cross-posted with permission
|Congressman Ron Barber, "Congress on Your Corner"
open meeting with constituents, June 23, 2012
Sometimes a broad problem is best understood through a look at specific examples. So I begin by asking: Who is Congressman Ron Barber, and how does he exemplify — indeed, what is — this more general problem of vital importance to the future of both the Democratic Party and the entire United States?
Well, to answer the first part of the question, Ron Barber is the Democrat first elected in June 2012 in Arizona Congressional District 8 to fill the vacancy produced by Gabrielle Giffords’ resignation. He was then reelected in the November general election to a full term representing the new Congressional District 2 created by Arizona Congressional redistricting.
The answer to the rest of the question is of necessity much longer, taking up the remainder of this piece but getting to the heart of contemporary American political dysfunction.
I live within both the old and new aforementioned districts, and thus have a more than passing interest in the positions taken by the politicians ostensibly representing them. There are many indications that Mr. Barber has the intelligence and basic human decency desirable in a public official. With his white hair, small beard, and cane, he also bears a bit of a resemblance to “Colonel” Harland Sanders, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, hence “The Chicken Man” nickname light-heartedly applied to him by others. Unfortunately, the relevance of that moniker extends beyond its intended allusion to an iconic purveyor of poultry, for what Congressman Barber does have cannot mask what he appears to lack: cojones, and a commitment to rational political stands even in the face of the right-wing opposition that is to be expected in early twenty-first century America. (And the Newtown murders notwithstanding, the “rational political stands” and “right-wing opposition” to which I refer are broad-based; this piece is not a polemic on the subject of gun control).
I have no quarrel with many of Congressman Barber’s votes, but some others have been so objectionable that I have been obliged to reexamine my opinion of both the man and the Democratic Party. On June 19, 2012, the very day he was sworn in as congressman, Mr. Barber would cast a vote in favor of H.R. 2578, a 14-section collection of anti-environmental legislation, one of the components of which included the gutting of, in the name of “security”, virtually all environmental regulations within one hundred miles of the entire U.S. land border. One month later, July 19, 2012, he would vote against a defense appropriations amendment that sought to freeze fiscal 2013 core military spending at 2012 levels, this assuming that sequestration did not occur. (That proposed freeze had been denounced by some as a cut because it reduced by just over $1 billion the 2013 levels previously approved by the House Armed Services Committee, though not the entire House. However labeled, the $1 billion at issue was neither the 89% cut in defense spending that occurred post-WWII, 1948 vs. 1945, which did not cause the sky to fall, nor even the 10-15% pruning and redirection urged last year by a group that included retired U.S. military officers; rather, it amounted to only an extremely thin slice (0.2%) of the $528 billion core military budget, and an even smaller percentage of true total military spending, large portions of which are “hidden in plain sight” within the budgets of other government departments. Accordingly, this amendment could not be credibly characterized as a threat to our national security, and opposition to it was patently unwarranted. See the discussion for Amendment number 1, pages H5054 - H5057 of the Congressional Record). More recently, on September 12, 2012, Congressman Barber would vote for H.R. 5949, which extended for five years the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, a measure that in effect nullified many of our Constitutional protections against wide-ranging governmental search and seizure, protections that served this nation well for more than two centuries. This act, rationalized in the name of national security, has legally enabled an ever-expanding multi-faceted domestic surveillance infrastructure that spies daily on millions of ordinary law-abiding U.S. citizens.
An aside: Although not part of the above-referenced Congressional discussion on the military “budget”, it is at this point worth noting as a matter of morality and priorities that the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which seeks to collect and spend just over $2 billion during 2012-2013, found itself as of October 2012 $700 million short in contributions for that two year period. (See here for a more detailed accounting). And consider that during the January 2008 through early October 2012 time frame, U.S. governmental contributions to the GPEI totaled only one-half of the amount provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. While the money saved by a sensible reduction in U.S. military spending could fully erase the 2012-2013 GPEI shortfalls, as well as fund a multitude of other highly worthwhile projects both domestically and internationally, which would probably gain this country far more admiration, respect, security, and employment than would hundreds of billions of dollars of military expenditures, the military-industrial-security-governmental complex has had and will continue to have its own warped priorities for our tax dollars.
I am not privy to Congressman Barber’s thought processes, and I can only speculate about what motivated his votes for the abominable anti-environmental H.R. 2578, against even a freeze in our bloated military spending, and for the H.R. 5949 extension of the totalitarian-style FISA amendments. Perhaps he genuinely believed that these absurd and dangerous positions were desirable; in that case, he is at minimum badly mistaken, and this will call into question his judgment in all future matters. On the other hand, perhaps his votes were simply crass political maneuvers, attempts to establish political “street cred” with the conservative portions of his district, or the corollary, due to fear of being tarred by future conservative charges of being soft on border enforcement specifically or national security in general. That last possibility is perhaps the most insidiously dangerous of all motivations, for it represents a continuation of the Democratic Party’s fear-driven political behavior of the past three decades, which, above all else, has been marked by a nearly-complete failure of political nerve at the first insinuation of weakness. Such fear was a major motivation for Democratic support of the Congressional resolution that authorized the insane U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and for the passage and subsequent expansion of the liberty-destroying, perversely-named Patriot Act. However, the adverse impact extends much further; in countless other areas, the absence of adequate Democratic advocacy for reason and social justice has allowed Republican politicians to frame the debate, and these Republicans have thereby successfully dragged the political center far to the right of any rational location for it.
Congressman Ron Barber, news conference, June 23, 2012.
Partly in fairness to Mr. Barber, but mostly because of its wider and more fundamental implications, I must emphasize that this positive-feedback loop of deficient advocacy and constrained or faulty action is apparently a significant affliction among Democratic politicians. With regard to H.R. 2578, 16 Democrats joined 216 House Republicans in voting for it, and 6 Democrats failed to vote. On the amendment to freeze defense spending (sponsored by Republican Mick Mulvaney and Democrat Barney Frank), 21 Democrats voted no, while 12 did not vote. Often, even greater numbers of Democrats cast their votes in favor of (usually Republican-originated) bills that, at best, rate as political scat, or against (usually Democratic) bills that constitute the mildest of necessary reforms. In the case of H.R. 5949, 74 Democrats voted in the affirmative, supplementing the 227 Republicans who voted for passage.
But a high incidence of such political cowardice in no way excuses or mitigates it; indeed, in such a situation, every increment of cowardice weighs ever more heavily, greatly reducing the likelihood of a favorable outcome for the nation. A large number of insane ideologies course through the veins of the contemporary body politic, including: a belief in American exceptionalism (despite our inferior rankings by a multitude of measures); a desire for worldwide military supremacy (and a blank check for the vast military spending that accompanies our futile pursuit of it); a worship of unfettered capitalism and some imaginary “free market” (all the while enabling anti-competitive corporate behavior and socializing the losses of corporate speculators and incompetents); an opposition to planning, regulation, and the moral use of national resources (never mind that the “wisdom of the market” is often antithetical to the true long-term interests of the people); and a rationalization of poverty and insecurity for a large portion of the populace (while aiding the accumulation of extreme wealth by those at the top). The unvarnished truth is that the successes of the Republicans and the gains of their worse-than-Social-Darwinistic agenda are not due to Republicans alone — Democratic unwillingness to boldly challenge these delusions has inexorably led to the national ascendancy of such views.
Additional local evidence of such Democratic deficiency comes via the Arizona Congressional District 2 primary election held in late August. Consider newspaper coverage of the positions of the two Democratic (and two Republican) candidates (Arizona Daily Star, August 7, 2012, page A4, “Candidate Q&A: US Congressional District 2” -- CD2 candidate bios sidebar). Asked their “top priority”, all candidates unsurprisingly listed multiple items. However, for Congressman Barber, who would win the Democratic race, the first item was “bipartisan problem solving for Southern Arizona”, while for his Democratic opponent Dr. Matt Heinz it was the similar “build consensus”. Whether evaluated abstractly or morally or strategically, those are highly flawed top goals, mealy-mouthed conflations of process with concrete objectives. (And it should be noted that like most Republicans already in office, neither of the two Republican candidates gave even a hint of willingness to compromise or work with the opposition). A further look, to Dr. Heinz’campaign website [dead link], saw him referring to his time in the Republican-dominated state legislature and speaking of “building consensus… working diligently to find common ground with other representatives”. As for Congressman Barber’s campaign website, it originally showed his stated desire “to put politics aside … lead with civility… ”. Those phrases were later removed, prior to the general election. Did the congressman have an epiphany, or was the change simply one of election strategy? What positions will he take on the extraordinarily-important matters to be addressed during the remainder of this term and in the one beginning January? Support for a “Grand Bargain” that largely protects our bloated military spending, barely imposes on the wealthy, but shafts the remainder of the people — and all arrived at with the utmost of “civility” of course? What will your moral legacy be, Congressman Barber?
News flash, Mr. Barber, Mr. Heinz, and Democrats everywhere: Those goals of procedural harmony, admirable though they might be in a perfect world, are unattainable in this one — except at the cost of a surrender of most substantive Democratic principles. When the overwhelming majority of your Republican opposition is malevolent, obstructionist, and seeks to take this nation into a social-political-economic structure reminiscent of Dickensian England, no rational bipartisan consensus is possible, and it is fundamentally counterproductive for Democrats to either believe or pretend otherwise. Any possible political gains among independent voters produced by Democrats making conciliation with Republicans a high priority are more than offset by that preoccupation’s destructive impact on Democratic ideology and self-respect, and its communication of weakness to the opposition. Democrats, striving ever harder to demonstrate their accommodating reasonableness, have over the past several decades ceded not just the hair and hoof trimmings of a Democratic Party symbol, they have surrendered the muscle and vital organs of a once proud ideology of social justice. It came as no surprise when the Democratic Party in 2010 abandoned the kicking donkey as its logo. All that remained was a skeleton stripped nearly bare, with the predatory wolf packs of the Republican Party howling in anticipation of their next meal.
Perhaps Democratic politicians should take a cue from the natural world (especially since they have ignored the lessons of the political one). David J.T. Sumpter (Collective Animal Behavior, 2010, Princeton University Press) describes the process by which a honeybee swarm chooses a new home: Scouts explore and return to the resting swarm, dancing in support of potential new locations; additional trips are made, competition for viewers and fading of the dance intensity over time occur. “Mathematical models of this process predict that the site at which the bees give up dancing for most slowly is eventually the focus of all dancing” (Sumpter, p. 214).
With regard to the human political environment, no biologist’s empirical description or mathematical model should actually be necessary. It is obvious to any sentient observer (even if not to the Democratic politicians seeking votes) that a political position with inferior advocacy is unlikely to prevail. Progressive advocacy shouldn’t be confined to the few days of a highly-scripted quadrennial presidential nominating convention, or even to the months of campaign season. All Democratic politicians — from the President on down to the lowliest local office-holders — need to strap on their balls, every single day unabashedly make the case for progressive positions, and then — because advocacy is a necessary but insufficient condition for favorable political results — act courageously in the spirit of that advocacy at every executive, legislative, and judicial opportunity. Within the system, only that course will reverse the decades-long deterioration of this country and improve the future for the people; only that course will halt the accelerating slide towards a plutocratic national neo-fascism, prevent the eventual appearance of the well-justified but unpredictable pitchfork brigades, and ensure preservation of the Republic.
The perceptive reader will have noticed that in focusing on a Democratic failure of courage, my critique of Democrats has been much narrower in scope than it could have been. Considerably more damning assessments equating them to Republicans and attributing their political behavior to a complete sellout to corporatist, plutocratic, and/or military-industrial forces have been made, backed by substantial evidence. But while the influence of these corrupting forces is certainly large and sometimes even dominant, I believe that the situation is frequently more nuanced, with a mixture of mutually-reinforcing causes at work. The outrageous cost of campaigns, the human tendency to follow the path of least resistance, the political careerism of those who hold political office, coupled with their egotistical tendency to see themselves as indispensable, thereby rationalizing any action in order to retain such office — all contribute to the current situation.
But whatever else may have contributed, the failure to demonstrate political courage in support of rationality and social justice has played a significant role. Notably, a dearth of courage is potentially the most easily remedied factor, ultimately dependent as it is only upon oneself. Such political courage (or lack thereof) from current and future politicians — and if necessary, directly from the downtrodden ordinary citizens who may yet bring us a transformative “American Spring” — will ultimately be decisive in determining the future of this nation.
Copyright: Fred Drumlevitch. Permission hereby granted to any registered voter (but not a commercial website or publication) to copy this post in whole or in part for the express purpose of directly transmitting it to one or more Democratic Party politicians, provided that attribution, a link to the original complete post, and notice of any excerpting are all included.
Fred Drumlevitch blogs irregularly at www.FredDrumlevitch.blogspot.com
He can be reached at: FredDrumlevitch12345(at)gmail.com