everything: the new
Hook in America 3
Two recent developments provide striking illustrations of what is happening in America's political culture today. The first concerns Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the second, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
Richard Lugar has been a senator from Indiana since 1976. He has served six consecutive terms. Eighty years old, he is the senior Republican in the US Senate, and the ranking member of the Senate's Committee for Foreign Relations. But on 8 May this year, losing a Republican primary election to Indiana's state treasurer, Richard Mourdock, his Senate career came to an abrupt end. Why? Because he was one of the dwindling number of Republican 'moderates' in the Senate. He had even been known to cooperate with Democratic colleagues across the aisle to get things done. Given the current make-up of the Republican Party, that was his undoing.
Today's polls indicate that only 23% of Republican supporters now describe themselves as 'moderates'. Ten years ago 62% of Republicans called themselves 'conservatives'. That figure now stands at 71%. Senator Lugar is a figure from the past, out of touch with today's Republican Party. Hence his defeat by an opponent supported aggressively by the grassroots Tea Party, and generously financed by Super PACs from outside Indiana. A total of 4.6 million dollars was spent from such sources boosting Mourdock's finally successful campaign. Once again it appears that nothing counts for more in contemporary American politics than hard cash. (Incidentally the Democrats thought they'd no chance of defeating Senator Lugar. Against a new, more right-wing, candidate, they feel they are in with a chance.)
Scott Walker has been the Republican governor of Wisconsin since 2010. 5 June has just been announced as the day he will face a recall election after his Democratic opponents collected 900,000 votes – more than double the number required – to ensure that such an election would be held. So what has occasioned Governor Walker's recall? His determination to roll back a century of Wisconsin progressive history and take away collective bargaining rights from almost all of the state's public sector workers.
However the trade union-led challenge to his policies has transformed Walker into a champion of the politics of the Republican right nationwide. If he wins in Wisconsin, other Republican state governors will be encouraged to follow down the path he is blazing. As a result, Walker too is benefiting from huge financial support from committed conservative donors such as the immensely rich brothers, David and Charles Koch. In the last three months, he has raised 13 million dollars whereas his Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee – whom he defeated in 2010 – has managed less than one million.
The founding fathers did not conceive of a situation in which the nation's elected representatives would refuse to co-operate in any circumstance. Implacable division has replaced any kind of joint action
What has to be recognised, however, is that the controversial policies Scott Walker is trying to drive through in Wisconsin are part of a well-organised and well-funded national campaign to pass legislation everywhere in favour of pro-business, anti-Washington, policies. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for example, funded by some of the world's largest corporations – Exxon, Mobil, Pfizer, Coca-Cola – provides Republican legislators with ready-to-go 'model legislation' that will reduce regulation, lower taxes, limit trade union power, and privatise everything from schools to prisons. Republicans in control of state legislatures simply adopt these bills and have them passed in their states. Only the market rules OK?
The Lugar and Walker cases indicate very clearly the direction in which American politics is heading. What is the result? An uncertain future in which Republicans and Democrats confront each other in an increasingly partisan and divisive manner. Last April, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an article headed 'Down With Everything' in which he argued that his country was moving from a democracy to a ‘vetocracy’. His point is one that is shared by many other commentators and political experts.
America's founding fathers created a system of checks and balances to ensure that no arm of government could amass too much power. But what has happened in the recent past is that the division of powers between the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court, has been manipulated in such a way as to make it almost impossible for any important decision to be taken. The founding fathers did not conceive of a situation in which the nation's elected representatives would refuse to co-operate in any circumstance. Implacable division has replaced any kind of joint action. The result is Friedman's dangerous 'vetocracy'.
Would the re-election of President Obama in November make any difference? Not necessarily. Such an outcome could even reinforce division. What is required is fundamental change in the political process. The Senate's current filibuster rule – meaning that 60 votes out of a 100 are required for any legislation to be passed – has to be amended. A simple majority of 51 has to be reinstated as the figure which allows most legislation to pass. The system of senatorial 'holds' – which, among other forms of disruption, allows a single senator to block legislation – has to be revised.
The Supreme Court (hopefully with more liberal appointments made by the second-term Obama) has to look again at ways of limiting the amount of cash lobbies are allowed to spend on behalf of their employers, while also limiting the amount pressure groups can spend on influencing the outcome of elections. Finally, in a situation where, as former Wisconsin senator Russell Feingold recently put it, Americans will soon be choosing between 'Republican and Democratic toothpaste', America's parties need to move towards the recognition that their primary duty is not to pander to their electoral base, but to attend to the nation's good. Without these or similar changes, it is hard to be optimistic about the future of American democracy.
Andrew Hook is a former professor of English literature at