamous ‘blood libel‘ video she’s still at it today, pouring more fuel on a fire which should never have been started. ‘Blood libel’ and the American Right’s shrieking, paranoid victim complex are now a bigger story than the (attempted) murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a political rally outside a suburban supermarket. That takes an awful lot of doing.

But she simply doesn’t know when to shut up. Let me be clear: I’m by no means saying that she must shut up, or even that I want her to shut up; nor am I attempting to curtail her First Amendment rights or impinge upon her cherished liberty — let there be no persecution fantasies regarding the humble analysis which is to follow. Palin’s conduct is a matter of political strategy for her PAC, the wider Tea Party movement and ultimately the Republican party. If they want to keep pursuing a strategy which, politically, is a hiding to nothing, then far be it from me to stand in their way. But I am arguing, as are plenty of Republican-oriented strategists, including former Bush advisor David Frum — that as a matter of strategy she should just shut the hell up and resume her place on the fringes of this topic, because there’s nothing to be gained and an awful lot to be lost by continuing to fan these flames. Frum is hardly a bleeding-heart liberal; he invented the ‘Axis of Evil’. He is also Jewish, as is Rep Giffords, so one assumes the misuse of ‘blood libel’ by a renegade WASP like Palin has special salience to him.

Let me also say that Palin and the Tea Party had some right to be angry at the invective levelled at them and their movement in the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting. I generally agree with Pablo’s previous points, that Palin and the Tea Party must bear some responsibility for the climate of discourse they have created; but I’d also say that they have not created such a climate on their own. While disproportionately on the elephant side, warlike imagery and symbols of political violence are a commonplace in both camps of US politics. Influential US liberal commentators, notably Keith Olbermann, jumped all too gleefully upon the chance to all but blame Palin (and Beck, etc) for pulling the trigger, although at best there is only a tenuous link between Jared Lee Loughner’s anti-government sentiments and the Tea Party. (Although it is often overlooked that Olbermann’s rant also called strongly upon the American left to repudiate (not refudiate) violence in word and deed). The extent of the speculation and the attempts to pin the murders on Palin and the Tea Party before the dust had settled were unmerited and, as I say, the objects of these accusations were justified in a certain amount of self-righteous indignation.

But one of the defining characteristics of the Tea Party, and of libertarian-oriented small-government revivalist movements in general, is their utter lack of perspective, and Palin simply went too far. These are people who genuinely believe taxation to be armed robbery, after all. So, like the white supremacist who blames all misfortune on immigrants; like the misogynist who bemoans the PC feminazi dykocracy; or the wealthy white elderly Sensible Sentencing Trust supporters who believe themselves to be the most vulnerable victims of crime, when, objectively, the reverse is true — the Tea Partiers and Palin simply can’t see past their own trivial victimisation to the actual and genuine victims of the Arizona tragedy, those who are dead, wounded or bereaved. IrishBill, writing at The Standard recently referred to these sorts as Right Whingers, and the persecution narrative is a feature of modern backlash movements: when elites come under such threat that they feel as if they no longer command the fields of cultural battle, they claim to have been victimised. And they go on and on about it. “Help, help, we’re being repressed!

Nobody likes a whinger or someone who talks a big game but can’t play, especially in US politics. One of the Republican party’s strongest symbolic assets through the latter 20th century has been the sense that it’s a party of rugged individuals with the thousand-yard gaze of their pioneer forebears, while the Democrats are a bunch of preppy sissies with excuses always at the ready. To an extent there’s been some truth to this narrative, but the “all hat and no cattle” label attached to Bush did his party’s political fortunes considerable harm, and Palin has already weakened her own pioneer and Mama Grizzly credentials immeasurably with the now-infamous ‘hunting’ episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska. In it, despite her claim to being a life-long hunter, she appears unfamiliar with her rifle (“does it kick?”), is unable to chamber her own rounds (daddy does it for her); and takes five shots to hit a large animal standing on a skyline 120 yards away (and then there’s the estimate that a hunting trip in her home state cost $42,000 — not very pioneerish, that).

Likewise, the emergence of the Tea Party and its rather more extreme rhetoric has seen the erosion of the traditional, conservative pioneer narrative in favour of a more excitable tone — perhaps a shift from ‘pioneer’ to ‘revolutionary’ would be the metaphorical change. This shift in itself is not a weakness, except when its less favourable characteristics come to the fore, and it is these aspects of the Tea Party movement which the Democrats and other liberals have been emphasising: its crazed extremes and frightening rhetoric; the cultish, heightened emotionality of leaders like Glenn Beck, which verges on the religious; its lack of concern with details like grammar, factual accuracy and proportion; its brittleness and temporary, ad-hoc nature as opposed to the reliable stability of the Grand Old Party.

By resort to the strident ‘blood libel’ line, Palin has fallen into the trap of confirming — and defending — key aspects of the liberal narrative about her and by extension about her movement: she lacks any sense of perspective or proportion, public decorum or decency or compassion; she is an attention-seeker with a persecution complex who thinks it’s always all about her; she doesn’t know what the terms she uses actually mean; that they’re desperate cranks rather than serious statespeople; and most seriously, that she can dish it out but not take it. This last will be the master narrative going into the 2012 Presidential election, in the increasingly unlikely event that Palin is the nominee, and Democrats and liberals the world over relish the prospect of a proven big-game player like Obama against a scattergun show-pony like Palin.

The decision to release and then defend the ‘blood libel’ video is a double tragedy for the Republican party, who took a strong lead in the November mid-terms, and have now missed the best opportunity in a decade to consolidate that lead by looking like the calm, sober, conservative adults they claim to be and to represent. Palin’s decline may be better for them in the long term; many commentators are now confirmed in the belief they held before the mid-terms that she had outlasted her usefulness as an energising agent, and is now simply a liability, a distraction from the serious business of government to which the GOP must now turn its attention.

L

On a lighter note: Machine of Death

datePosted on 21:37, November 2nd, 2010 by Lew

Not that the Rolling Stones have destroyed us — I mean, you can’t always get what you want. You know what I’m saying? Brown sugar. I have no idea what that means.  -- Glenn Beck, The Glenn Beck Program, October 27, 2010

On 26 October 2010, the guy who writes the marvelous Dinosaur Comics and a bunch of others self-published a book (because nobody would publish it for them) of short stories based around the idea of a machine which could tell you how you would die. The book is called Machine of Death. They happened to choose October 26 as the publication date without knowing that Glenn Beck’s latest tome of dangerous absurdities with the suitably loony title “Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure was to be released on the same day. While it’s nice that Machine of Death pipped Beck’s book in the amazon.com sales rankings on opening day (proof), what’s most wonderful about this little episode is that it so incensed Glenn Beck that he had a wee rant about the book on his widely syndicated radio programme. It’s so gloriously insane, there’s nothing to do but quote it in full:

And I want to tell you that, um…our books are ALWAYS #1. And I find it REALLY fascinating, FASCINATING, that if you go to Amazon.com, Broke is number THREE. And the two books that are ahead of it — one is Keith Richards’ Life, which is getting a TON of — you know, that’s everywhere.
But this is a book about, you know, how he snorted his father’s ashes, after death. (sarcastically) THAT’S cool. This is the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] book. This is for all of the — this is for [union leader] Andy Stern who’s all, I guarantee you he’s on the phone and has been the last few days, you know, with people like, you know, Bill Ayers going “All right, DUDE! Ah, do you remember when we were rolling around in the mud like animals? Remember that? This guy was smoking ash — you know, smoking his dad, and, and, popping stuff into his veins? Ah, those were the DAYS, man.” And then William Ayers was like, “Whaddaya mean, those were the days? I’m still doin’ that stuff, man!”
So that… “culture of death.” And it’s an escape into the past, of, you know, the Woodstock stuff.
And then, the #1 book — TODAY, at least — is Machine of Death. And it’s a — collected stories about, you know, people who know how they’re gonna die. Haowww!
So you have DEATH — I know it’s called Life, but what a life it is, really! It’s a culture of death! OR, “How do we restore ourselves?”
These are the — this is the left, I think, speaking. This is the left. You want to talk about where we’re headed? We’re headed towards a culture of death. A culture that, um, celebrates the things that have destroyed us. Not that the Rolling Stones have destroyed us — I mean, you can’t always get what you want. You know what I’m saying? Brown sugar. I have no idea what that means.
— Glenn Beck, The Glenn Beck Program, October 27, 2010

This, as if it needs to be said, is the other side of the Angel of Death ad I wrote about the other day; what happens if the font of inchoate hatred which powers the Tea Party movement isn’t carefully channeled through propaganda wizards and filmmakers and spin doctors. Wonderful. Frightening.

L

Coming this Fall: the Battle for America’s Soul

datePosted on 09:17, October 20th, 2010 by Lew

Imagine that title in scary-movie-narrator-voice. Via Pascal’s Bookie, a simply magnificent piece of propaganda from Personhood USA.

This two-minute ad is superbly done. It frames Colorado’s 1967 abortion law as the beginning of the end, and Amendment 62 in Colorado, which aims to declare that personhood begins at the moment of fertilisation, as the beginning of the battle to save America. Amendment 62 is up for the vote at the mid-term elections in November.

What we have here is clearly not the work of amateurs, nor of itinerant cranks in trailer parks, as many (including myself) have mocked the Tea Party movement. It draws together all the conventional Tea Party wisdom about what’s wrong with America into powerfully truthy narrative: start with a misappropriated Jefferson quote; follow up with Semitic “men in black robes” who hate truth, justice and the freedom and “legislate from the bench”; portray the fringe radical rump of conservative white folk as a valiant oppressed minority group; intolerant millennial-cult hypervigilance as the American Way; Obamacare as morality and human life being bought and sold as a commodity (oh, the irony!); and most crucially, Obama himself as the Grim Reaper, the lynchpin of it all, with the caption “Then the Angel of Death arrived, and Hell followed with him”. The whole thing is capped with fireworks and the Statue of Liberty, a Daisy-esque girl fading to black and a fist-pumping don’t-tread-on-me baby. And the soundtrack really just speaks for itself.

The whole thing is absolutely barking. In the cold light of day it’s nothing more than a Dan Brown plot. It’s fevered stuff, wound up to eleven to inflame passion and suppress reason. But that’s the whole point: this ad is basically the movie trailer for the upcoming battle for America’s soul, coming soon to a screen near you. Just sit back, let it wash over you, and marvel at what that country has become.

L

Performance art

datePosted on 20:24, October 18th, 2010 by Lew

Listening to Tao Wells’ stone-cold crazy performance on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel this afternoon (audio, starts at about 19:30) it’s pretty clear that the whole thing is simply a continuation of The Beneficiary’s Office, his performance art project.

I’m not sure what the endgame is, beyond driving publicity for Wells and ‘The Wells Group’, the self-styled PR agency running The Beneficiary’s Office. But fundamentally this is the only explanation for the character who fronted The Panel. The studied eccentricity of his characterisation and rhetoric — the Leninesque styling and cheap, ill-fitting suit; the suggestion that he might replace Paul Henry on Breakfast, using the scandal du jour as a springboard for publicity; the incoherent, aggressive, entitled, self-indulgent indignant victimhood of his media presence — he is exploiting the fourth wall illusion, the audience’s naïve impression that they’re separate from the performance; that the show stops at the proscenium arch. To do so Wells is reading from the big book of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. His project is a little bit of inchoate Tea Party wingnuttery turned back on an issue so close to the wingnuts’ hearts that they can’t see the mockery in it. No matter that his actual argument doesn’t bear the slightest bit of rational scrutiny and is all but completely obscured by his outrageous delivery — this isn’t the point. The point is to suck people in and involve them in the performance by lighting the flame of their hatred. To make them attack the tar-baby. As Palin’s own idol Ann Coulter said, paraphrasing Joseph Göbbels and George Orwell in her diatribe Slander: “Any statement whatever, no matter how stupid, any ‘tall tale’ will be believed once it enters into the passionate current of hatred.”

So to everyone who’s found themselves incandescent with righteous fury, uttered slogans like “the world doesn’t owe you a living!” or called for the disestablishment of Creative NZ or defended Wells and his absurdist position — this includes the media who’ve covered it from the ‘benefit scandal’ angle; obviously WINZ, who’ve cut his benefit; and most notably David Farrar and the KBR, whose response has been nothing short of magnificent — you’re part of the show. You have been trolled.

So as far as that goes, well done, Tao Wells.

L