Mar 202011
Smile & Frown

Image by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr

Is there any political issue upon which all Americans agree? If there is, it’s certainly not defense spending, social programs, taxation, campaign finance, healthcare, or abortion, nor is it energy, trade, marriage, foreign policy, guns, illegal immigration, unionization, or the national debt, the economy, the environment, education, civil rights, crime, or drugs . . . hell, we can’t even all agree on jobs and infrastructure!

Unanimous agreement on any of these issues is extremely rare, even on a historical scale. World War II may have brought us to statistical unanimity on defense spending, and back in 1789, there were few voices of dissent offered against the general provisions of the Second Amendment. Yes, true consensus seldom occurs, but the degree of division found today is equally uncommon.

Last year’s debate surrounding healthcare is an excellent example of not only how wide the chasm between liberal and conservative voter opinion, but also of the nature of the divide. From the onset, Republicans spared no effort to cast the healthcare bill in the most negative light possible; labeled “Obamacare,” it was a “government takeover” of healthcare; it was being “forced down the throats” of voters and would result in bringing “death panels” to destroy the “best healthcare system in the world.”

The result of this unrelenting slander campaign was to completely pollute public opinion amongst conservatives. Voters rallied against the bill, believing the hyperbole to be fact, and stood in stringent opposition. Conservative opinion became so stacked, that the repeal of “Obamacare” became a vital element of the Republican election campaign of 2010.

But then, as the din of election rhetoric started to subside, the campaign dust began to settle, and another dynamic soon emerged. Preposterous claims of “death panels” were replaced by a slow seeping of factual information regarding what the healthcare bill actually contained. This soon led to liberals and conservatives alike arriving at more well-developed positions, and public opinion on repeal quickly began to tilt.

Once the equation changed from “do you want to repeal the government takeover of healthcare” to “do you believe that insurance companies should be able to refuse coverage because of preexisting conditions,” people were suddenly empowered with real knowledge of the issues, and were soon to adopt a position that actually reflected their personal values.

Many voters previously in favor of repeal found that they actually supported certain aspects of the bill, like allowances to help Medicare recipients cover out-of-pocket prescription costs, parents being able to include children up to age 26 on their plans, and the prohibition on denial for preexisting conditions. Once armed with facts in place of manipulative hyperbole, support for complete repeal dropped to only one in four voters.

If this were an isolated story, it may be dismissible as an aberration in an otherwise healthy political process. But the sad truth is that this sort of deception and manipulation is the rule, not the exception, and the process in question is not only unhealthy but exceedingly destructive.

The real story about healthcare or jobs or the deficit, or whatever specific issue you choose, is that the Republican spin machine has become so expert at political theater that no matter what the underlying facts, they’re able to develop a script for each issue that portrays the conservative position as pro-American and patriotic. They’ve actually become so adept at this manipulation that conservative voters accept their contrived plots, and willingly suspend reality, without question, most often to their own demise.

Regardless of political views, any observer of this dynamic has to be in awe of its power. The spinmeister’s craft is dedicated to beguiling the unwitting victim by playing on emotions of fear, pride, and fairness. By evoking the emotional response, the skilled spinmeister obscures the facts, avoids troubling questions about substance and effectively uses distraction to open his victims to exploitation.

Who isn’t against “government takeovers” — of any kind? The government is supposed to represent the people, not rule over them. And “death panels” or having anything “rammed down your throat?” What American wouldn’t be repulsed by such imagery?

The truth is that these characterizations have nothing to do with the underlying issues. They’re offered for the sole purpose of poisoning the well in order to drive opinion without any real evaluation of substance.

In reality, when all the extraneous bullshit is stripped away, all Americans care about the same things: about the wellbeing of their family and friends, and about the values upon which they base their lives. These core values may vary from person to person in terms of what they might hold as most important in a given situation, but they are, at the same time, universal. All people care about fairness and reciprocity, and they also care about protecting others from harm, about loyalty and respect and the sanctity of life. These values form the moral foundation of our culture.

Sadly, the Republican spin machine has succeeded in co-opting this basic set of American values, casting them as unique unto itself, and has in the process managed to artificially split the nation. They’ve created an alternate reality where they alone are held to believe in hard work, where fairness is dictated by the market (instead of by people), and where corporations are entitled to more rights than the citizens of our nation. Amazing? Absolutely, but the truly inconceivable part is that something approaching half of all Americans buy into this nonsense.

The truth of the matter is that what divides Americans is much less about a split in values and much more about the split in valuables. If left to discuss and debate our values without self-serving provocation by manipulative elites, the vast majority of Americans would be able to find common ground on which to build consensus and develop workable solutions. But such interaction would not serve the goals of those who seek to keep us divided, so they do everything they can to drive the wedge as deep and often as possible.

We’ve allowed the politicians and media to cast the debate as “big government” versus “small government,” when we all know that what we really need is “effective government.” We argue over raising or cutting taxes without first discussing the services We the People deem appropriate and how best to fund them. We accept that we’re divided over energy and defense and abortion and all manner of social and economic issues, but instead of engaging in dialogue and attempting to find real solutions, we just accept the winner-take-all, zero sum game of American politics that’s been defined for us.

This is not the way our democracy was intended to work. The Founding Fathers established a republic designed to ensure that the interests of all citizens would be taken into account. But in spite of their sage efforts, our representative government increasingly represents only the interests of a very small, very wealthy, and very powerful minority.

The real division in America has nothing to do with left and right. This is an artificial construct designed to keep the masses in perpetual tension — to keep us divided. Today’s public is presented with one fraudulent dichotomy after another, all stemming from complex political positions built on heaping assumptions with questionable logic. It is this complexity that prevents solution, because it ensures that the public never engages in meaningful discourse at a level low enough to find our common ground — the level of our core values.

There is no issue on the social landscape upon which a majority of Americans cannot find a suitable compromise. All that’s needed is an earnest discussion at the most basic level. Americans are decent people with a true sense of fairness, who have proven time and again that they’re capable of working together for the common good. All they need is leadership willing to speak the truth and stop beating the drums of division long enough to foster real dialogue.

Unfortunately, politicians want us all to believe that our differences are irreconcilable, that the other side is the enemy, unpatriotic and incapable of coming together and agreeing upon workable solutions. This is a fallacy, but it’s kept alive by constantly reintroducing issues that are recirculated and debated over and again, whenever The People threaten to expose the truth — that the only real divide in America is top and bottom, between the haves and have-nots, and that divide is widening with every passing year.

It is up to We the People to reject yet another season of the Kabuki Theater that is left/right politics in America. We must demand an end to the deceptive practices of both major parties, equally to Republican fear-mongering and Democratic lip-service, for it is their dance that’s taken us to the edge of destruction. We must come together as a people and insist on a real conversation, or else continue to be exploited by our nation’s economic elite and their servants in public office.

The People only win when we unite.

If interested in a look at how your personal values fit with your politics, pay a visit to Your

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Mar 132011
Vice President Henry Wallace.

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“They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesman for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

Sound like anyone you know?

The quote is actually from FDR’s Vice President, Henry Wallace — in 1944. He was talking about the rising tide of fascism in America.

Fascism was defined most succinctly in the 1983 American Heritage Dictionary as: “a system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism.”

It’s no accident that this all has the ring of vague familiarity. The parallels between recent events in the U.S. and the international rise of fascism that led to the Second World War are inescapable.

People will likely accuse me of stepping too far, as we Americans seem to abide by an unwritten law that forbids any analogy between the state of our politics and those of Nazi Germany. But while I wouldn’t equate for a nanosecond any comparison between the horrors of the Holocaust and anything occurring in 21st Century America, I am compelled to shine a light on the similarity of events and sound a warning about the threat of fascism in America today.

The fact of the matter is that Hitler came to power in Germany without winning the majority vote. He was appointed, not elected. Shortly after taking control, he used the burning of the German parliament building, allegedly by a Dutch communist, to declare a “war on terrorism.” Within two weeks of the terrorist attack, a prison for terrorists was constructed; within 4 weeks he pushed through legislation that, in the name of fighting terror, suspended constitutional guarantees of free speech, privacy and habeas corpus, and allowed police to access personal mail, wiretap, and imprison suspected terrorists without warrants.

Hitler then focused on a debt-financed military buildup that nearly sent the German economy into bankruptcy. He continued his buildup against stringent opposition but gained increased power by consistently casting all opponents as weak against the communist terrorists. He eventually managed to crush all opposition through aggressive attacks on trade unions, and then claimed for himself total power by disregarding the constitutional requirement to elect a new president when Hindenburg died and instead declaring himself Fuhrer.

As Fuhrer, Hitler became commander-in-chief of the military. He positioned himself as the protector of Germany and the German people’s savior from communism, Judeo-Bolshevism, and other undesirable minorities. He then launched an unrelenting campaign of German exceptionalism that would lead to a war that would drain the country’s economy and end in complete collapse.

I’ll leave it to you to decide what American president this may sound like, but regardless of that particular comparison, it’s impossible to dismiss the parallels between the march to fascist rule in Germany and what’s going on in America today.

As described in Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous statement, “First they came . . . ,” the rise to fascist power came by dividing the people and attacking them group-by-group. In Germany it was first the communists, and then the unions and finally the Jews. In the good old U.S., it’s Muslims, anyone who can possibly be cast as a socialist, and now —public employees. Henry Wallace warned of fascists, that “always and everywhere they can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power.”

Make no mistake about it, as Pastor Niemoller’s statement concluded, the rise of fascism will spare nobody. It’s public employees who are under attack today. They’ve been demonized as the cause of the current economic woes that were actually created by the thieves on Wall St. and the multinational corporations who shipped millions of jobs overseas. Teachers, police, nurses, janitors, firefighters — they’re all being cast as fat-cats, as the “haves,” the “others” with whom other working Americans should take issue.

But public employees are just a stepping stone for the neo-fascists. The wave of Republican governors elected to office in 2010 is engaged in a full frontal attack on working Americans of all stripes. From Rick Scott in Florida to John Kasich in Ohio, from Rick Snyder in Michigan to Scott Walker in Wisconsin, backed by newly elected right-wing legislatures, these wannabe tyrants are all talking about “shared sacrifice” while cutting taxes for the wealthy and then attempting to balance their budgets with spending cuts that impact everyone else.

Rick Scott’s attempts at unilateral action have been so drastic that he’s even run afoul of Florida Republicans. John Kasich’s battle against the working class has succeeded in crippling collective bargaining in Ohio. These men are fascists. They care not about America or Americans. They are the people of whom Henry Wallace spoke when warning that “another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion.”

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin too is a fascist. He may not identify himself as such, but the record of his tactics and objectives leave him without defense. Aligned perfectly with Wallace’s description of American fascists, where they “are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact,” Walker claimed not to be a union buster and then presided over the corrupt action of Wisconsin Republicans to end collective bargaining. In order to side-step the requirement that Democrats be present to form a quorum on any legislation with fiscal impact, the Senate Republicans split off the portion of their “budget repair” bill that ended collective bargaining and passed it alone. It never had anything to do with balancing the budget and was always about the fascist drive to strike a death blow to unions.

Unions are anathema to fascists. Fascists believe in authoritarian rule and place the value of money and power far above the welfare of human beings. They are all corporatists who readily accept the illegitimate doctrine of corporate personhood, and resoundingly reject any and all egalitarian values. Fascism is dedicated to establishing a ruling class by devaluing that which all people have to contribute — their labor — and instead concentrating all wealth and power within a small economic elite.

Because American fascists must convince large numbers of Americans to vote against their own best interests, they all must follow a playbook of deceit. Again, writing about fascists in the 1940s, Wallace described them this way: “His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.”

Fascism is a disease that’s spreading with increased speed in America, and the only known antidote is public awareness. Fortunately, the symptoms are pretty easy to detect — if politicians complain of budget deficits but argue to cut taxes on the rich, if they fight to break unions, even after all economic concessions have been accepted, if they advocate for harsh penalties on crime but strive to protect fraudulent bankers from prosecution, if they argue that corporations should have the same rights as real people, if all of their arguments are heavy on hyperbole and devoid of substance, if they always seek to divide instead of unite the people — you have a very good bet that they’re also likely fascist.

There’s nothing really new here. We fought a World War to end the spread of fascism across the globe. And FDR, Henry Wallace and many other patriotic Americans struggled to ensure that fascism was snubbed out here at home. The fascist’s bag of tricks is the same as it was 70 years ago. All we have to do is learn from history, otherwise, as they say, we are doomed to repeat it.


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Feb 232011
Union members picketing outside the National L...

Image via Wikipedia

Article first published as The War on Working Americans and the Battle of Wisconsin on Technorati.

First they came for the factory jobs, but Americans didn’t speak out, because most didn’t work in factories.

Then they came for the construction jobs, but again Americans didn’t speak out, because they didn’t work in construction either.

Then they came for the public employee jobs, and some Americans did speak out, but others fought against their efforts, because they believed that their fellow American workers were to blame for unbalanced budgets and economic strife.

Then they came for . . . who will it be next? Might it be you and yours?

Who will be left to speak out for you?

The fight for workers rights in Wisconsin is an issue that should concern all working Americans. Unions there have agreed to the severe cuts proposed by Governor Scott Walker, but still he refuses to move on ending their right to collective bargaining. Efforts there to cloak union busting as responsible fiscal policy are nothing more than the most recent attempt to squeeze working Americans in order to pile more into the coffers of our nation’s economic elite.

The origin of the demise of the American worker goes back more than 30 years. It was conceived in the stagflation of the 1970s and born out of the anti-labor policies of Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan’s 1981 firing of 13,000 striking air traffic controllers that was the shot heard around the world, the shot that started the war against labor that continues to this day.

Reagan was an anti-labor zealot who stacked the NRLB (National Labor Relations Board) with management types who were against unions. The result was an NRLB that sided with employers 75% of the time, a marked increase from the 33% rate under Nixon. Under Reagan the labor department was turned into an anti-labor department; OSHA was cut by one-third; training programs were cut back; he tried to lower the minimum wage for youths and even attempted to replace thousands of federal employees with temporary workers who would not be protected by a union.

Things weren’t as bad under George Bush Sr., but ignoring what Ross Perot called the “giant sucking sounds” from the south, the senior Bush worked diligently to establish free trade under NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). President Bill Clinton signed the agreement into law in December of 1993, and as predicted by Perot, American jobs and money were siphoned off at a record pace.

Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs were lost during Clinton’s presidency, but those losses pale when compared to what happened under George W. Bush. By the end of the junior Bush’s first term, the U.S. trade deficit with Canada and Mexico had swelled to 12 times its pre-NAFTA level, and 2.8 million manufacturing jobs had been lost. Many factors contributed to these losses, but trade policy that allows unfair conditions and tax policy that promotes offshoring have been major factors leading to the 20 million high-paying manufacturing jobs that were lost between the 1970s and the present.

The impact of the loss of manufacturing jobs cannot be overstated. Their loss marked an American shift from being an exporter nation to having huge trade deficits. And because manufacturing jobs are generally considered to provide the largest job multiplier, actually creating around 2.5 jobs for each manufacturing job, their loss has been particularly burdensome on the economy. As always, it’s middle and working class Americans who paid the price through lost jobs and declining wages as corporation after corporation ramped up profits with cheap overseas labor.

While nobody except Wall St. bankers, corporate CEOs and politicians were safe when the economy collapsed in 2008, it was the construction industry that took the most severe hit. While banks were packing away record profits and bankers record bonuses, their plunder of more than a quarter of the wealth of the middle class took with it 8 million American jobs, and the lion’s share were in the trades. Unemployment in construction hit its highest level on record in March 2010, rising to 27.1%.

Today, construction is still plagued with high unemployment levels, lingering at 22.5% this January. Add to this the deleterious effects of the intrusion of illegal immigrants into the industry, estimated at around 17% of the overall construction workforce, and what was once a sector that promised opportunity for hard working Americans is now a wasteland of skilled craftspeople who can’t afford the houses they worked to build.

So, with manufacturing jobs decimated and construction on the ropes, the wave of Republican governors who swept into office this past November have placed their sights on public employees. Their itchy trigger finger of blame is now pointed at civil servants. Their story is that public employee pensions are the reason behind why so many states can’t balance their budgets; state workers are over compensated and underworked, the story goes.

A hurting public, where unemployment is still at 9.4%, wages have stagnated for 30 years, healthcare is too expensive and prospects too few has been all too quick to accept this fairy tale. Those who want to hide the truth have used these conditions to successfully divert scrutiny and assign blame. But people accept their treachery at a high personal cost that can easily be avoided by looking a bit deeper.

The fact of the matter is that state budgets are in turmoil because of the loss of economic activity, which is the direct result of the bankster’s plunder, the failure of both the President and the Congress to hold anyone accountable, and the GOP’s obstruction of anything that might stimulate job creation. It is true that some pension plans may need to be renegotiated, but the unions have been open to such efforts. And it’s also important to keep in mind that underfunded pensions weren’t as large a concern before the funds were victimized by the Wall St. extraction.

On the topic of public employee pay . . . well, the truth is quite different from the political spin. According to Keith Bender, economic professor at the University of Wisconsin, the compensation of state and local employees are lower than for private sector workers of equal education. His recent study concluded that, on average, their total compensation was 6.8% lower than in comparable private sector jobs.

In the final analysis, whether or not people believe that the maligning of public employees is completely absent of factual basis, they need to see the present attacks for what they are — a play for power. The truth of the matter is that the reason people see public employees as advantaged isn’t because the teachers, firefighters, police, nurses and the rest have done so well; it’s because without unions to represent them, the vast majority of private sector employees have been bled for lower wages and fewer benefits to the point of collapse.

The facts are readily available and the conclusions completely obvious, all that’s needed is the desire to know the truth. The truth is that pay for the average American has stagnated for decades while income for the upper 1% has skyrocketed, rising to a record 17.1% of all income by 2007. This dynamic has created a situation where that top 1% now holds more financial wealth than the bottom 95% of Americans.

Couple this good fortune for the economic elite with the first decline in median household income since 1967 and the slowest rate of job growth since 1945, and it’s pretty easy to understand why people are pissed. But that anger shouldn’t be directed at fellow victims of the plunder. The problem is that 98% of all Americans are being increasingly exploited by a small minority who sit atop the economic pyramid and pull the puppet strings of the politicians on both sides of the aisle. It is in their direction that the ire of the American people should be directed.

Unions were never the problem. In fact, it was unions that gave us most of the benefits now experienced in the workplace. Without unions we wouldn’t have a 40-hour workweek, nor would we have an 8-hour workday. Paid vacation and sick leave, working wages, health benefits, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, and yes — pensions — all were made possible by unions.

It’s time for all Americans to join together and say “enough!” Enough shipping our jobs overseas. Enough concentration of wealth. Enough tax cuts for the wealthy paid for on the backs of American workers. Enough lying and blaming others for the pain caused by the constant squeeze to get more profits. And enough union busting bullshit being sold as unavoidable fiscal discipline!

Wisconsin is ground zero in the fight to restore prosperity to the American middle class. Keep your eye on the ball America, and don’t let any more con men like Scott Walker distract you while they pick your pocket. Remember, if you’re a working American, it’s not a question of “if” they will come for you and yours — it’s a question of “when” — and they just might come for you next.

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