Our Skewed Political Landscape

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

By today's standards my political views are considered liberal, perhaps even far to the left of center. Yet just a few decades ago I would have been (and was) labeled a moderate or even slightly right of center for holding the same positions I hold today. The radicalization of the right has skewed our political landscape: a moderate outlook compared to the extremism of Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin or Ron Paul seems downright leftist. Much of what is bunched together as liberalism is really centrism that has been artificially shifted left when compared to the fanaticism of the religious right.

Centrism is easy enough to define. We seek a secular government as small as possible, but no smaller than necessary for proper function; a fair, equitable, and simplified tax system, a strong and lean military capable of meeting modern threats to our security, robust protection of civil liberties and voting rights, and a level field in which everybody plays by the same rules as we strive to better our lives.

Certainly all of those ideals are subject to debate, and have multiple means of implementation with a wide margin for different outcomes; but none is radical or leftist. The latter idea, ensuring that we have a level playing field, is perhaps the most misunderstood. All competition requires a referee. Imagine a professional football game with no zebras to ensure fairness and enforce rules. The referee is there not to hinder competition, but to ensure that the competition is fair -- to make sure that the best team wins on merit and skill. Football works only because everybody -- players and fans alike -- believe that the two teams are competing fairly, and that both teams must play by the same set of rules.

Capitalism is much like that football game. The competition is fierce, and under ideal conditions the best ideas win. That is the incredible power of the marketplace. But history has shown that without proper refereeing, capitalism collapses toward oligarchy and monopoly, crushing the very competition that makes capitalism an engine of innovation and growth. The age of the robber barons was no fluke of history. Just as with football, capitalism needs to be regulated to ensure fairness so that everybody plays by the same rules. Enter the government, the referee that keeps capitalism alive. Conservatives fear all things federal (except the military), insisting that government is a threat to free enterprise and entrepreneurship; ironically, the exact opposite is true. Government intervention, properly constituted and implemented, is essential to the very survival of capitalism. In the absence of oversight, reasonable regulations, efforts to maintain transparency, and the enforcement of rules of fair play, the system collapses. We little reminder of this: credit default swaps, insider trading, and a host of other ills brought our financial system to its knees just a few years ago. Greed and corruption will never go away; only by reining in those excesses will we reap the true benefits of a free market. And that requires government intervention.

And here is where the skewing of our political landscape has dire consequences. We have lost our tenuous consensus that government has some role to play. Tension between left and right is healthy; nobody has all the answers, and that struggle moving back and forth across the middle has historically created good and moderate solutions to the nation's problems. But today the tug of war is no longer centered around the mud hole in the middle; as the red and blue teams pull hard, the debate back and forth no longer covers neutral ground, but is now all in red territory. So instead of having a healthy debate about the role of government in managing Wall Street, we get cries from the right that Obama is a socialist or communist. Instead of creating a balanced budget with a mix of tax increases and spending cuts, we get sequestration because the GOP will not even discuss tax hikes (including "hikes" that are nothing more than the expiration of previous and supposedly temporary cuts). Instead of a loyal opposition, working with but moderating the excesses of the opposing party, we get the Senate Majority leader vowing, in public, that his primary objective to ensure that the president fails. Mitch McConnell said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Sure, you can put this in context, and lighten the sinister meaning, but the statement remains: defeating Obama became a greater goal than solving the nation's problems. The underlying idea is that Obama is so bad that sacrificing any progress that might arise from cooperation is worth the price so that Obama is in office only one term. Whatever lack of progress results from the focus on defeating Obama would be made up by the progress we would see under the subsequent Republican president. There is no middle ground here; no struggle across the central mud hole to find good solutions to our problems.

This skewed approach leads to some surrealistic political posturing. For example, conservatives set out to blame Obama for the collapsing economy and declining stock market that he inherited. In the March 6, 2009, Wall Street Journal Michael Boskin opined that "Obama's Radicalism is Killing the Dow." He said, "It's hard not to see the continued sell-off on Wall Street and the growing fear on Main Street as a product, at least in part, of the realization that our new president's policies are designed to radically re-engineer the market-based U.S. economy, not just mitigate the recession and financial crisis." Now that the DJIA is firmly over 15,000 we don't hear from the GOP that Obama's policies are killing the DOW. Funny that.

Conservatives were so quick to blame Obama for a bad economy that they saddled him with a declining DOW even before he took office. John Tanny of Real Clear Markets, wrote on November 25, 2008, that an article entitled, "This Is Obama's Market, Good and Bad." Obama was not yet president! That did not stop Tanny from writing that, "Lacking clarity, investors can only guess about what's ahead based on Obama's decidedly anti-business rhetoric used during the campaign. Whatever direction he takes, it should be clear that today's stock market is the Obama stock market, so it's up to him to decide its basic direction." Even though Obama was not yet president.

What are conservatives saying about the DOW and Obama now, nearly five years into Obamas presidency? Nothing. He was responsible for a collapsing DOW before he became president, but is not responsible for a nearly 100 percent increase in the DOW during his five years in office. Such absurdities are only possible in our skewed political landscape, which allows the GOP, with full support of its base, to blame Obama for all failures and give him no credit for any successes. The tug of war is no longer about the center.

Liberals are not guilt free here. We hear constant whining about how Obama is not liberal enough, with ceaseless efforts to pull him away from the center. Remember the cries of woe and agony because Obama did not repeal DADT or DOMA the moment he got into office. The LGBT community attacked Obama instead of giving him the political space he needed to make lasting change. Fortunately for that community, Obama had their back and his eye on the long game, looking for lasting change rather than expediency. Liberals bemoan the continued operation of Guantanamo, without getting out the vote to overcome right wing opposition. Liberals want Obama to succeed but are unwilling to create the necessary grass roots support. Many liberals were unhappy with the pace in getting us out Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of cheering the fact that Obama was fulfilling his promise to do so. What, a Republican president would do better?

We have reached the point where we can no longer collectively celebrate success. In today's paper, we learn that home builders are more upbeat now than any time in the last seven years. That is on top of good news over good news about the economy. According to Bloomberg Government, manufacturing has its best showing since the days of Bill Clinton, arresting the long slide seen under Bush. U.S. factory positions have grown since early 2010. Fox & Friends soiled themselves trying to discredit this reality: even the Wall Street Journal called Bush's job creation history "the worst track record on record," admitting the obvious growth under Obama. American automobile sales have not only recovered from catastrophic loss, but have accelerated into strong growth. GM reports sales up 11 percent from last year; Ford reports an annual increase of 17.8 percent; Chrysler is up 11 percent. American banks saw record profits the first quarter of 2013. American banks earned more from January through March than during any previous quarter, a total of $40.3 billion, the highest ever for a single quarter, and up 15.8 percent from the same period last year.

Historically, the political parties would be fighting to get credit for these positive developments. Instead, the GOP either denies their reality (Obama's tax cut for 95% of Americans), ignores the obvious progress we've made (mum on DOW and automobile sales), or blames Obama for not having enough success quickly enough (unemployment figures).

The current GOP strategy is to obstruct progress and then blame Obama for failure. A better and more traditional approach, and one that will more likely ensure long-term political viability: cooperate with Obama to create a better America, and then claim credit. That old formula worked for most of our history; we need to return to the practice of promoting success, and then arguing over who is responsible for our good times. As long as we remain stuck in the mire of conservative vitriol, skewed far to the right, we will never reach our full potential as the great nation we are. History will judge the GOP harshly for this decade of obstructionism, but they can recover. The time has come to move on -- and move back to the tug of war over the middle. If we must fight, let us fight over success. With just a little cooperation, there will be plenty to go around.


First posted on the Huffington Post, posted here with the kind permission of the author.


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