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The Politics of Aesthetics

So What If Democrats Lose the Senate?

by ANDREW LEVINE

A midterm election is coming; the media are gearing up.   The electoral circus will soon be in everybody’s face again, making a mockery of every democratic ideal.

With our duopoly party system as entrenched as ever, and with our Supreme Court devoted to the bizarre idea that “campaign contributions” from plutocrats, bribes, are protected by the First Amendment, our elections nowadays function mainly to neutralize energies that might otherwise disquiet the American ruling class.

Thus the 2012 election did a number on the remnants of Occupy Wall Street.  There is much less to quash this time around.  Discontent is everywhere, but the spirit of rebellion is again in eclipse.

For Democrats, the midterm election four years ago was about damage control.  The party leadership understood that, after two years of Barack Obama, their base was, to put it mildly, unenthused; and they realized that Republicans smelled blood.

Their response was true to form; they became more than usually like Republicans, putting their most “moderate” foot forward.  Then, as Obama put it, they got “shellacked.”  No surprise there!

The “blue dog” Democrats who were elected in 2006 and 2008 were sent packing, as Republicans retook Congressional districts that had been theirs before weariness with Bush-Cheney misrule and, later, Obamamania gripped the country.  The Tea Party marched in.

And Democrats lost control of the House.

Was this a bad thing?  It is far from clear.

Disreputable as the party of Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer may be, the miscreants who took the House away from them in 2010 make them look good.

This is not exactly a political judgment; it is more like an “aesthetic” one.  The case against John Boehner and Eric Cantor and the minions they lead is that they inspire even more disgust than their rivals.

There ought to be a better word for this.  With Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush now looking like probable presidential candidates in 2016, we will need one.

Otherwise, though, it is hard to say whether the Democrats’ loss was, on balance, a bad thing.  It is not even clear that it moved the country farther to the right.

It is not as if a spate of progressive legislation suddenly stopped emanating out of Capitol Hill.  Between 2008 and 2010 when the Democrats controlled the House along with the Senate and the White House, there was very little of that; arguably, there was none at all.

There was, of course, the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.  Since it is only now coming fully into effect, the jury is still out on whether, on balance, its passage deserves more than a half-hearted cheer.

It did mandate several needed insurance reforms, and it will diminish the number of people who have no health insurance at all.  But it also strengthens and enriches private insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and health care profiteers; and it will set back efforts to make health care a right for another generation.

Under Obamacare, the United States will still fall short of the standard reached decades ago by most of the rest of the world, and its chances of getting to a better place anytime soon will be worse than they were before 2008.

Was it then a change for the better?  Probably.  But was it a change that moved the country off its rightward trajectory?  This is not clear.

I am nevertheless inclined to think that it is worse with Republicans running the show; but it is a close call.  Certainly, the blue dogs were no loss.  However, the handful of genuine progressives in Congress – never more than a tiny fraction of the Progressive, Black and Latino Caucuses – are probably even more disempowered now than they were between 2006 and 2010.

There is no doubt, however, that the change was for the worse at the state level – especially in states where Republicans controlled both the legislative and executive branches.  Formerly strong labor states in the industrial Midwest were especially hard hit — Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, to cite just the most egregious examples.

Because 2010 was a census year, a fresh round of gerrymandering Congressional districts was in the offing.  That made the 2010 elections especially portentous.

Republican Party functionaries and the plutocrats behind them were therefore more than usually keen on getting their candidates elected.  They threw lots of money into the effort.

Of course, Democrats and their paymasters were similarly determined.  But their base was so disheartened that there was little they could do.

Organized labor – public sector workers especially – lost a great deal in the 2010 elections.  This was not entirely the Republicans’ doing.   The malign neglect of the White House was a factor too; and so was the indifference of the Democratic Party’s leadership.

Less is riding on the midterm elections this year.  But that won’t cause Republicans to slacken their pace.  By all accounts, public opinion stands far to their left; it stands to Obama’s left as well.  No matter; in our  “democracy,” money rules.   The Republicans are on a roll, and they are not about to let up.

People who live in media markets that cover areas where the outcomes of impending elections are in doubt will therefore be deluged with more than the usual number of mind-numbing political advertisements.

And we will all again be forced to face the incontrovertible truth that our politics has almost nothing to do with any plausible democratic ideal.

It is all about selling “we, the people” on one or the other of two candidates, representing ideologically like-minded, mutually antagonistic, party brands.

This gives ninety-nine percent of us about as much political influence, at the national level, as the subjects of absolute monarchs had centuries ago.

Nevertheless, even small, barely discernible differences can have important consequences.

The big stake this time around is the Senate.  Unless the world changes in ways that cannot now be foreseen, the chance that Democrats will retake the House this year, as they did in the 2006 midterms, is practically nil.

It is far more likely that they will lose the Senate.  This is what Nate Silver, the election maven who is (almost) always right, thinks.

According to Silver, if the election were held today, there is only a fifty-fifty chance that the Democrats would retain control.

Needless to say, the plutocracy will be able to deal with the outcome either way.  Despite the best efforts of mainstream Democrats since the Clinton years, most “malefactors of great wealth” still prefer the GOP.  But, as a group, they, the notorious one percent, win no matter which party controls the Senate.

Some of them nevertheless remain partisan.  Sheldon Adelson, the Israel-first casino shmendrick, is an example, and so are the Koch brothers.  Being more than usually odious, they gravitate towards the Republican side.

For the most part, though, plutocrats hedge their bets.

If the prospects hover around fifty-fifty as November nears, expect contributions to Senate races to break about even, Adelson and the Koch brothers notwithstanding.

The giving patterns of ordinary people are likely to be affected too.  Republicans will likely give more and work harder to elect the whack jobs their benighted souls favor.  And Democratic Party fear-mongers will be out in force.

They are already sending out emails at a daunting pace.  If only they would use snail mail, they might actually do some good – generating enough volume to make the post office solvent again.

When Republicans took the House back, it changed very little.  Will it be different if Democrats lose the Senate too?

The short answer is that without a Republican president, it probably won’t.

Democratic Senators these days are a pusillanimous and unprincipled lot.  But for them, as much as for their Republican counterparts, electoral considerations come first.  Therefore, if they thought there was some electoral advantage to be gained, they might actually be moved to do the right thing.

But they haven’t yet and they won’t in the next two years — because, by their lights, as long as Obama is President, the way they serve their party’s electoral chances best is by standing by their man.

Therefore, the last thing they will do is investigate his administration’s criminality.  And neither are they about to stop following his feckless “bipartisan” lead.   It is a fool’s errand because Republicans will never reciprocate, but they are not about to change.

The first loyalty of Senate Democrats these days is to a serial violator of international and constitutional law.  Under these circumstances, they are part of the problem, not the solution.

Therefore, whether or not they retain control of the Senate, nothing like the Church Committee’s 1975 investigations of Nixon-era lawlessness is going to happen in the next two years.  Even if they wanted to, which they plainly don’t, Senate Democrats under Obama would never rise to that level.

Of course, there might be other reasons to worry about which party controls our legislature’s upper house.

The Senate is charged with powers that the House does not have – most importantly, it must approve a wide range of executive branch appointments.  From their minority perch, Republicans were notorious for taking full-advantage of the chamber’s anti-democratic filibuster rules to block as many of these appointments as they could.

By last November, Senate Democrats had had enough; they changed the filibuster rules with a view to reining in Republican obstructionism.   Now, in most cases, a simple majority vote is enough to get an appointee through.

Obama tends to nominate anodyne, centrist candidates; in other words, people more able and progressive than the leading lights of his party and administration.  Surely, the prospect of getting those people into the slots for which they are nominated is a reason to think that it will be better if the Senate remains in Democratic hands.

But wait!  All he needed was a simple majority, yet Obama still could not get Senate approval for his nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

That might have been the best appointment he ever made.  But the Fraternal Order of Police objected and seven Democratic Senators caved.  They joined all the Republicans and voilà – Obama couldn’t even get a simple numerical majority to support his choice.

This outcome speaks volumes – about Obama’s leadership and about the party he leads.

The FOP’s complaint was that, years ago, while working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile had done legal work on behalf of Mumia Abdu-Jamal.

For the Philadelphia FOP, the beneficiary of Adegbile’s attentions is still Public Enemy Number One.  Democratic Senators from Pennsylvania and surrounding states, Delaware and West Virginia, don’t want to cross them; that accounts for three of the defectors.   The others just seem to have been blue dogging, as is their wont.

Their vote against Adegbile was so outrageous that even the usually placid Obama spoke out against it.  The liberal commentariat went ballistic.  Rachel Maddow even briefly put her obsession with Christ Christie’s “bridgegate” on hold, so that she could vent along with the others.

Their complaint was that it sets a bad precedent to exclude lawyers from political offices because of whom they represented.  As good liberals, they pointed out that everybody deserves a fair shake in court.

They also noted that even the arch conservative Chief Justice John Roberts once represented on appeal a Florida man convicted for committing mass murder.  They asked if he should therefore be impeached.  Not all their right-wing colleagues were clever enough to detect the sarcasm.

But the FOP could care less about precedents, and therefore neither did the Senators in their thrall.  For them, Abu-Jamal is a cop-killer who should be judicially murdered – or, as they would say, executed.  And if pesky legal niceties make that impossible, he should be left to rot in prison for the rest of his natural life.

Needless to say, in the eyes of many others throughout the world, and according to several human rights organizations, Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner who is guilty only of having been a Black Panther and then a crusading journalist, and who, by being articulate, courageous and forthright, was a thorn in the side of Philadelphia’s sleazy law and order establishment.

It is hard to see how anyone familiar with the evidence could disagree, and harder still to see how anyone at all could fail to acknowledge that his trial was so full of irregularities that, at the very least, a retrial is in order.

But the Adegbile incident didn’t elicit a peep about any of this from leading Democrats or their mouthpieces in the corporate media.  Evidently, Obama isn’t the only one who gets cut slack when it comes to making a mockery of the rule of law; the Fraternal Order of Police is extended a get-out-of-jail-free card too.  Senate Democrats think that is just fine.

This is yet another reason to question what many liberals take for granted; that Democrats are always the lesser evil.  In the Age of Obama, such reasons abound.

But, then, no matter how awful Democrats seem, Republicans do or say something unbelievably outrageous; it is as if their lives depended on proving the liberals right.

But even if Republicans always are worse, the lesser evil can still fall so far short of the threshold beyond which lesser evil considerations seem germane that it hardly matters. This is how it often is.

Lesser evils are sometimes not less evil enough.  And while it may be a truism that, other things being equal, one should always make the best (or least bad) choice one can, other things are seldom equal.

With an election season looming, it is well to remind ourselves of this.  And it is well too to reflect on how context-dependent lesser evil considerations can be.  For the 2014 midterm elections, it is relevant that Obama, not Romney, won in 2012.

It is also relevant that, while other names may be on the ballot, the real contest is between Democrats and Republicans.  On that score, exceeding some morally relevant threshold is one issue.  Another is the nature and extent of the difference between the two parties.

Republicans are abominable.  But they are angels compared, say, to some of the fascist groups that inept American diplomacy has empowered in Ukraine.

Much as it would pain me to vote for almost any Democrat, given a choice between a Democrat – or a Republican – and a militant in Ukraine’s Svoboda Party or Right Sector, I’d go with the Democrat or Republican every time.

Republicans, Tea Partiers especially, are soft on theocracy.  But they are positively secular compared to the Islamist groups inept American diplomacy has empowered throughout much of the Muslim world.

It is also relevant that we are talking about inter-party competitions for national or state offices, not the kinds of intra-party competitions that we get in primary elections.  In intra-party contests, the range of choices and also the short- and long-terms consequences of choosing greater or lesser evils can be very different.

Sometimes, even the unthinkable happens: there are candidates to vote for.

In competitions between Democrats and Republicans, when the Democrat is clearly the lesser evil and not so awful as to be out of the question, it is important not to fixate inordinately on the present.  To focus just on the difference here and now, without taking longer-term consequences into account, can be misleading and dangerous.

This is one reason why lesser evil voting has served America so poorly in recent decades.  It has encouraged a race to the bottom – leading to the kinds of choices that we increasingly face.

Always voting for the lesser evil is foolish; so is always forbearing from doing so.  It all depends.

How does this consideration bear on Senate contests this November?

I would hazard that there is no general and unequivocal answer because it hardly matters whether or not the Senate falls under Republican control.

Particular races may matter for any of a variety of reasons.  Whenever this is the case, it is more than likely that it will be better (less bad) if the Democrat wins.  But if Democrats lose their majority, the harm will be aesthetic only.

This is what it has come to on Obama’s watch.  And, barring currently unforeseeable developments, it is what we will have to contend with again in 2016 and beyond.

Much like global warming, it is not a pleasing prospect.  But we may have no choice but to adapt to it.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).