I was going to write about what I’m thankful for this season; I was focusing on the Occupy movement and how it has generated some appeal to people who call themselves conservatives. Both sides share concerns around the issues of wealth inequality and, to some extent, militarized and brutal policing. It occurred to me that this kind of “transpartisan” appeal, that is, appeal to both self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives, depends partly on the fact that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and state legislatures have a kind of “bipartisan” agreement on each issue. Both political parties, as we know, have eagerly promoted wealth inequality and have helped Wall Street clear away the Depression-era regulations that, for decades, prevented these kinds of financial crashes. They have also colluded in the militarization of American policing (and of American life generally).
This idea led me in some unexpected directions, which I would like to share. I wound up with more to be thankful for than I had originally imagined.
Take a trip with me on a little train of thought…
The “Gridlock” Lie, First Take
We are accustomed to hearing the story that our political parties are in “gridlock”, that they are indulging in “partisan bickering”, that they cannot agree about anything of importance to the country (we also hear the ‘he said, she said’ narrative that Ds are as much to blame as Rs, but that’s another story). As I considered the transpartisan appeal of the Occupy movement on the issues of wealth inequality and police brutality, I began to realize how false this story is.
On almost all issues that face our country, the two political parties are quite impressively united. They agree wholeheartedly that they are going to do nothing to lessen the worst problems that burden the lives of our people; quite the contrary, they are going to collude to make them even worse than they already are. This may seem hard to fathom, but it is amply supported by the evidence; so much so that I think there can be no controversy on the facts.
Bipartisan Unity Against the People
Here is a brief list of a number of issues where Republicans and Democrats agree on things that clearly harm the American people, whom these politicians falsely purport to represent.
1. As mentioned above, both parties have been eagerly complicit in liberating finance capital from the burdensome restrictions of financial regulation (read, minimal accountability). This has been an ongoing and bipartisan project, stretching back twenty years and more.
2. Ditto the growth of military policing, a necessary consequence of the absurd and manifestly futile “wars” on drugs and terrorism. Thus we see armored overkill against peaceful occupations (more on this below).
3. The sanctity of the Pentagon budget is another, and very venerable, area of bipartisan agreement. For decade after decade, under presidencies and Congressional majorities of each party, the “military-industrial complex” has received its tribute and has had its desires most particularly attended to.
4. Both parties are also happily on board with endless war. War all over the Middle East and Central Asia, war anywhere else we like, war against civilians, war against societies, war against ideas, war against humanity. There was impressive opposition to the Iraq invasion from the people, but almost none in Congress and the public discourse. The same goes for the particular battlefield where Israel and the Palestinians stand; the public, including numbers of intellectuals, has become steadily more critical of our country’s choice of roles and allies, but our political establishment remains as united as ever in support of our chosen client.
5. “Free trade” is another. This code phrase means that transnational capital is liberated from any social obligations, whether those are to provide employment, to honor labor standards, or even to live up to legally binding pension obligations. Agreements like NAFTA are guaranteed support from both “sides of the aisle”. Almost the only substantive legislation that got bipartisan support in the 112th Congress so far has been the odious “free trade” agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
6. Consistent with the above, both parties have demonstrated a commitment to weakening the rights and powers of labor. Clinton, for example, stabbed his labor supporters in the back with NAFTA as soon as we got elected, then acted further to flood the unskilled labor market with his “welfare reform” a few years later. Labor repaid him by sitting out the 1994 elections; neither the Democrats nor labor have ever really recovered.
7. Of course, both parties are committed to continuing business as usual with emitting greenhouse pollution and coddling the fossil fuel industry, regardless of the evident danger to the entire world.
8. Both parties have agreed that elite actors should be immune to the law as Glenn Greenwald has lately pointed out. It applies dramatically to Wall Street and the Bush-era war crimes, but also applies across the board, to garden-variety corporate crimes like pollution, accounting fraud, etc.
9. Since the 2008 market crash, both sides have insisted on austerity for the people and immunity for the banks. This is true even more in Europe than in the US.
10. America has made some significant progress against racism in the past. But for the last three decades, both parties have colluded to make sure we go no further. The infamous racial income and wealth disparity indicators are stuck and making no progress. American public education is now as segregated as it has ever been, and nobody with the power to do something about it seems to give a damn.
11. Speaking of education, it is clear that both parties are committed to sabotaging the public schools. Their funding basis has been undermined by decades of regressive tax changes. The infamous regime of “high stakes testing” is robbing public education of its fun, joy and challenge. The students are being taught how to take tests, not how to think, and certainly not how to combine academics with art, sports and community.
12. The number of Americans without health insurance continues to rise, and the human toll of our absurdly dysfunctional medical-insurance-pharmaceutical complex (it’s way too generous to call it a “health care system”) continues to roll on, to the tune of hundreds of needless deaths each and every day. For all the sound and fury in the last Congress over “Obamacare”, the ACA promises handsome subsidies to the industries and only marginal relief for the people. Again, bipartisanship in action.
13. Both parties have also supported the ongoing sabotage of Constitutional protections and liberties, using the “wars” against drugs and terrorism as pretexts. The Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure have been particular casualties. Both parties, at all levels of government, have colluded in the militarization of policing and the erosion of the line separating police and military realms, represented by the Posse Comitatus Act. Both have enthusiastically supported, and renewed, the Patriot Act (the only other bipartisan legislative achievement of the 112th Congress). Both have colluded in the creation of a domestic gulag filled with millions of nonviolent offenders, mostly POWs in the “war on drugs”. Both have expanded and protected the powers of the state to wiretap, eavesdrop, monitor email and internet communications, photograph and surveil.
This is a pretty impressive list. These issues cover most areas of American life. Of course, there are areas of genuine disagreement between the political parties as well – I am arguing for bipartisanship, not unanimity. The parties have significant differences about some issues, including taxes, voting rights and women’s rights. But I would argue that those differences are far outweighed by the broad areas of agreement.
I would further suggest that these areas of agreement have been growing over time. There once were times when significant elite clout stood behind improving education, improving health care, protecting privacy against government abuse, and so on. Those issues once became partisan battlegrounds in Congress and the media. But those days are gone.
The “Gridlock” Lie, Second Take
So then, why do we hear so much about gridlock, partisan bickering, and all the rest, day in and day out, until we get a headache? What about the torrent of epithets like “broken”, “failure”, “neglect”, “amok”, “worst ever”, “blame game”, abysmal approval ratings and so on? Well, there is some truth here. The 112th Congress has passed just 56 public laws so far, about one-third of the 20-year average (this includes trivia like continuing existing laws, naming courthouses, etc). The bulk of this Congress’ time has gone to grandstanding and brinksmanship. And of course, there is the fact of tremendous political incompetence, on both sides, which may yet turn out to be a good thing.
But each party encourages such failures, and encourages news coverage to focus on them, because each party thinks the issue will benefit them. Fresh off their 2010 wave election, the GOP thinks it has learned that the narrative of government failure is a winner, since it worked last time. The Democrats think they can use it to taint the GOP, since the latter now have control of the House and have clearly shirked their responsibility to govern. And of course the White House makes no secret of its plans to run against a “do-nothing Congress”.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see whose strategy works best, but I think this coincidence of short-term political interests is enough to account for the “gridlock” theme we hear all the time. The media take their cues from Congress and the White House when they frame political and policy questions, and since all major actors there have the same interest, that’s what we, the public, get to hear about.
But whoever wins out this election cycle, we can count on them to pursue this bipartisan agenda. We can count on them to ignore our needs and undermine our entire society while they dance attendance on their uber-elite string-pullers, plundering the rest of us like an army of conquest.
But we are also learning that we can count on something else: ourselves. The cry for justice represented by Occupy has changed the way millions of people look at things. Where there was cynicism and resignation, there is now the outrage and the beginnings of hope.
Every single item on the elite bipartisan agreement agenda opens the door to us. To step through, we are beginning to grasp that we can’t count on appeals to one faction or the other, but that we can count on our own strength to make them think twice, to make them feel the beginnings of fear, the healthiest possible emotion for those who presume to rule others.
We can even, potentially, reach across the increasingly obsolete and meaningless “right” and “left” divide. We have some chance to join hands from the “left” prison cell to the one on the “right”.
Transpartisan alliances are not a panacea; as someone who has worked in them before, I know that they are notoriously unstable, subject to divide-and-conquer attacks, and difficult to grow. But where they are possible, they can be way more powerful than the mere sum of their parts.
And where they’re not? We move on without them. But we rely on ourselves, the 99%, first and foremost. This sense of confidence and mission is the precious gift, the pearl beyond price, that Occupy has given us this season.
So that’s what I’m thankful for today. And I look forward to doing what I can to help push open more of these doors, mobilizing sympathizers, building bridges, opening minds, and reclaiming our rights and humanity in the process.