Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lunchtime Readings

Rayfield (TPM): Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi: Peaceful Muslims In TN Ruining It For The Rest Of Us

Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi was on the scene in Tennessee to report on local opposition to a planned mosque in Murfreesboro. "Opponents say building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero is simply too close," Mandvi said. "But did you know that 18,000 blocks is also too close?"

Mandvi found out that there was already a mosque in the town that had been there for about 30 years. So he asked a local Muslim woman: "Thirty years? What is taking so long? I mean, let's go people. I mean, you're not a sleeper cell. You're a comatose cell!"

When she contended that all they want is a place to worship, Mandvi replied: "A few good apples like you could really ruin it for the rest of us, you know that?"


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Egan (NYT): Building a Nation of Know-Nothings

Having shed much of his dignity, core convictions and reputation for straight talk, Senator John McCain won his primary on Tuesday against the flat-earth wing of his party. Now McCain can go search for his lost character, which was last on display late in his 2008 campaign for president.

Remember the moment: a woman with matted hair and a shaky voice rose to express her doubts about Barack Obama. “I have read about him,” she said, “and he’s not — he’s an Arab.”

McCain was quick to knock down the lie. “No, ma’am,” he said, “he’s a decent family man, a citizen.”

That ill-informed woman — her head stuffed with fabrications that could be disproved by a pre-schooler — now makes up a representative third or more of the Republican party. It’s not just that 47 percent of Republicans believe the lie that Obama is a Muslim, or that 27 percent in the party doubt that the president of the United States is a citizen. But fully half of them believe falsely that the big bailout of banks and insurance companies under TARP was enacted by Obama, and not by President Bush.

Take a look at Tuesday night’s box score in the baseball game between New York and Toronto. The Yankees won, 11-5. Now look at the weather summary, showing a high of 71 for New York. The score and temperature are not subject to debate.

Yet a president’s birthday or whether he was even in the White House on the day TARP was passed are apparently open questions. A growing segment of the party poised to take control of Congress has bought into denial of the basic truths of Barack Obama’s life. What’s more, this astonishing level of willful ignorance has come about largely by design, and has been aided by a press afraid to call out the primary architects of the lies.

The Democrats may deserve to lose in November. They have been terrible at trying to explain who they stand for and the larger goal of their governance. But if they lose, it should be because their policies are unpopular or ill-conceived — not because millions of people believe a lie.

In the much-discussed Pew poll reporting the spike in ignorance, those who believe Obama to be Muslim say they got their information from the media. But no reputable news agency — that is, fact-based, one that corrects its errors quickly — has spread such inaccuracies.

Rush LimbaughStephen Lovekin/Getty Images Rush Limbaugh

So where is this “media?” Two sources, and they are — no surprise here — the usual suspects. The first, of course, is Rush Limbaugh, who claims the largest radio audience in the land among the microphone demagogues, and his word is Biblical among Republicans. A few quick examples of the Limbaugh method:

“Tomorrow is Obama’s birthday — not that we’ve seen any proof of that,” he said on Aug. 3. “They tell us Aug. 4 is the birthday; we haven’t seen any proof of that.”

Of course, there is proof as clear as that baseball box score. Look here,, for starters, one of many places posting Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate.

On the Muslim deception, Limbaugh has sprinkled lie dust all over the place. “Obama says he’s a Christian, but where’s the evidence?” he said on Aug. 19. He has repeatedly called the president “imam Obama,” and said, “I’m just throwing things out there, folks, because people are questioning his Christianity.”

You see how he works. He drops in suggestions, hints, notes that “people are questioning” things. The design is to make Obama un-American. Then he says it’s a tweak, a provocation. He says this as a preemptive way to keep the press from calling him out. And it works; long profiles of Limbaugh have largely gone easy on him.

Once Limbaugh has planted a lie, a prominent politician can pick it up, with little nuance. So, over the weekend, Kim Lehman, one of Iowa’s two Republican National Committee members, went public with doubts on Obama’s Christianity. Of course, she was not condemned by party leaders.

It’s curious, also, that any felon, drug addict, or recovering hedonist can loudly proclaim a sudden embrace of Jesus and be welcomed without doubt by leaders of the religious right. But a thoughtful Christian like Obama is still distrusted.

“I am a devout Christian,” Obama told Christianity Today in 2008. “I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” That’s not enough, apparently, for Rev. Franklin Graham, the partisan son of the great evangelical leader, who said last week that Obama was “born a Muslim because of the religious seed passed on from his father.”

Actually, he was born from two non-practicing parents, and his Kenyan father was absent for all of his upbringing. Obama came to his Christianity like millions of people, through searching and questioning.

Finally, there is Fox News, whose parent company has given $1 million to Republican causes this year but still masquerades as a legitimate source of news. Their chat and opinion programs spread innuendo daily. The founder of Politifact, another nonpartisan referee to the daily rumble, said two of the site’s five most popular items on its Truth-o-meter are corrections of Glenn Beck.

Beck tosses off enough half-truths in a month to keep Politifact working overtime. Of late, he has gone after Michelle Obama, whose vacation in Spain was “just for her and approximately 40 of her friends.” Limbaugh had a similar line, saying the First Lady “is taking 40 of her best friends and leasing 60 rooms at a five-star hotel — paid for by you.”

The White House said Michelle Obama and her daughter Sasha were accompanied by just a few friends — and they paid their own costs. But, wink, wink, the damage is done. He’s Muslim and foreign. She’s living the luxe life on your dime. They don’t even have to mention race. The code words do it for them.

Climate-change denial is a special category all its own. Once on the fringe, dismissal of scientific consensus is now an article of faith among leading Republicans, again taking their cue from Limbaugh and Fox.

It would be nice to dismiss the stupid things that Americans believe as harmless, the price of having such a large, messy democracy. Plenty of hate-filled partisans swore that Abraham Lincoln was a Catholic and Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew. So what if one-in-five believe the sun revolves around the earth, or aren’t sure from which country the United States gained its independence?

But false belief in weapons of mass-destruction led the United States to a trillion-dollar war. And trust in rising home value as a truism as reliable as a sunrise was a major contributor to the catastrophic collapse of the economy. At its worst extreme, a culture of misinformation can produce something like Iran, which is run by a Holocaust denier.

It’s one thing to forget the past, with predictable consequences, as the favorite aphorism goes. But what about those who refuse to comprehend the present?

Katrina vanden Heuvel (WaPost):Citizens United aftershocks

What are the consequences of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowing corporations "unlimited spending in pursuit of political ends"? The world of campaign finance is new, confusing -- and very alarming.

Corporate groups are already using the ruling to raise lots of cash. Consider the recent work of a consortium of coal companies in West Virginia and Kentucky, including Massey Energy -- owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine where 29 miners were killed in April -- which is attempting to target "anti-coal" Democrats this fall.

In a letter to various coal concerns, Roger Nicholson, senior vice president and general counsel at International Coal Group, said, "With the recent Supreme Court ruling, we are in a position to be able to take corporate positions that were not previously available in allowing our voices to be heard. A number of coal industry representatives recently have been considering developing a 527 entity with the purpose of attempting to defeat anti-coal incumbents in select races, as well as elect pro-coal candidates running for certain open seats. We're requesting your consideration as to whether your company would be willing to meet to discuss a significant commitment to such an effort."

Among the interesting things about this is that 527 groups were relatively free to accept and spend cash even before Citizens United, but -- whether by confusion about the law, strategy among corporate fundraisers or both -- the decision might catalyze all manner of new corporate spending, anyway. Of course, 527's face looser rules, too. "As a result of Citizens United, 527's can now use corporate money to run TV ads within 60 days of the election, and can say anything they want about the candidate," says Joseph Sandler, former general counsel of the Democratic National Committee. "That's a big difference."

But corporations might want to think twice before jumping deeper into political races, attracting more attention in the process. According to a new Survey USA poll, 77 percent of all voters -- including 70 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of independents -- view corporate election spending as an attempt to bribe politicians rather than an expression of free speech that should not be limited.

Target is learning this the hard way. It donated $150,000 to Minnesota Forward, a group channeling funds to Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer -- known for his opposition to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. As a result, the company now faces a consumer boycott and angry institutional shareholders who have asked for a "comprehensive review" of Target's political donation process. Best Buy also donated $100,000 to the group and is facing similar calls for a boycott.

Still, what we are seeing are just the initial stages of what will result in, among other things, a flood of corporate campaign cash. Conservative groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads, are gearing up to spend $300 million to hammer Democratic candidates in 2010, according to a Democratic Party memo obtained by The Washington Post. And chief executives are in "wait-and-see" mode when it comes to direct political spending, according to a former counsel to the Federal Election Commission.

There is no way private citizens can match the resources available to corporations to make their voices heard. That's why a public backlash against the Citizens United decision is so critical. Progressives -- galvanized by the brazen activism of the court -- have responded by organizing around a far-reaching pro-democracy platform and have already scored some important wins.

Under pressure from New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio , Goldman Sachs said it would refrain from spending corporate funds on "electioneering communications." Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo pledged to follow suit. De Blasio has also created an online Corporate Spending Tracker, which displays the electoral spending policies and contact information for the 100 largest companies in America.

MoveOn has also embarked on what it calls its "most ambitious campaign ever" -- focused on overturning the court's decision through a constitutional amendment and passing the Fair Elections Now Act, which would bar participating congressional candidates from accepting contributions larger than $100 and allow them to run honest campaigns with a blend of small donations and public funds. (The Nation, of which I am the editor and publisher, is a coalition partner in this campaign.) Right now, the campaign is pursuing a goal of getting 100 members of Congress and candidates to sign a pledge endorsing this agenda before the congressional recess ends on Sept. 10.

Passing the Disclose Act -- which was recently defeated by yet another Republican filibuster -- would be a modest step in the right direction; it requires corporations to show how they spend money in elections. But the deep reforms needed to truly put democracy back in the hands of the people will require a long and tough-minded struggle by all small-d democrats.

In the mean time, corporations are free to do a lot more than just donate to less-regulated 527's. They have a blank check. As President Obama noted in his most recent weekly address, the Citizens United decision "allows big corporations to . . . buy millions of dollars worth of TV ads -- and worst of all, they don't even have to reveal who is actually paying for them. You don't know if it's a foreign-controlled corporation. You don't know if it's BP. You don't know if it's a big insurance company or a Wall Street bank. A group can hide behind a phony name like 'Citizens for a Better Future,' even if a more accurate name would be 'Corporations for Weaker Oversight.' "

Rep. John Fleming (R) of Louisiana was campaigning alongside Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) this week, speaking to a Republican women's group near Shreveport. Fleming did his best to frame the midterm elections in a very specific way.

"We have two competing world views here and there is no way that we can reach across the aisle -- one is going to have to win," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. [...]

"We are either going to go down the socialist road and become like Western Europe and create, I guess really a godless society, an atheist society. Or we're going to continue down the other pathway where we believe in freedom of speech, individual liberties and that we remain a Christian nation.

"So we're going to have to solve that argument before we can once again reach across and work together on things."

There's all kinds of fascinating angles to this remarkable nonsense, but let's not some of the highlights.

First, for all the talk from pundits that Democrats need to do much more to reach out and compromise with congressional Republicans, Fleming's wildly foolish comments are a reminder that there's just not much Dems can do with the modern-day GOP.

Second, there's nothing in the Democratic agenda that calls for an "atheist society"; Western Europe is filled with countries that have official state churches; and it doesn't make any sense to simultaneously claim to protect "individual liberties" and a "Christian nation." The United States separates church from state. Fleming may want a Christian-style theocracy -- maybe an Iran for the West -- but that's just not how Americans do things.

And finally, Fleming was campaigning with David Vitter. Voters are supposed to chose righteousness, by backing the right-wing politician who hires prostitutes?

Postscript: Brian Beutler notes that the godless Democratic heathens have nominated David Melville to run against Fleming in November. Melville is a Methodist pastor.

Update: A friend emails: "Would Vitter be subjected to stoning in Fleming's Christian nation?"


The lead Politico story this morning reports on the borderline-panic among leading Democrats about the midterm elections. It's not a pretty picture.

Top Democrats are growing markedly more pessimistic about holding the House, privately conceding that the summertime economic and political recovery they were banking on will not likely materialize by Election Day.

In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.

Hopes earlier this year that economic conditions would noticeably improve by the fall have given way to a discouraging reality. Dems thought to be in relatively "safe" districts are now seen as vulnerable. The article quoted an unidentified Democratic pollster saying the party's House majority is "probably gone."

The dread is not universal -- some leading party strategists said the crushing pessimism is mostly "inside-the-beltway chatter" -- and the campaign committees are taking steps to help mitigate losses. Politico added, "Republicans have been out-raised and out-spent at the national level and in many of the key races."

But it's nevertheless safe to say that the political winds are picking up, and they're not at the Democrats' backs.

None of this, however, is new. Indeed, many of us could have sketched out the entire article in our heads before reading it. The question the Politico didn't get to is what Democrats plan to do about their predicament.

The article said there are competing strategies about the elections, but Dems "mostly agree there are few good options beyond grinding it out in each individual race."

There may be limited "good options," but there are options. For example there are Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and Dems could use the limited legislative calendar to push strong bills -- job creation, small businesses, repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," energy -- that voters might like, and which might motivate the Democratic base to turn out.

Sure, Republicans will oppose everything, and will very likely prevent votes in the Senate. But there's nothing wrong with putting up a fight, showing voters the party's priorities, forcing the GOP to cast tough votes shortly before an election, and giving the party something to be excited about.

It's better than hoping for the best.

Jonathan Bernstein: Ideology, Groups, and Impulses

I have to warn you -- this might be a bit rambling. And it's not exactly definitive, either (especially towards the bottom of this very long post; among other things, I'm not as up on some relevant literatures are I should be). Take this, perhaps, as a different way of thinking about some ideas, ideology, and other such things, rather than something I'm going to assert is the correct way of looking at those things. That said...

There's been a bunch of interesting comments recently around the blogs concerning the general topic of ideology. Matt Yglesias did an item in which he noted that he's for deregulation of various things, but that it doesn't make him feel as if he's a conservative on those issues. For a two paragraph post, he really started something, with Conor Friedersdorf using it to take a(nother, and completely justified) swipe at Mark Levin (with a follow-up), and then Adam Serwer got in on it, first making the Chait-esque point (but see Kevin Drum) that American liberals don't believe in big government the way that American movement conservatives believe in small government, and then making what I think is the better point that American movement conservatives don't really believe in small government in that way, either -- they believe in small government rhetoric, but in reality are happy to support government intervention in support of other important goals. Yglesias also posted recently about what he sees as a possible decrease in ideological politics around the world (except, in his view, the US).

There's a lot in here. For one thing, Yglesias says that his "impression is that politics wasn’t especially “ideologically” before the late 18-th century," and also talks about (in the post linked first above) how "The “left-wing” position is to be against this stuff—to be on the side of the people and against the forces of privilege." But those things are connected, and in my view, mostly irrelevant to 21st century politics, or at least 21st century American politics. "Left" and "right" (as Yglesias I'm sure knows) come from a specific place and time: from the French Revolution. Indeed, to vastly oversimplify something on which I'm not an expert anyway, it's not wrong to say that "left" and "right" began as simply attitudes towards the French Revolution, for or against. This did, indeed, put the "left" on the side of the people -- against the Crown, against nobility, and at least in France, against the Church. This translated reasonably well to the rest of Europe during the 19th century, when politics was really involved in whether "the people" would or would not rule.

However, and this gets back a bit to what I was talking about recently, once you have a democratic republic, it's not clear that "left" and "right" mean anything -- because as the constitution-makers of revolutionary and post-revolutionary Americans discovered after 1776 and through the 1780s, in a democratic republic there's only people. One of the problems they had to deal with was that Montesquieu said that you're supposed to have different branches of government representing different estates within the nation -- but in America, there was only one estate, so what powers were there to balance? Of course, Madison's brilliant solution (as he describes in Federalist 51) is to balance the people against each other, thus creating more, not less, power.

OK, but...we do in the US have people who call themselves liberals and conservatives, and we have "left" and "right" in other democracies even though it's not about support for or opposition to the French Revolution, so what is it about? The answer is not at all easy, at least in my view. One way to talk about ideology, the way that public opinion researchers tend to think about it, is just about knowing which issues are supposed to go together -- so that if you support, oh, gun control and abortion rights, you might know you're also supposed to support more government spending on education and oppose the war in Iraq. By that measure, Americans tend not to be ideological in general, although people who know a lot and care a lot about politics, people like Yglesias and Friedersdorf and Serwer and me and you (since you're not reading on into such a long post on this blog unless you're way high on the scale of political awareness), do tend to be far more ideological by that measure. Then there's what Friedersdorf refers to a couple of times in his discussion, first principles. It could be the case that there are deep principles at stake between American liberals and movement conservatives, and that positions on specific issues of public policy flow logically from those principles. Friedersdorf seems to think that's the case, and I'd guess that most people do. I don't, for the most part. Unfortunately, while it is I think an empirical question, it's also (in my view) an impossible one to get at. At any rate, that might be going on.

Let me propose a third way to look at it, either in addition to or instead of either just grouping issue positions together because you know they sort that way in our politics, or issue positions deriving from first principles: groups, and impulses.

Groups: we belong to groups, and in those groups we form alliances with other groups, often through political parties -- which are, in addition, one of the types of groups to which we might join. These groups, as groups, hold positions on issues of public policy, sometimes out of self-interest, sometimes out of custom or habit. We tend to adopt the positions of the groups with which we identify, or with which our groups are allied, or which leaders of those groups profess publicly. Then we go back and find justifications for why that basket of issue positions go together. That's not a bad thing -- even those of us who think self-interest in politics is perfectly fine also believe that it's both natural and healthy for political actors to (at least sometimes) express their self-interest in the context of principles that everyone else can recognize as public spirited.

So to some extent, looked at this way, ideologies are the residue of the connections we make between policies we already support, although then its also true that those connections might also influence us and others as we make other choices about who to ally ourselves with, and what new positions to adopt.

But I think that's only part of it; I do think that there's something authentically different between liberals and conservatives, at least some of the time, and at least in some cases. If not first principles, though, perhaps we can call them impulses. To me, the liberal impulse is basically: We Can Do Better. And the conservative impulse? Don't Make It Worse. Liberals, or perhaps all of us when we're inspired by the liberal impulse, look around and see a variety of problems and available resources and want to alleviate pain and suffering; they want to solve problems. Conservatives, or perhaps all us us when we're inspired by the conservative impulse, remember all the cases of noble intentions gone awry, the cases of unintended consequences, the cases in which problems seemed terribly severe but then they seemingly melted away without anyone, and certainly not everyone collectively, trying to address them. Liberals appreciate the promise of the future; conservatives appreciate how rickety the accomplishments of the present are, and how easily what we think is safe can be destroyed.

I don't know; reading back, that seems a bit on the trite side to me. My real point is that to dress these things up as ideologies, and in that in most cases "first principles" have little to do with our approach to public policy preferences, even among the most politically sophisticated who are most likely to conform to our political parties' platforms and to therefore poll as ideological, is to miss something important. So I'm not saying that either the "sorting issues" or the "first principles" way of looking at ideology is wrong; I'm just saying that the groups-plus-impulses approach may (also) help us understand what's going on.

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