Truth deficit disorder
Political labels — many of them inaccurate — abound during a presidential election
By Barry Gordon 02/01/2012
Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of unsolicited email from an organization called “No Labels.” Frankly, the name put me off, because I’m a liberal Democrat and proud of it. Also, when I hear of an organization boasting the lack of labels, I expect to see the same kind of mushy-middle proposals that the electorate seems to love in theory and hate in actuality.
But persistence works, and the onslaught finally led me — more out of disdain than curiosity — to take a look at their Web site. I couldn’t have been more wrong. “No Labels” has proposed an excellent 12-point program to make Congress work better, including an end to procedural and “virtual” filibusters in the US Senate, a mandatory up-or-down vote on all presidential appointments within 90 days of the nomination and even a monthly question period between the president and members of Congress, similar to that which exists in the British Parliament between its members and the Prime Minister. Most importantly, it embraces the idea that I’ve been trumpeting ever since I began writing this column: The simple idea that “majority rules” should mean something in this country. Because without it, the lines of accountability become blurred and the ability to enact meaningful change is obstructed, no matter which party is in power.
“No Labels,” in the explanation of who its members are, recognizes that there are “real philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans.” And no one is expected to “check their principles at the door.” Well said, but therein lies the rub. Labels are a part of politics, whether they are self-designated or assigned by one’s opponents. They are no more, and no less, than a shorthand way of communicating with the people. As usual, labels abound during a presidential election. We hear that politics has been taken over by the extremes of left and right, leaving the political center with no place to go. Obama is a socialist, a radical under the thrall of Saul Alinsky. The Republican Party has been co-opted by the Tea Party and the right-wing fringe of the party. The media, of course, makes no attempt to referee this fight, simply reporting the accusations and giving them equal weight.
Well, here’s the truth. Obama is not a socialist and has never given any indication of being so. And … the Republican Party has been co-opted by the far right. The attempts at artificial balance by the media are ridiculous. And as for moderates, there is only one home for them and that is the Democratic Party.
Andrew Sullivan, erstwhile conservative writer-turned-Obama enthusiast, makes a brilliant case in a Newsweek article that Obama is a pragmatic centrist. I can make a less brilliant but simpler case. No one on the far left or the far right is happy with him. By definition, that makes Obama a moderate. Wherever he has seen a choice between two extremes, he has chosen to find a middle way. Instead of instituting single-payer health insurance or doing nothing at all for the millions of uninsured, he created a plan, messy though it may be, that incorporated ideas from the conservative Heritage Foundation and former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney. Instead of seeking a revenue-dependent fix to our deficit problem or taking an ax to government spending, he put forward a plan that was three parts spending cuts to one part revenue increases, and those only for people who could most afford them — again, a centrist proposal.
On the other hand, the Republicans have finally become the victims of their own ideology, an ideology as powerful and unrealistic as the Marxist philosophy they so often rail against. Their obsession with the free market has blinded them to the real damage that we’ve seen an unfettered, unregulated free market cause. We’ve learned that while greed may be good in certain situations, if unchecked, it can result in wild speculation, an ignorance of risk and a massive increase in inequality, which is perhaps the biggest single threat to free-market capitalism that exists.
Oddly, the supposedly least ideological Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, is, in many ways, the most ideological. He believes, without a shred of doubt, that making money, however you can make it, is the raison d’être of American society. His elitism is not that of Franklin Roosevelt’s or John Kennedy’s — an almost patrician belief that the wealthy should put aside their pursuit of wealth in order to work on behalf of those who did not win the birth lottery. Instead, he tries to convince us that we can all be millionaires like him someday, as long as we keep Wall Street deregulated and don’t raise taxes on capital gains. I believe his is a jaundiced understanding of capitalism and one that most Americans ultimately will not embrace.
As for the left, they are pretty much invisible in this race. I’m not even sure who they are anymore. Barney Frank, certainly one of the more liberal members of Congress, has received his share of Wall Street money and has been relatively mild in dealing with financial reform. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an avowed socialist, hasn’t talked a lot about nationalizing banks or oil companies or “controlling the means of production” — old lefty talking points. Instead, he fights to preserve Medicare and Social Security and to regulate the flow of campaign money coming from major corporations through the floodgate that was opened by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. Radical? I think not.
Apologies to my Republican friends, but the sad truth is that the Democratic Party is not the party of the left, but of the “slightly left of center.” And the Republican Party is the party of the far right. And no re-labeling in the world is going to change that. n
Barry Gordon is the co-host of “City Beat” and teaches political science at Cal State LA.