‘Through a Glass Darkly’ or Weighing the Democratic Price of Partisan Mobilization at any Cost

            The New York Times reported on May 17 that several issues now confronting the Obama presidency have “energized” the recently factionalized and demoralized GOP base. These include the supposed partisan and autocratic Internal Revenue Service action to review closely a number of Tea Party chapter tax status applications, the alleged “cover-up” of an assumed illicit action in the Benghazi tragedy and the Justice Department’s obtaining of the phone records of a number of AP journalists in an attempt to uncover and stop what the department considered a significant national security breach. In response to these events, the nation has witnessed the following and more on the part of the Republican Party and its allies:

  • Former Vice President Dick Cheney has appeared on national television to assert (while presenting no evidence for his claim) that the President is lying concerning Benghazi and there is in fact a “smoking gun” in this sad story and it is being hidden by the President personally
  • Rep. Michele Bachmann (R, MN) has offered the following observation, again completely without evidence, “As I have been home in my district in the Sixth District of Minnesota, there isn’t a weekend that hasn’t gone by that someone says to me: ‘Michele, what in the world are you all waiting for in Congress? Why aren’t you impeaching the president? He’s been making unconstitutional actions since he came into office.’ ”
  • Former Arkansas governor and conservative entertainment talk show host Mike Huckabee has likewise called for the President’s impeachment.

            Republican officeholders and activists are arguing that the President is “obviously” misleading the American people and therefore unfit to hold his post, and the national government generally is just as illegitimate, because overreaching and tyrannical.

            Cynicism and ideological pretentiousness aside, the former Vice President offered no evidence of anything resembling a scandal occurring in Benghazi, nor did the recent House Foreign Affairs committee hearings concerning those events. Likewise there is no indication of anything approximating an impeachable offense in any of the three episodes noted. Indeed, to date the IRS scandal looks more like the product of technocratic confusion and perhaps ineptitude related to applications for tax-exempt status as 504(c)4 organizations than anything else. No substantiation to date has suggested Benghazi was anything other than the tragedy it surely was. And while the Justice Department’s actions in seizing AP phone records are troubling, untoward and deeply unfortunate, they were not undertaken without a genuine and debatable concern animating them. In short, to the extent the critical comments noted above can be explained, they appear to be linked to an effort to energize the Party’s base to mobilize its members electorally against such policy and program actions the President might propose. They are so wildly inflammatory and so utterly unrelated to reality that it is difficult to make sense of these assertions as anything but cynical posturing.

            Meanwhile, also this week, the Times reported that a large national survey of economists had found a solid consensus that the nation’s sequestration and allied efforts to cut its “unaffordable” deficit and debt, embraced by the lion’s share of GOP leaders and activists, were in fact misguided and were slowing the country’s recovery from its long-lived recession (and thereby actively harming millions of citizens, rich, middle income and impoverished alike). Nevertheless, as the sequestration and cuts progress, Republican Party leaders are demanding still deeper reductions in federal expenditures to rein in a purportedly unsustainable national government. But in complete empirical contradiction to GOP claims, the Congressional Budget Office reported this week a very significant reduction in its projected deficit for the nation, the product largely of the economic growth that has recently occurred. Nonetheless, Republican leaders and activists have ignored this fact in favor of a continued call for sharp cutbacks in national expenditures, using the deficit as rationale and cudgel.

            The Stanford University Center on Poverty and Inequality (CPI) offered another example this past week of the likely effects of continued GOP fiscal policies emphasizing public program and expenditure reductions. The CPI reported on May 14th that poverty and inequality had increased in most communities in the recent recession, but this trend was not evenly distributed (https://web.stanford.edu/group/recessiontrends/cgi-bin/web/sites/all/themes/barron/pdf/Communities_fact_sheet.pdf). Not surprisingly perhaps, minorities and recent immigrants lived in those neighborhoods with the largest increases in unemployment and inequality. The shift was so large that the Center predicted that, barring effective policy steps to ameliorate it, it will result in a continued and deepening divide between have and have not communities across the nation for decades to come. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has targeted for sharp reductions or elimination in its federal budget plan many of the programs that assist such population groups. The conservatives call such efforts undue deprivations of the liberty of those populations, but Republican leaders never discuss the character of freedom enjoyed by individuals who live lives of profound poverty and food insecurity.

            One final example of GOP-style politics in our capital today is particularly telling. Republican leaders continue to refuse to confirm the appointment of proposed leaders to head federal programs they do not favor ideologically. They also have acted often to reduce appropriations for agencies they find odious including, ironically, the Internal Revenue Service whose budget has been reduced 17 per cent since 2002. The result is less than adequate performance by these entities in many cases, and for obvious reasons. The steps taken ensure the result, which is then used to pillory the public victim. The Times reports, for example, the Party plans to use any and all glitches in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act reforms, whose institutional leaders the GOP has refused to appoint, as a centerpiece of its campaign in 2014 to continue to tar that effort and ultimately obtain its repeal.

            What all of these examples illustrate is a party that has so lost its way in the name of power mongering or ideology, or both, as to encourage its leaders and mouthpieces to set aside facts in order to offer outrageous claims to inflame its base. In so doing, those same individuals are each day and with every misleading and demagogic assertion they offer, delegitimating the government they are elected to serve and of which they are a part (or as supposed journalists or media figures, to cover thoughtfully), at least with those voters sufficiently credulous, pre-disposed or uninformed as to believe their claims. It would certainly be possible to debate a range of propositions concerning the warp and woof of political action in multiple domains without calling for the President’s impeachment without evidence, or assuming tyranny without facts to bolster that claim, but many elected GOP officials no longer appear willing to do so. Instead, a strong share of the Party’s leaders and media representatives are now, whether they realize it or not, attacking the very foundations of democratic governance by working assiduously to destroy its popular legitimacy. I cannot explain this turn, nor can I understand why these individuals believe that, should they succeed, they could govern in such a scenario, were they to gain the power they have taken such steps to attain. In short, the current state of the nation’s politics is not simply lamentable; it now constitutes a danger to self-governance itself. The present situation could be remedied, but only if those promoting it chose to discipline their claims and to harness them to facts, rather than ideological flights of fancy aimed at enraging a targeted population.