Archive for the ‘Democracy’ category

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Why it is not “both parties” ruining Washington

March 16th, 2013

I often hear the argument that the current gridlock in Washington is a result of “both sides.” Political discussions with my RepublicanRepublican Congressional Leadership friends usually start out with their position that, “my side is right the other side is wrong.” All too often their arguments are word-for-word talking point straight from Fox News, like “Obama has failed to lead.” When I point out that their side (the Republicans) have engaged in unprecedented obstruction and political gamesmanship, they usually end up throwing up their hands and saying, “Well both side are a joke, and they are both guilty.” That answer is a cop-out.

I agree that both sides have some responsibility for our current problems. However, the more I learn about the details and history of how the two parties work together, the more I am convinced of the following conclusions:

  • Republicans have become much more extreme since the 1970s, while Democrats have stayed about the same. In fact, this is the most extreme Republican Party in history—and the conservative media industrial-complex has helped shift much of the Republican base in the same direction.
  • The primary goal of Republicans in congress is to block anything Obama supports, even when it is their own idea or legislation that will help the American people.
  • Republican tactics are undemocratic: They are attempting to make it harder for people to vote (voter ID laws, fewer voting locations, etc.); they are redrawing election districts in their favor (as a result, they kept control of congress in spite of receiving fewer votes nationwide); they have used the filibuster at record levels (i.e., as a minority party, they have blocked much of the legislation of the democratically elected majority party); and they push policies that will benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

I will provide evidence and additional detail in support of these conclusion below.


Democrats have not been innocent in the political battles of recent years. Obama has said that he could have reach out more effectively to congressional Republicans during his first two years in office. And Democrats have been almost as bad as Republicans in their close work with lobbyist and acceptance of corporate donations. They have also attempted redistricting (i.e., gerrymandering) in their favor, although not nearly to the level of Republicans.

However, what congressional Republicans have been doing is completely unprecedented. Political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein described today’s Republican Party:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.

In the third and now fourth years of the Obama presidency, divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen in our time in Washington, with partisan divides even leading last year to America’s first credit downgrade (source).

From the very beginning of the Obama administration, as discussed in a Republican strategy meeting on the night of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Republicans planned to “Show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies.” (source; see also: Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, by Robert Draper). In an October 2010 interview with National Journal, Republican senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for Obama to be  one-term president.” (Though McConnell later backtracked and said, “I don’t want the president to fail, I want him to change.”)

The decision not to work with Obama was made before he took office, and was meant to make him a one-term president, even if this meant harming the American economy (e.g., unprecedented use of the debt ceiling leading to the U.S. Credit downgrade, blocking bills that would help the economy and create jobs, etc.). It is not surprising that one year after the Republicans took control of congress in 2010, they received the lowest approval ratings in polling history, at just 9%.

The bottom line is that the Republicans are hurting their own party, and even more so they are hurting the country that they claim to love. The problem in Washington is not “both sides.” The problem is an extreme Republican Party that is hellbent on keeping and gaining additional power at any cost. I encourage my Republican friends to be a voice of reason within the Republican Party, rather than being pulled to the fringe where the GOP is currently residing.


See additional detail below.

» Read more: Why it is not “both parties” ruining Washington

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Atlas Shrugged: The GOP Blueprint

June 22nd, 2012

Of the Modern Library Reader’s List of 100 Best Novels, Ayn (pronounced eye-n) Rand’s titles hold four of the top eight positions, with Atlas Shrugged at #1 and The Fountain Head at #2. In a survey done by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, respondents ranked Atlas Shrugged second only to the Bible when asked what book made the biggest impact on their lives. The New York Times called Atlas Shrugged “one of the most influential books ever written.”

I recently read Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s magnum opus, having attempted it several times previously. I trudged through all 1,168-pages of this philosophically-dense novel. The book has a fascinating premise and an intriguing plot. And there are aspects of its message that will appeal to many who want to see their hard work and abilities rewarded. However, I found the book’s overall message to be highly anti-democratic, elitist, and at times, amoral (if not immoral). The book expresses distain for welfare services, for serving others without payment, and condemns the concept of the “public good.”

The basic story is about a woman named Dagny Taggart, who runs a successful railroad line, that eventually fails as a result of over-regulation and market interferance from the government, and Dagny chooses to step down as its leader. She eventually joins up with a man named John Galt, who has removed himself from society and started a libertarian utopia in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. He slowly implements a plan to convince all the men of ability, the productive class, to remove themselves from society as well, to go on strike, and join his secret group in the wilderness. Galt’s objective is to “stop the engine of the world.” Each member of the group takes on an oath not to serve others, only themselves. Eventually the outside world falls into chaos without this superior group of men (and one woman, Dagny). Finally, John Galt communicates his intentions with the public in a climactic radio broadcast, spelling out why he and the other ideal men have left them to fend for themselves. His message is essentially this: It is theft when you take what we have earned, when you regulate our activities to the point where we can’t be successful—in spite of our superior abilities—therefore, unless you do it our way, we won’t come back and save you from your own incompetence. In the end, the world welcomes the return of their rulers.

(NOTE: If you want to save yourself a lot of time, and still get the main ideas from the book, simply read John Galt’s philosophically-dense radio speech, from pages 1,009-1,069.)

Prominent conservatives such as Alan Greenspan, Milton Friedman, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Paul Ryan all count themselves among Ayn Rand’s devotees. In fact, Congressman Paul Ryan has made Atlas Shrugged required reading for his staff. Rand’s ideas have been incredibly influential, and have helped shaped the platform of today’s GOP.

In a sense, it is odd that today’s conservatives would accept Ayn Rand’s ideas (Ayn Rand, 1905-1982). Rand was an militant atheist who opposed Ronald Reagan on his antiabortion stance (she was emphatically prochoice). In 1975, she wrote, “I urge you, as emphatically as I can, not to support the candidacy of Ronald Reagan.” She was also an early opponent of the Vietnam War (hardly a position of that today’s Republican hawks would take), and said “I am an enemy of racism.” Such positions would be seen as heresy by Republicans today, who are anti-choice, frequently use religious rhetoric about their belief in God, are more hawkish than ever, prevent racism does not exist, and worship a mythical version of Ronald Reagan (while taking positions far to the right of the real Reagan).

Today’s Republican Party has skillfully aligned itself to court both the evangelical movement and big business. Yet, in many ways, the ideas of Ayn Rand draw a stark contrast between these two groups. Atlas Shrugged has great appeal for the corporate executive/business owner who is conservative but not religious. It leaves those who live solely for making money feeling like their values are the only values that matter, and that they are meant to rule. These readers will be fed with the message—over and over—that they alone should lead the world, and the the “looters” (i.e., everyone else of lesser ability) should simply serve them, the more-worthy and noble men of ability. In essence, the book glorifies “The Virtue of Selfishness” (the name of a non-fiction summary of Rand’s philosophy). Rand condemns helping anyone who has not earned it, an idea that is contrary to what a Christian—or moral—person would believe about grace, service, compassion, and honoring and protecting human life. The oath that is taken by the superior people of Rand’s story goes like this: “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

This message does not strike me as a Christian message; it stand in stark contrast to ideas like, “love your neighbor,” “love your enemies,” “sell all you have and give to the poor,” etc. So which is it Republicans, are we meant to be a “Christian nation” or a libertarian utopia that discards the vulnerable and is ruled by the fittest, with superior power-grabbing traits (“abilities”)? These two visions do not line up. Which interest group do you want to appeal to, big business libertarians or Christian-nation evangelicals? You can’t have your cake and eat it.

Where Atlas Shrugged has valid and important arguments is when Rand alludes to: maximizing freedom, the importance of rational thinking, the idea that man should not subordinate his mind to authority, the idea that government should minimize the tyranny of the majority by protecting minority rights, the value of voluntary associations of people who are hard working and responsible, and the importance of property rights. Although Rand takes many of these ideas to extremes, these are all very important ideas, and at times, she illustrates them well.

She also makes an important point when discussing irrational government regulations that get in the way of productive endeavors and self-actualization (e.g., innovative ideas, small businesses, a woman’s right to choose, etc.). Yet, Rand goes beyond the widely-accepted point that markets have great benefits and bad regulation is inefficiency and harmful. She argues for a radical libertarian approach to markets and government. This is a dangerous approach because we have been there before. We have had a world with no labor laws, no food regulations, no labor protection, limited public safety, no social security, etc. This is a horrific world where feudalism rules, and where the common man has no voice or power. This is the land of limited freedom and opportunity. And this is where Ayn Rand and today’s Republicans want to return. I suggest, that instead of going backward, let’s go Forward.


Quotes by the heroes of Atlas Shrugged:

  • “We haven’t any spiritual goals or qualities. All we’re after is material things. That’s all we care for…Whatever we are, it’s we who move the world.” (pg. 87-88)
  • “I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of all—that I was a man who made money.” (pg. 96)
  • “There’s nothing of importance in life—except how well you do you work. Nothing. Only that…It’s the only measure of human value…Why are you and I the only ones who seem to know it?” (pg.100)
  • “If you didn’t want to make money, what possible motive could you have had?” (pg.120)
  • “Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue…Money is the root of all good.” (pg. 413; 415)
  • “All I want is the freedom to make money…I am rich and I am proud of every penny that I own. I have made money by my own effort…I refuse to apologize for my money.” (pg. 480)
  • “If I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own—I would refuse, I would reject it as the most contemptible evil.” (pg. 481)
  • “I will remain faithful to the one commandment of my code which I have never broken: to be a man who pays his own way.” (pg. 566)
  • “There are only two modes of living left to us today: to be a looter who robs disarmed victims or to be a victim who works for the benefit of his own despoilers.” (pg. 575)
  • “I’m after a man I want to destroy…Robin Hood…He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Well, I’m the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich—or, to be exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich.” (pg. 576)
  • “There is one word which is forbidden in this valley [i.e., Galt’s wilderness utopia]: the word ‘give’.” (pg. 714)
  • “We are on strike against those who believe that one man must exist for the sake of another.” (pg. 740)
  • “You have no duty to anyone but yourself.” (pg. 802)
  • “Give up and get out of the way and let those of us who can, start from scratch out of the ruins.” (pg. 916)
  • “‘Public welfare’ is the welfare of those who did not earn it.” (pg. 1,050)
  • “No value is higher than self-esteem.” (pg. 1,056)


Further Study:

Jesus or Ayn Rand

NPR Story on Atlas Shrugged

Critique of Rand

Critique of Rand #2

Rand: Back from the Dead




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What is a Fair Society?

January 28th, 2012

It has been said that from any set of facts an almost infinite number of stories can be told. In other words, people often see what they want to see–they interpret facts through an ideological filter. For example, you see a man on the street in the cold, holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Need Help.” The man is wearing an old coat, but looks like a fairly capable person. If I am Ebeneezer Scrooge (before he changed to becoming a leftist who gives handouts to the undeserving :lol:) I am going to see this person and think, “Lazy…They do not need help…They should get a job…They probably make more than I do just standing their getting free money…They’ll just spend it on booze,” etc. On the other hand, if I am a liberal, I may see this person and think, “This person likely has a disability of some kind…They do need help…This kind of suffering is immoral and we should do something about it.”

The underlying assumptions of these two perspectives are playing out in our broken political system. The question is, what is the right approach? What kind of ethical system should we accept as a basis for our social policies? Getting together to discuss this problem has inherent challenges because everyone brings their own interests to the table. The ultra-rich have an interest in not having generous social programs that would require them to pay more in taxes. They see their wealth as their property, and taking it is theft. A low-income citizen, who may be struggling to feed their kids, may ask for a society that limits the free market and provides equal opportunity to all, and perhaps ask for economic equality. Which perspective is the fair way to set up a society? Which is more important: freedom or opportunity? And can one exist without the other? The wealthy might say that creating opportunity for all would require limiting their freedoms. The masses might say giving freedom to the wealthy would limit their own freedom and opportunity.

The American philosopher, John Rawls, addressed this dilemma in an innovative way. He proposed a thought experiment, a hypothetical situation that would help guide our ethical principles of fairness. He described a situation where all of us would be in a pre-mortal state, behind a “veil of ignorance,” where none of us would know what circumstances we would be born into. We could just as easily be born into a wealthy family as we could be born into the slums. With these assumptions, what principles would we all agree are fair principles upon which to build a society?

Most of us would not want to risk being born into poverty in a libertarian society that has no safety net. On the other hand, we may not want to risk being born into a completely egalitarian society where we may work hard for our success, only to find our possessions taken and given to others whom we perceive as less deserving. John Rawls solved this problem by eliminating unequal distribution but without handicapping the talented. He simply says, the fastest runners should not be held back, but they should understand that their winnings do not belong to them alone, and should be shared with those who lack similar gifts. He says,

“Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation for those who have lost out. The naturally advantaged are not to gain merely because they are more gifted. , but only to cover the costs of training an education and for those using their endowments in ways that help the less fortunate as well. No one deserves his greater nature capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society. But it does not follow that one should eliminate these distinctions. There is another way to deal with them. The basic structure of society can be arranged so that these contingencies work fgor the good of the least fortunate.”

This is a just way to approach equality while not creating disincentives to develop talent and work hard. The current system is not a free market; and it is certainly not a just system that pays a school teacher $43,000 per year while paying David Letterman $31 million. We need something different. Rawls details a number of principles that would govern a just society (see his book, A Theory of Justice). These principles provide a general basis for how we might restructure our society—one shaped by neither the left or the right. We should start trying to get beyond liberal/conservative talking points and start discussing an ethical system that grants everyone the chance to exercise their right to pursue happiness.

Watch this video of Michael Sandel lecturing about John Rawls and the idea of a just society. It is great!

John Rawls (Wikipedia)

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Election and Campaign Reform

August 16th, 2011

Voting turnout in the U.S. remains among the lowest of all Western democracies. The U.S. ranks #139 in voter turnout of countries that have held elections since 1945. We have some important elections coming up in 2012. It is important that democracy prevails in these elections. Congress needs to reform our election laws to allow as many voters to participate as possible.

Michael Moore published a book called “Michael Moore’s Election Guide 2008.” He discusses some great ideas for improving our election process:

  • Hold all elections on the weekend
  • Make every citizen an automatic registered voter
  • Use paper ballots and a number two pencil (to avoid having votes not counted)
  • Have regional primaries so no one state has too much influence over the process
  • Limit the election season to 4 months for the primaries and 2 months for the general election;
  • Public financing, free air time, and spending limits for all politicians

Others have suggested compulsory voting as a way of increasing voter participation (source).

Another critical component to election reform is the issue of campaign funding. In 2010, the Supreme Court overturned long-standing election laws that placed limits on corporate funding of election campaigns. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision opened the flood gates for corporations to fund political campaigns. (See how this decision has impacted elections here.) The problem with this decision was articulated well in a dissenting oppinion given by Justice Stevens:

At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

President Obama also threw in on this decision:

President Barack Obama stated that the decision “gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington — while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates”. Obama later elaborated in his weekly radio address saying, “this ruling strikes at our democracy itself” and “I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest”. On January 27, 2010, Obama further condemned the decision during the 2010 State of the Union Address, stating that, “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.” (source)

 Other Reactions:

The New York Times stated in an editorial, “The Supreme Court has handed lobbyists a new weapon. A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: if you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election.”[64] Jonathan Alter called it the “most serious threat to American democracy in a generation”.[65] The Christian Science Monitor wrote that the Court had declared “outright that corporate expenditures cannot corrupt elected officials, that influence over lawmakers is not corruption, and that appearance of influence will not undermine public faith in our democracy.”[66](source)

An ABC-Washington Post poll conducted February 4 to 8, 2010, showed that 80% of those surveyed opposed (and 65% strongly opposed) the Citizens United ruling which the poll described as saying “corporations and unions can spend as much money as they want to help political candidates win elections”. Additionally, 72% supported “an effort by Congress to reinstate limits on corporate and union spending on election campaigns”. (source)

In terms of solutions, at the very least we need to return to policies that existed prior to the Citizens United decision of 2010, which limited private campaign donations (hard and soft money). But going beyond this legislation, some have suggested a campaign finance amendment to the constitution. Some legislators have pushed an updated election repform bill called the “Fair Elections Now Act.” Another idea is the “Voting with Dollars” concept: “Yale Law School professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres in their 2004 book Voting with Dollars: A new paradigm for campaign finance.[7] All voters would be given a $50 publicly funded voucher (Patriot dollars) to donate to federal political campaigns. All donations including both the $50 voucher and additional private contributions, must be made anonymously through the FEC.” (source)

Regardless of how the campaign finance is reformed, most would agree that we don’t want corporations and the wealthy determining elections, and we want greater participation, and therfore, we urgently need serious reform. Contact your representative in congress today.


See also:


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All Too Familiar

May 19th, 2011

I got an email today with this story. It really captures the problems of hierarchy and leadership hubris that permeates our institutions.

» Read more: All Too Familiar

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A More Democratic Media

May 5th, 2011

Our media system is broken. It’s primary customer tends to be its advertising partners, who carry an inevitable bias toward corporate power, profit, and self-interest. The large media conglomerates are not fulfilling their role in propping up our democracy as the “four estate.” Instead, we get “infotainment” that feigns the standards of journalist.

If you want to access media that is oriented toward ordinary people, and favors the interests or that majority, look no further than Democracy Now! You can also find great news from TruthDig and FAIR. There are good listener supported (rather than corporate supported) media, if you look around a bit.

This past week I attended FAIR’s 25th anniversary celebration. FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) is a media watchdog group who publishes critical media reports and a great monthly publication, “Extra.” The event was excellent. It featured a powerhouse lineup of speakers: Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and Glenn Greenwald. The speakers gave a pointed critique of the entertainment media that tries to pass for journalism. These speeches are inspiring and stimulating. Check them out, and go raise some hell.

View these talks here:
1-Glenn Greenwald
2-Amy Goodman
3-Noam Chomsky
4-Michael Moore

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Party Like It’s 1994!

November 3rd, 2010

The Republicans have tried their best to make 2010 the new 1994.  In 1994, after 46 years of Democratic control, the Republicans finally won the majority in the House. They remained in control of the House for 12 years until 2006, when the Democrats took back the House. From 2002-2006 the Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the Executive Branch. During that time they had the opportunity to implement everything important to them. What they did do (and didn’t do) is telling: They started an unprovoked war in Iraq. They tried to privatize social security (and failed), but did nothing to expand healthcare to millions of uninsured citizens. They did nothing to improve government transparency, but rather, they allowed illegal wiretapping. They did nothing to rein in unchecked spending, but instead set spending records and allowed no-bid contracts to private contractors such as Halliburton and Blackwater. When the Republicans now claim to want to fix healthcare, create transparency, and rein in spending, why would we believe them. We need to look closely at the Republican agenda. Why would we give them power, when in fact their agenda is against the interests of most Americans?

This week, they took the House, and picked up seats in the Senate. Commentators are trying to make sense of the shift. It can’t be the Tea Party, because very few of those candidates won. It isn’t a “mandate” of their agenda or a “referendum” on Obama’s party because a number of Democrats won, such as Cuomo as New York Governor, and Senate Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Rather, the shift was a predictable change that comes with most mid-term elections for a first-term president. But this time around, voters are disgruntled about the slow progress of the economy, and they took out their frustration at the polls. The problem with giving Republicans another chance at fixing the problems that they created is that they don’t have a different plan from what they have done in the past. That is, their plan  is to do what they have always done over thee past several decades.

Since the 1980s, the Republicans have basically used their “Starve the Beast” strategy. This strategy is basically to cut taxes (i.e., revenues) so that we can’t afford government programs. The ultra-rich are given special tax cuts, breaks, credits, loopholes, etc. Military spending is increased to suck up most of the federal budget. With less tax revenues they drive up the deficit, blame the Democrats, and scare the public about the mounting deficit. Once voters throw them out of office, Republicans happily leave behind a huge mess for the Democrats to clean up. Democrats now have to make the tough choices about spending and reviving the economy. While out of power, Republicans sit on the sideline and criticize anything the Democrats do to fix the mess, and even try to block anything that might help people, such as extending unemployment benefits. Republicans do everything they can to cut social programs that actually help people and create a middle class, and to cut taxes that would actually help us pay down our debt. They turn the public against Democrats with their rhetoric about “tax-and-spend-liberals,” and throw in a few words about abortion and gay marriage to please the religious right (but do nothing on these issues while in office). And then they bet on public amnesia to try to regain power in subsequent elections. This strategy has worked for them over the past several decades, but it has harmed our country.

Now that Republicans have reclaimed power in the House, what will be their agenda? » Read more: Party Like It’s 1994!

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Budgeting for the Living

May 23rd, 2010

We hear a lot of criticism these days about government spending. This is a primary concern for the Tea Party movement, and is a major focus in the wave of new conservative books and publications—from Representative Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap to America’s Future,” to recent books by Gingrich, Hannity, and Beck. This concern was nonexistent during the unprecedented spending of the Bush years. Moreover, in all of their fear-mongering, we only hear about the problem of “entitlements.” It is always a concern with too much spending that directly helps low income citizens. We never hear concerns from those who claim to be conservative about government spending that feeds our massive military industrial complex. » Read more: Budgeting for the Living

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Welcome to Speaking Of Democracy!

April 15th, 2010

Welcome to Speaking of Democracy!

This blog will discuss the most pressing issues of our day.  Our purpose is to carve out a more-factual, less-partisan, niche in the political blogging world. The intention is not to defend a particular political party, ideology, or a particular issue, but to challenge the established narratives that are spread via the corporate media and the interests they represent, and to do so with academic research standards. If there is a single theme that captures the intent of this blog, it is that the interests of ordinary people need a larger voice in our society. Too often, rather than voicing our outrage or vision, we become pawns—even victims—of our propaganda of choice, fueled by powerful interests.  We need to question the myths, misinformation, narrowness of discourse, and baseless rhetoric that comes from the talking heads who do not share the interests of the average citizen.

The meaning of democracy is “rule by the people.” It was Thomas Jefferson who said,

“I know of no safe repository of the ultimate power of society but people. And if we think them not enlightened enough, the remedy is not to take the power from them, but to inform them by education.”

We have the responsibility and privilege to be life-long students and participants in governing our nation. Let us proceed together.