The Death of Mainstream Legal Opposition to Gay Marriage in America

Coming right off the back of a similar ruling in Oregon, the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision against the state’s same-sex marriage ban made it the 19th state, alongside the District of Columbia, to allow gay marriage (or, depending on your tolerance for semantics, the 25th – if you include states that currently don’t disallow it). In striking down the ban, District Court Judge John E. Jones III, a George W. Bush appointee, stated emphatically that:

“We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

The decision, made just a few days after the 10th anniversary of the first American gay marriage legislation, has brought with it several noteworthy milestones in the country’s stroll towards equality. For reference, an interactive map with a quick breakdown of the gay marriage situation in each state is available here. The Pennsylvania ruling has consolidated the northeast as the second American region (alongside the states of the Pacific coast) to boast full marriage equality. While progress has largely followed the familiar ‘two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards’  approach to progressive reform in the United States, this week’s decision marked a staggering 14th straight victory for advocates of equality.

It would seem that, for the time being, momentum is on the side of justice. At the moment, approximately 48% of Americans live in a state with full marriage equality. When considering the changes brought by the recent decisions in Oregon and Pennsylvania and the relative estimated density of each state’s gay residents, it’s possible that the majority of gay Americans can now marry in their home state. Additionally, a recent Gallup poll has indicated that a record-high (55%) percentage of Americans agree that “marriages between same-sex couples should… be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages”, as seen below.

Unsurprisingly, the figures also show overwhelming support for same-sex marriage among Millennial Americans, with the 18-29 age group nearly twice as likely to support it as those in the 65+ bracket (78% vs. 42%). It seems likely that the younger generation is poised to drag the country into a relatively progressive future through sheer electoral brute force.

Amusingly, Judge Jones’ decision made reference to the Federal Supreme Court Justice (and prominent conservative judicial activist) Antonin Scalia’s caustic dissent against the Court’s 5-4 ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act’s exclusionary definition of marriage in United States v. Windsor. Couched within his tirade against “same-sex marriage (or indeed same-sex sex)”  is a prediction that the actions of the majority in striking down DOMA “arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition”. Regardless of the tone and intent with which Scalia’s prognosis was produced, several publications across the political spectrum have noted just how prophetic it has turned out to be.  

Indeed, in the summer of 2014 we have reached an interesting point where a District Court Judge appointed by George W. Bush is citing language written by a Supreme Court Justice appointed by Ronald Reagan in striking down popular state-level bans on gay marriage. Indeed, he is in good company, with the vast majority of post-Windsor pushes for equality coming via judicial review attached to explicit references to the landmark case (see above).

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. In America that arc often proves itself to be frustratingly long, but it continues to bends nonetheless. Progress in establishing national marriage equality has, at times, been frustratingly lethargic, but the wave of recent District Court decisions is certainly cause for cautious optimism.

Update (11/08/14): The streak of unbroken pro-marriage equality decisions was finally ended by Roane County Circuit Judge Russell E. Simmons, Jr. in Tennessee.  In his decision, Judge Simmons Jr. said that “neither the Federal Government nor another state should be allowed to dictate to Tennessee what has traditionally been a state’s responsibility”. Amusingly, the case of Borman vs. Pyles-Borman was, in fact, brought to the court in order to determine the state’s ability to provide the couple with a divorce (by recognizing the validity of their marriage which took place in Iowa). Thus, the ruling effectively forced the couple to stay married in Tennessee.

Apathy, Irony, and Cynicism: American Millennial Angst

Coming of age in an era of acute instability, the American Millennial generation’s formative years have lacked the pervasive confidence that buttressed previous post-war cohorts and hastened the development of cultural pillars that engender generational success.  The Silent Generation (1920s-early 1940s) encountered adulthood at the early peak of modern American power, with a sense of steadfast absolutism guiding the country to superpower status and introducing idyllic consumerism to the masses. Throughout their youth, the Baby Boomers (1940s-1960s) busied themselves with a clearly defined (if frequently ill-conceived) agenda of maintaining world order in the name of Western progress during a period of domestic affluence. Generation X (1960s-early 1980s) was perhaps the first to encounter any sort of overarching ambiguity, though the gentle decline of the US as the singular world power was offset by the collapse of the Soviet Union and continued domestic economic prosperity.

While American Millennials don’t lack generation-defining moments, those available are distinctly less inspirational than those of their parents and grandparents. Early Millennials have the misfortune of being old enough to remember the relative luxury of the 90s to juxtapose against more recent experiences that have created a narrative dominated by continued folly on both the international and domestic scale. Combined with two ruinous wars in the Middle East and an exceptionally belligerent War on Terror, the recent recession has left America’s economy and international standing in severely diminished. Uncertainties over the country’s political destiny as well as anxiety over personal economic matters have given rise to remarkable levels of disdain, disappointment, resentment, and disaffection within the Millennial cohort.

Unsurprisingly then, identity is being increasingly defined in negative terms. Tepid anxiety has begun to replace irreverent confidence in the national identity. Young Americans are being reared in a culture that stresses an aversion to things that are seen as harmful or counterproductive, where mistakes are to be avoided at all cost. In the public sphere, groups and movements are prone to defining their missions from a platform of active resistance in lieu of deliberate constructivism. Curiously, this phenomenon, a result of decreasing opportunity and socioeconomic mobility, has coincided with increasing levels of political polarization. The popularization and banalization of fanatical opposition (often among Baby Boomers and Gen Xers frustrated with the contemporary reality) to the perceived enemy has collided with the jaded attitudes of Millennials to create an atmosphere of extreme apathy, where civic participation is perceived as synonymous with acquiescence to extremism.

Politically, this trend has produced a generation, as well as a status quo, that can paradoxically be defined as being “viciously apathetic”. A 2013 Harvard Public Opinion Project poll produced an article in the Harvard Political Review entitled Angry, Yet Apathetic: The Young American Voter, found that while a majority of millennial voters (52% of Democrats and 51% of Republicans) would like to recall every member of the US Congress, only about half of those respondents had definite intentions to vote in the upcoming midterm elections.

Certainly, there is plenty of reason to be dissatisfied. The failure of President Obama’s administration to deliver on many of his campaign promises has put a highly-visible dent in the Democratic Party’s attempt to perpetuate the surge of interest and activity that came as a result of the 2008 campaign. With one of the least productive Congresses in history, young Americans have inherited a system of unimaginable dysfunction and intransigence. This has been compounded by the entrenchment of a quasi-oligarchic political order that has seen influence taken from the democratic masses and concentrated in the hands of the financial elite and now-ubiquitous “Super” PACs.

While conventional thinking dictates that soaring levels of discontent among Millennials would result in a proportionate increase in political participation, this is not borne out through the facts. The aforementioned Harvard poll revealed that 75% of participating 18-29 year olds didn’t describe themselves as being “politically active”. If anything, this dissatisfaction has led to a sort of self-imposed restriction on participation. This overwhelming institutional distrust has driven half of Millennials to self-identify as politically independent (a 10% increase over Gen Xers and a staggering 18% more than the Silent Generation). While this hasn’t resulted in the creation of a viable political alternative or even a tangible effect on voting patterns, it is certainly an appropriate representation of the general attitudes at play.

The name of the game is objection. It has become, above all else, important to know what you don’t want. Emphasis is constantly being pulled away from the merits of compromise and productive dialogue that is essential for the American government to function and instead placed on the sensation of opposition. The logic appears simple. It is, without a doubt, difficult to imagine viable alternatives and work, slowly but steadily, towards effective reform.  By contrast, it’s extremely easy to slam the opposition, invent controversy, and laugh at the lunatic fringes. This represents a critical roadblock to contemporary success and perhaps the ultimate pitfall of American-style democracy. Our first-past-the-post take-it-or-leave-it two party system fails to reward participation by providing for all but the most monolithic of majorities and wealthiest of donors.

A brilliant Salon editorial by Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll portrays the distinctly Millennial reliance on irony and apathy as a coping mechanism. By channeling the apropos musings of the late David Foster Wallace, the authors assert that “lazy cynicism has replaced thoughtful conviction as the mark of an educated worldview”. Indeed, American Millennials are a generation that, almost out of necessity, has embraced irony to an excruciating degree. Wallace places the origins of contemporary pessimism in the cultural backlash that followed the volatile 1960s, during which time an overarching “mood of irony and irreverence” took hold. While this initially fueled productive manifestations of popular outrage in the “global” 60s, it would eventually be co-opted by the pillars of mainstream culture by the 1990s. The late 90s gave birth to reality television, an addictive brand of entertainment that flatters viewers by raising them up above the level of the general(ly ignorant) public. Simply by tuning in, watchers could satiate the nagging desire to feel superior to their fellow citizens. Despite its rather flimsy appeal, reality television continues to be a programming staple.

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Normcore (Getty Images)

In a similar vein, the new millennium has seen irony flourish on an excessive scale. The advent of hipsterdom (see: Normcore) and the kale-ification of gentrifying forces are the result of lazy and defensive cynicism that preempts failure and subverts risk. The attitude is evident in many strands of contemporary culture.  It manifests itself equally in the diminutive reaction to the advent of Patriot Act-style of domestic authoritarianism as it does in the popularity of American Apparel. While it is easy to romanticize iconic movements of the past, it is impossible to ignore the stark differences between the anti-establishment movement of the late 1960s and the recent Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, which (in a profoundly characteristic manner) managed to be simultaneously virulent and ineffectual.

An opportunity has arisen, however, to transcend the bounds of our dependence on crippling cynicism. As a generation, we have both the circumstances and the ability to use our unprecedented levels of diversity and education to harness the power of dissatisfaction in a productive manner. To do this, it is essential to embrace nuance and accept that failure is necessary element of eventual success. An emphasis on discretion is the key to popularizing productive engagement while avoiding the pitfalls of forces in popular media that divide as they conquer. Polarization is good for business and keeps otherwise irrelevant brands alive, but it often halts progress in its tracks.

Millennials, as a generation, have the task of fostering an environment that doesn’t consider passion in advocacy and participation equivalent to extremism. History has demonstrated that the fruits of civic engagement are not effaced by the ease of recidivism. While it is true that the current system is affected by powerful anti-democratic forces, to participate in the political system is in no way a tacit endorsement of this. Engagement is useful and can’t be considered synonymous with surrender to blind adherence.

Above all, we know that the cure to the ills of our political dysfunction will not be found in smug condemnation. Those who have seized control of the American political system win when sensationalism and division are allowed to succeed in encouraging young people to self-disenfranchise. While the Millennial addiction to ironic angst can be traced back to fairly benign roots, it’s actively detrimental to American democracy and needs to be addressed.

 

The Myth of Third Party Growth in the United States

One of the primary talking points to surface in the wake of Chris Christie’s ambition-dashing scandal, ‘Bridgegate’, is the importance of ‘aisle-crossing’ moderates in American politics. It’s no big secret that the partisan gulf remains 0ne of the most problematic elements of democracy in the US. The gap, which continues to widen as mainstream neo-conservatism has gained ground, is reflected in record-low public confidence levels. Recently, a Washington Post and University of Virginia study found that 69% of respondents felt that the largest threat to the continued existence of the American Dream is the lack of cooperation in Washington.

The current spotlight cast on Governor Christie has had the side-effect of bringing American centrism to the forefront. Considered widely to be a Republican front-runner for the 2016 Presidential election, Christie’s success (or lack thereof) in the aftermath of the scandal will likely have symbolic repercussions on the credibility of moderates and the bipartisan project for years to come. While the government shutdown of late 2013 represented a significant setback to those who remain committed to productive and conciliatory politics, there are still those who believe in crossing the partisan divide. Notorious aisle-crosser Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, was joined by five other GOP Senators in voting to allow the progression of a bill that would extend benefits from the federal government to Americans experiencing long-term unemployment. It’s absolutely crucial that efforts like these do not go unnoticed.

Using the long-term unemployment bill as a case study, we see that the majority of Republican leadership stands in stark opposition to a compromise. Firebrand Florida Junior Senator Marco Rubio continues to deny that income inequality plays a significant role in the country’s on-going struggle with underemployment in the ailing economy, and remains adamant in finding an alternative to(as oppressed to improving) the White House-sponsored plan. After an erratic (if not downright manic) 2013, during which he played a prominent role in perpetuating the government shutdown, presidential hopeful Rubio kicked off the new year with a speech about poverty in America that slammed the unemployment bill and Democratic strategy. In his speech, the Tea Party superstar outlined a series of policies designed to implement a distinctly Republican-flavored agenda of austerity-based reform. While the Democratic caucus is certainly not rushing to the negotiating table, the proposals of Rubio and his caucus are clearly designed with a priority placed on defeating the White House’s ambitions and not on the creation of a plan to rectify the country’s embarrassing levels of poverty and umployment through traditional means (i.e bipartisan compromise).

John Darkow
John Darkow

While Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic responded in a surprisingly tame manner to Rubio’s remarks (‘Rubio Talks Poverty, Says Things That Are Not Totally Crazy‘), he could not ignore the realities. While he praised the Senator’s initiative, he also made sure to remain honest about the usefulness of the policies:

Republicans these days tend to ignore poverty altogether or to blame it on the poor themselves. Rubio, the Senator from Florida with well-known presidential aspirations, took a different approach on Wednesday. He talked about the persistence of poverty as a crisis. And he made some policy proposals along the way.

That doesn’t mean they were good proposals.

It is plain to see that partisan ideologues have claimed a disproportionate amount of public attention in recent months. Culminating with the government shutdown, the far-right’s efforts to derail the democratic process and hijack centrist discourse have been met with surprisingly little resistance. However, a recently released Gallup study has diverted a fair amount of media buzz  away from the now-normal narrative of partisan clashes. The new report, constructed from an aggregation of ’13 separate… multiple-day polls’, shows that a ‘record high’ (42%) number of Americans now self-identify as political independents. Naturally, this spawned a litany of sensational headlines from the blogosphere decrying the death of party politics in the United States. Bloggers like Care2’s Kevin Matthews have predicted trends in America’s heavily-‘Independent’ future such as a ‘shift away from Conservativism’ and a ‘fall (strikeout) dip of the Two Party System’  that not only flies in the face of established logic, but also ignores an overwhelming amount of evidence that points to the continued polarization and entrenchment of both parties at opposite ends of spectrum.

The reality, however unfortunate, is that the shift identified by Gallup is likely far more superficial than a such headlines suggest. The public’s retreat from major party affiliation is, unfortunately, not the sign of an ideological revolution. Rather, it should be viewed as a symptom of  the reflexive response that has been developed by the public at large against any close association with the extremist antics so common at the fringe. The American electorate is not rejecting the two major political parties, nor is it demanding establishment of a viable third party. Instead, Americans are simply refusing to be publicly associated with political outliers. The extremists that exist at the outside edges of acceptable party ideology have been publicly rejected and privately revered, much as they always have been since the country’s inception. If anything, citizens are simply becoming less willing to out themselves as party-line voters, even if they continue to behave as such.

Why, then, does 40% of the American population self-identify as ‘Independent’ while behaving to the contrary? What is the aversion to declaring party allegiance?  The answer is, as usual, disappointingly simple.

The reality, as betrayed by all of the available evidence, is that an overwhelming majority of American ‘Independents’ adhere just as strongly to major party ideologies, agendas, and candidates as ever before. It is merely the labels that have changed. While the number of those who claim to be politically Independent is certainly on the rise, tangible results have been few and far between. Voters have elected only two ‘Independent’ Congressman. Both are Senators from New England (Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Angus King of Maine) and both have  swiftly joined the Democratic caucus after being elected. There are currently no registered Independents occupying seats in the House of Representatives. Likewise, there has not been a US President without major party affiliation since President Andrew Johnson’s failed Nation Union coalition push in the 1860s. Despite the recent surge in visibility of movements like Libertarianism, veritable Independents that actually vote ‘Independently’ compose a very small portion of the electorate. Poll data from the Gallup survey show that 47% of Americans either affiliate with or lean towards the Democratic Party, with 41% enjoying a similar relationship with the Republicans. The ‘40% claim’ needs to be read with this in mind.

The most apparent motivation for such duplicitous behavior is the prevalence of ‘illusory superiority’ among voters. That is, the aversion developed by the American layman to personal association with the individuals (thus, the parties) that perpetuate the folly of partisan gridlock. The excessive amounts of media sensationalism heaped onto contemporary airwaves has only functioned to exacerbate this behavior. In an Op-ed put together by Political Science professors Yanna Krupnikov and Samara Klar (of Northwestern University and the University of Arizona, respectively) entitled ‘Why people call themselves “independent” even when they aren’t’, the duo expounds on this idea. Pointing to the social unacceptability of support for the political status quo of staunch partisanship, the authors have concluded that:

This perception of partisans leads ordinary people to be embarrassed about admitting – including to pollsters – that they identify with a political party. Instead, people have come to believe that they will make a better impression if they say they are independent.

Indeed Krupnikov and Klar, conclude that the recent increase of ‘Independent’ (non) party identification has produced little in terms of change in the voting public’s ‘actual political views’. Writing in Politico, Poli-Sci professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University provides further support for phenomenon of what he has labelled ‘closet partisan[ship]’. Despite the fact that more and more voters are eschewing party labels, Abramowitz points to the fact that ‘almost three-fourths of independents surveyed by Gallup during 2013 indicated that they leaned toward one of the two major parties’. He believes that despite the shift towards superficial nonpartisanship, Americans are in fact becoming increasingly divided on party lines. Abramowitz points to data from the 2012 American National Election Study to illustrate his argument. Not only did the report show that over 85% of ‘Independent Democrats’ (87%) and ‘Independent Republicans’ (86%) voted for their party’s candidate, but ‘Independent Democrats’ were more likely to vote a straight Democratic ticket than those who reported a weak affiliation with the party. These results are entirely in line with the general decline of ‘split-ticket’ voting patterns, yet another factor contributing to the growing chasm between progressives and conservatives.

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It would be irresponsible to highlight the increase in ‘Independents’ without simultaneously giving lip service to the drop in self-identified Republicans. This is an area where the aforementioned desire to publicly distance one’s self from the fringes is especially apparent. The contemporary Libertarian agenda, for example, shares a large number of core values with what is now considered to be the Republican ‘old school’. If anything, the Millennial predilection for Libertarian affiliation should be viewed as a successful rebranding effort, and not an idological shift. The two movements share many elements of their political platform including: the virtues of ‘bootstraps style’ self-determination, regressive taxation, international isolationism, strong national defense, and an unwavering belief in American exceptionalism.

Gallup1

 As seen in the graphic above, the Gallup poll shows a sharp rise in Independent affiliation in the fourth quarter of 2013, a period that contained both the government shutdown and rollout of the Affordable Care Act. This seems to support the notion that the increase in ‘Independent’ self-labeling is, in large part, a knee-jerk reaction by voters who are capricious enough to be significantly affected by day-to-day developments in Washington. Extravagant amounts of media sensationalism and spin on topics such as the Obamacare rollout, Benghazi mission attack, and NSA domestic spying scandal, have produced equally high levels of distrust  in the machinations of the government. ‘Crooks and liars’ rhetoric, a disturbingly popular excuse for non-participation in America, is as pervasive as ever. Vast swathes of the population have adopted an aggressively apathetic tone and have found a comfortable, if temporary, home under the cover of ‘Independent’ self-identification.

By playing off of the young conservative voter’s fear of being associated with the socially regressive neo-conservative movement of past generations, the Libertarian movement has successfully co-opted many would-be Republicans into its own ranks. This is certainly not limited to the younger crowd, though. A significant number of Baby Boomer-era (former) Republicans that hold  traditionally conservative values are jumping ship as well. As the Neoconservative Right continues to abandon a reasonable conservative platform in lieu of one that plays to the extreme periphery of the party, moderate Conservatives will continue to abandon their cause. The neo-conservative commitment to such radical policies (such as: incessant climate change denial, refusal to recognize marriage equality, aversion to ‘common sense’ gun control legislation, removal of the social welfare safety net, commitment to the continued corprocratic influence, and the nonsensical perpetuation of the War on Drugs) is another factor driving a significant number of Americans away from major party affiliation. While this may not account for the majority of the trend towards ‘Independence’, it is plain to see that the demographics of the ‘newly Independent’ and ‘formerly Republican’ have heavily overlapped in recent years.

While the authors of the Gallup report believe that the increasing level of Independence ‘adds a greater level of unpredictability to this year’s congressional midterm elections’, there is little actual evidence to support this. If anything, it is likely that the discontent felt by the vast majority of self-identified ‘Independents’ will result in higher levels of voter abstention rather than a grandiose wave of political coat turning. That is to say, this phenomenon is first and foremost a manifestation of the pervasive desire to ideologically disassociate from the embarrassing political establishment rather than any positive ideological shift. At the end of the day, the increase in ‘Independent’ identification among American voters has much more to do with falling levels of confidence in the dysfunctional establishment than it does with any real shift in political allegiance or beliefs. As long as the  intransigence of Washington lawmakers is continually glorified and the efforts of the far-right to destabilize and discredit the political process are tolerated, the number of Americans who are too embarrassed to publicly identify with a major party, especially the GOP, will continue to rise.

The Shutdown and America’s Post-Democratic Era

The ongoing government shutdown and Congressional stalemate over the government’s ability to fund its programs has highlighted an essential element of contemporary American Zeitgeist.  Financial backing for the Affordable Care Act, which was passed into law in March 2010, has run aground while facing opposition from a very vocal Republican minority within the House of Representatives. The anti-healthcare contingent has demonstrated that it has no qualms about doing wide-rangvoiling damage to the government of the United States or the American citizenry in order to divert national attention to their agenda. Despite the fact that Obamacare remains a fait accompli, the far-right remains convinced that by obstructing the continued operation of the federal government, they will achieve their goals. Welcome, everyone, to the post-democratic era of American politics.

The shutdown has come as the manifestation of an increasingly stagnant legislature that has produced record levels of dissatisfaction among constituents. Aggregated across multiple polling efforts, Congressional approval ratings are currently peaking  just a fraction above 10%. As discontent with Congressional intransigence continues to swell, especially among disaffected Millenials, the age-old American myth of unadulterated self-reliance has been given a new lease on life. An excellent example of this, if you’ll remember, was the Romney presidential campaign’s attempt to decontextualize the ‘If you have a business: You didn’t build that’ soundbyte from a July 2012 speech by the President. While it remains blatantly obvious to any casual observer (or, in fact, anyone who bothers to read the line in context) that the president was not suggesting than an omnipotent central government was responsible for the success of small-business entrepreneurs in America, that did not stop the GOP from pushing their agenda of finger-pointing and birther-esque slander. Indeed, an appallingly cynical conception of America’s working poor and the willingness of Tea Party politicians to regurgitate an abundance of boldfaced lies have combined with the enduring American tradition of governmental distrust to foster a disconcerting base of support for those committed to the anti-government cause.

The very nation’s commitment to “exceptionalism” at the expense of popular welfare has produced, in its latest manifestation, a detrimental legacy of disregard for the marginalised sectors of society. This tradition of neglect forms an oft-ignored subtext that underscores the increasingly prominent return of rhetoric that fetishizes notions of ‘rugged individualism’ and a disdain for the working poor. Despite the disastrous results of the President Herbert Hoover’s trust in the virtues of self-reliance to guide the country through the burgeoning Great Depression and the absurdity of Reagan’s ‘by your bootsraps’ convictions (we’re still waiting for that wealth to trickle down…), high profile Republicans and Libertarians continue to deliver lines that would make Ayn Rand beam with pride.

Once responsible for fostering the immigrant-friendly ‘melting pot’ culture that attracted the world’s greatest scientific and academic minds, America’s fascination with individualism and self-determination forms an integral part of the national spirit (not to mention the second passage of the Declaration of Independence). Today’s ‘Boostrap revival’ efforts, however, have perverted the egalitarian and anti-bourgeoisie aspirations apparent in the spirit of America’s inception. In an ironic move that has pitted the ‘populists’ against the population, shutdown-era radicals of the far-right equate future lower and middle-class prosperity with the eradication of government assistance to those very same groups. We have to look no further than the mid-September bill pushed through the House of Representatives by the GOP majority. The proposed legislation features deep cuts to federal programs that provide assistance (namely ‘food stamps’, which increasingly come in the form of debit-style electronic cards) to those who otherwise cannot afford to eat.

The Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act, which features over $40 billion in cuts over the next 10 years to the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP), was labelled ‘one of the most heartless bills I have ever seen‘ by Democratic Representative James McGovern from Massachusetts. The Republicans, for their part, have an entirely different perspective. House Speaker (and shutdown celebrity) John Boehner claimed that the bill would make ‘getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs’. This sentiment, as well as the bill’s lofty title, would lead you to believe that the bill contains some sort of pro-labor provision that would work to help soften the blow of slashed government benefits to the poor. This, however, is far from the case.

When viewing the Act’s contents, any allusions of GOP sympathy for impoverished Americans are quickly dispelled. Boehner’s description of the bill’s utility as a tool in expediting the unemployed masses’ return to work is wildly disingenuous. In place of any remotely proactive initiatives exist a series of draconian measures that highlight the elimination of ‘state performance bonuses’, ‘increas[ed] oversight of SNAP programs for the homeless, elderly, and disabled’, and the consent of the federal government for states to ‘conduct drug testing on SNAP applicants as a condition for receiving benefits’.  Voilà, ça y est. Today’s Republicans care little about reinvigorating the working-class foundation of the domestic economy, and much more about preventing the President’s health care bill from coming into effect.

The third item of  the aforementioned list has featured heavily in recent conservative agendas. The push to mandate drug testing for SNAP recipients does little to discourage the perpetuation of the caustic and bigoted ‘welfare queen’ mythology. It has become increasingly clear that the modern libertarian equates poverty with sloth and unemployment with apathy. The drug testing initiative, in addition to being ethically and morally objectionable, has been shown to make little economic sense. Florida conservatives were temporarily successful in launching a new law that resulted in a four month period of testing in 2012. In a deeply ironic twist, the examinations produced a failure rest of just 2.8%, which resulted in a cost to the state of $118,140. The program, which cost the state more than the expense of the potential benefits to the 2.8% of drug-using welfare-recipients, was deemed likely to have been a ‘constitutional infringement’ by a Federal District Court who discontinued the testing via temporary injunction.

The unsurprising results of the Floridian experiment have done little to deter the right wing’s push to further marginalize the American lower classes. Regardless of the matter at hand, be it food stamps or healthcare, it is clear that the anti-government contingent of the GOP will stop at nothing to see the income disparity widen and the downtrodden fall increasingly underfoot. The most recent manifestation of this desire, the government shutdown, has only pushed their pursuit further into the international spotlight. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the far-right is far less concerned with implementing alternative routes towards American prosperity than they are to obstructing ideologically undesirable legislation and attempting to annihilate the reputation of Democratic presidents.

 

madhouse of reps
Star Tribune/Cagle Cartoons

 

The unflattering rightward shift of the political spectrum in the United States has coincided with a growing disparity between the privileged few and the disenchanted masses, with the lower echelons of society inheriting the lion’s share of the resulting burden. The contingent of anti-welfare extremist Republicans in the House of Representatives referred to as the ‘Anarchy Gang’ by Senator Elizabeth Warren and their constituents have achieved an overwhelming level of success. President Jimmy Carter recently remarked that:

The disparity between rich people and poor people in America has increased dramatically since when we started… The middle class has become more like poor people than they were 30 years ago.

Adding insult to injury, the push to disenfranchise (see: the recent fight over voter registration laws) and marginalize the American masses is exacerbated by a declining education system. The de-funding of public schools fits neatly into the far-right’s program to comprehensively privatize American life. It also, not-so-coincidentally, functions to inhibit the upward mobility of citizens and abolishes any prospect of ‘bootstrap’-style salvation. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has quantified the decline of American academic prowess. A BBC article on the report remarked that the United States represented ‘an education superpower of a previous generation’, where younger generations are increasingly less educated than their parents. This downward spiral has had tangible effects beyond the general ignorance of the population, with the number of ‘highest-skilled’ professionals in the US falling from 42% to 28%.

The reality, however, has remained almost entirely irrelevant to the far right. Plummeting levels of education and unprecedented levels of poverty Practicalities do not represent any significant impediment to the GOP’s pursuit of unabashedly ideologically-driven agenda. If anything, the downward trend in education enables the radical right’s pursuit of all things anti-science and anti-modern. Equally, it simply does not matter that  their ‘small government’ rhetoric runs completely contrary to drug testing for welfare recipients that costs the state exorbitant sums. The fact that Obamacare is based largely on conservative designs and represents a significant step forward for the American population is equally irrelevant. The commitment to antagonism at the expensive of reason has spawned claims about the Affordable Care Act that cross a line drawn far beyond absurdity and extend well into the realm of nauseating obscenity. The legislation, which functions to expand healthcare provisions to significant swathes of previously-uninsured Americans, has been labelled ‘a law as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850‘ by Republican Representative Bill O’Brien. Tea Party leader and architect of the ‘not-quite-filibuster’ Senator Ted Cruz has led the charge among the minority of Republicans committed to a protracted shuttering of the government. In his opinion, the President and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are responsible for grinding the government to a half over their unwillingness to ‘compromise’ on Obamacare. The reality, in stark contrast to the Tea Party Senator’s remarks, is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed through both houses of Congress, was upheld by the Supreme Court, and was reaffirmed by the election of Obama (in lieu of Mitt Romney, whose promise to ‘repeal Obamacare’ formed the basis of his entire presidential campaign) to a second term.

While the  shutdown has come as a shock to many, American and non-American alike, it is really far from surprising when viewed from a wider perspective. The current situation has come as a simple product of cause-and-effect. There can be no reasonable expectation of responsibility when ideologues are voted into government. It is not an event that comes without repercussion. It seems especially silly to except the smooth operation of Congress from Representatives that campaign on a platform of anti-government values. When politicians are more committed to the partisan pursuit of destroying the legacy of an incumbent President than they are to providing for the well-being of their fellow countrymen, it becomes absurd to expect a positive result.

It is dangerous, though, to think of the Congressional deadlock as the problem, and not a symptom. The shutdown (and possible upcoming default) has come as a direct consequence of the mainstream acceptance of Tea Party politicians and the dangerous extremes that they represent. Most recently, an individual appeared at the anti-Obama protests in front of the White House accompanied by a Confederate flag. This wildly inappropriate gesture in many ways embodies the senselessness and misguided nature of the government shutdown as well as contemporary American politics at large. Despite impassioned cries of protesters, galvanized by an appearance of Tea Party celebrities Sarah Palin and Senator Ted Cruz, the truth that emerged undeterred. In today’s political arena, the reality has taken a back seat to reactionary fervor. Fear and moralizing partisanship have overtaken the practical considerations of governing, and politics has been reduced to a game of who can behave in the most petulant manner. The reckless brinkmanship is well represented in the recent remarks of President Obama, who has continually affirmed that he ‘will not negotiate’ over things like ‘the full faith and credit of the United States’ or ‘whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations’. However, it remains quite difficult not to mentally substitute the latter half of that phrase with its more conventional conclusion.

In response to the flag-bearer’s breach of decorum, Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked that ‘If a patriot can stand in front of the White House brandishing the Confederate flag, then the word ‘patriot’ has no meaning’. In addition to the immediate significance, the sentiment is especially poignant in considering the contemporary distortion of traditional GOP priorities. Gone are the days when practical economic considerations drove policy within the Republican Party. While it’s very likely that Congress will conjure up a last-minute compromise to avoid a cataclysmic breech of the debt ceiling, it will not be because any minds were changed. No compromises will be struck, because today’s Conservatives are uninterested in doing so. Pragmatism, like bipartisanship, is a relic of the old GOP.  The new Republican party is willing to be defined by a small minority of Tea Party extremists who are,  by and large, more concerned with portraying the President as a litany of increasingly laughable evils than they are with improving the country, or, as the previous weeks have demonstrated, even allowing it to function.

How Millennials Just Might Save American Politics

American politics are certainly an acquired taste.

The high-profile spectacle of the American party-politics can be difficult to understand and even harder to ignore. The country’s sheer size (in both a demographic and geographical sense) means that the supply of talking points rarely runs dry. While it may be true that the problems vexing the United States (think: gun violence, gay rights, racial tension) are not uniquely American problems, the country’s colossal scale and well-funded media machine foster a sensationalist culture that fuels larger-than-life perceptions both at home and abroad.

While the average bystander would be quite reasonable in dismissing the whole of American politics out-of-hand as being laughably conservative, the reality is indeed a bit more nuanced. The feeling of familiarity that has accompanied decades of widely exported American culture has worked to further entrench and encourage a casual (if not the reductivist) understanding of American politics in the rest of the world. The legacy of the United States’ hegemonic status during the Cold War era has imbued much of the contemporary educated world (especially that which exists across the Atlantic) with a certain sense of laziness when it comes to confronting American domestic developments. It’s certainly easy to base one’s conception of the political scene around the dichotomy between a small minority of culturally enlightened coastal inhabitants stuck in perpetual resistance against the neo-conservative whimsy of the uneducated, gun-toting, red-necked, evangelical masses. However, this fails to account for the quiet majority represented by ‘Middle America’, arguably the most potent electoral force in American politics. It’s indeed this sort of citizen, unremarkable to the news media at large, that serves to characterize the system. While the spectrum seems to be polarizing itself at an alarming rate during its quiet slide to the right, the average voter’s convictions are still far a cry from anything that is being parroted at excessive volume from whomever Fox News has appointed pundit-of-the-week.

Despite the best efforts of the far right to stymie the flow of newcomers, America remains at its core a nation of immigrants. The notion of the ‘melting pot’ society is something that gives the Unites States a sense of individuality, a cultivated cultural identity that differentiates it from other members of the English-speaking world like the United Kingdom and Canada. The most recent manifestation of this issue has come in the form of Congress’ attempt to formulate new reforms on immigration legislation, a prospect met with resistance on all sides. Continuing the trend of Congressional gridlock, staunch opposition has arisen among House Republicans. While the proposed reforms include changes that many would deem ‘victories’ for conservatives, the antagonistic fringe of the Tea Party-right has come out en masse against the legislation without providing any insight into how the problem might be resolved, per usual.

The notion of intra-party antagonism, while nothing new, is a powerful force in a system with little third-party prospects. The mainstream remains very much the only stream. The constraints involved with maintaining a strong party line has emerged as a significant hurdle for today’s Republican party, prompting John Weaver, a former campaign strategist for centre-right candidates John McCain and Jon Huntsman to claim that ‘[The GOP] will not be a national governing party for a long, long time if we turn our backs on this chance to pass immigration reform. It’s just that simple’. [2. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/07/the-immigration-fight-is-the-battle-for-the-soul-of-the-gop/277867/ ]

While the Republican party struggles with their internal strife, the outside world is changing as well. The Millennial generation, commonly defined as those born between the 1980s and the turn of the century, represents a significant electoral force. While 9/11 remains the single most momentus moment in recent American history, the Millennials came of age during a time characterized by the economic mismanagement and inception of multiple protracted military incursions under the administration of George W. Bush. A 2009 study completed by the Center For American Progress produced an interesting observation. The Center concluded:[3.  http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/progressive-movement/report/2009/05/13/6021/the-political-ideology-of-the-millennial-generation/ ]

What is most important about these voters is not their current predilection for Democratic candidates, however, but rather the deeply held progressive beliefs underlying their voting preferences. The progressive beliefs of these young adult voters could recast the core ideological battles that have defined our country’s post-Vietnam political discourse.

Make no mistake: the GOP is losing young voters. The previously ubiquitous notion of ‘young republican clubs’ is becoming less so, and it feels like the majority of young people, raised on a diet of unemployment and economic instability, are generally becoming disinterested in things like Reaganomics, social darwinism, and radical isolationism. On the topic of the immigration reform legislation that is currently negotiating a largely stagnant Congress, a Fox News survey of ~1,000 Americans found that Republicans (90%), people over the age of 65 (87%), and whites (83%) support the addition of additional ‘border security’ measures. Similarly, Democrats (82%), people under the age of 30 (81%), and non-whites (79%) support a path to citizenship for immigrants who hold non-legal status. [4.  http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/06/13/fox-news-poll-voters-want-immigration-reform/ ]

Exit polls from the 2012 Presidential election also illustrate the sharp division between demographics that underscores this potential demographic-political shift. White men still favored Mitt Romney by an overwhelming margin, while non-whites supported President Obama by an even more staggering margin (93% of blacks voted for the incumbent). Obama handily won both 18-29 and 30-44 age groups, while Romney took the 45-64 and 65+ demographics without difficulty. Interestingly, while Obama won out among those without a university degree, those holding a degree, and those with a postgraduate degree, Romney narrowly edged out his competitor among those with standard undergraduate credentials.[5.  http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/results/president/exit-polls/ ]

Issues by Age
Three Very ‘Millennial’ Issues

On the non-Presidential contentions du jour of American politics, the divide is equally maintained. A Washington Post/ABC News poll (above) again illustrates the rather sharp divide between the generations. I believe that these three issues are quite appropriate in illustrating this phenomenon as they represent a sharp departure from the social status quo as well as the shifting social norms of the Millennials. The study shows a significant divide between the Millennials (18-29 demographic) and their parents (50-65+) with the latter half of Generation X (those too young to be parents of Millennials: born after 1965 but before 1979) displaying a slightly left-leaning bias that characterised Middle America in the 2012 elections.

Another influential element in the shifting character of American voters is the erosion of traditionally boundaries that have discouraged voters from crossing party lines on an issue-by-issue basis. This is seen in the the emergence of trans-party movements that seek to promote rationality and compromise that transcends party lines. Among the more prolific of these ‘purple’ organisations include No Labels and The Coffee Party USA , which promote progress through a commitment to bipartisan dialogue. In disputing the effectiveness of reliance on the partisan balance of surveys, The Pew Research Center for People and the Press explains that: [6.  http://www.people-press.org/2012/08/03/party-affiliation-and-election-polls/  ]

Most fundamentally, [political allegiance] is an attitude, not a demographic.

The concept of an ideological split between older and younger demographics is certainly not a new one. It would be fair to assume, even, that a country’s youth will more often than not function as the driving force behind progressive politics. However, the American Millennials have displayed a few interesting tendencies including the disinclination to unconsciously vote along party lines as well as the desire to reconcile bipartisan differences in the name of progress. Another important factor, the increase in the Hispanic/Latino population, is another demographic trend that must be considered. The 2012 US Census revealed that the immigration boom that occurred during the 1990s and continued through the turn of the century has reinforced a surging Hispanic birth rate, and will likely result in a non-white majority in America before 2050. When you consider that 76% of non-white voters of all ages supported President Obama in the previous election cycle, this is far from insignificant.[7.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/12/census-hispanics-and-black-unseat-whites-as-majority-in-united-states-population_n_2286105.html ]

In any case, the ‘two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards’ brand of progress that has defined American civil and political culture during the last half-century and beyond will be incredibly difficult to dislodge. It’s certainly far too early to proclaim the inevitable death of the American right. The second Bush President and current House of Representatives have proved that ill-conceived policy choices have no bearing on the GOP’s longevity. As a result of its tremendous size, fickle culture, and unique history the U.S. will undoubtedly continue to struggle with many disputes that are simply non-issues in smaller, wealthier, and more welfare-inclined nations. Nevertheless, the Millennial generation has brought with it a cause for legitimate, if still cautious, optimism regarding America’s progress towards a positive political future.