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.
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, severalpublicationsacrossthepoliticalspectrum 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.
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.
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.
While the majority of the world’s attention has been focused on the revolutionary tremors currently underway in Ukraine (or, if you watch cable news, breaking developments in the culinary world), violent protests in Venezuela have been raging. Demonstrations are taking place across the country, with protesters coming out in force on both sides of the leadership divide. Events kicked off on the 12th of February, Venezuela’s Día de la Juventud (National Youth Day), when an anti-administration group comprised primarily of students took to the streets in Caracas to protest against the current government of President Nicolas Maduro. Led in part by the now-jailed Leopoldo López, the group rallied around a wide-ranging platform of political reform that includes an end to government efforts to suppress public protests, the release of political prisoners, and the radical restructuring of the national economic system. Inspired by the government’s authoritarian response in prior weeks to protests in the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Merida, the demonstrators marched through Caracas while pro-government supporters rallied around the incumbent President (who later dismissed the dissenting protesters as part of a nation-wide “nazifascista outbreak” bent on government subversion). After the dust cleared, three deaths, numerous injuries, and dozens of arrests marked the conclusion of the first day of discord.
In order to properly contextualize the current conflict in Venezuela, it is necessary to look at a few different factors. The immediate motivations behind the protests can be best understood by examining the adverse conditions affecting the Venezuelan citizenry as well as the tone and context set by the country’s modern political past. This method of analysis generates insight into the actions of protesters and government officials alike, and offers an alternative historically-driven perspective, as opposed to one of raw politics. This is not to say that politics are irrelevant, as they are most definitely not. However, historical considerations are essential in properly scrutinizing revolutionary action, regardless of culture or end result.
While many are doubtlessly familiar with the divisive and provocative anti-Western rhetoric of the late revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez, it’s important to consider the country’s broader political legacies and the ways in which they have affected, and continue to affect, Venezuelan citizens and their political system. Chavez, and his successor Maduro, represent the most significant manifestation of Bolivarianism, a political philosophy named for the iconic South American anti-imperial military and political leader Simón Bolívar. Branded “chavismo” or “chavezism” by its opposition, the particular brand of Bolivarianism ushered in with Hugo Chavez’s succession to the Venezuelan presidency in 1999. An admirer of Bolívar and his struggle against Spanish domination, Chavez designed his Bolivarian Revolution around policies of nationalism, socialism, and the termination of Venezuelan reliance on the international neo-liberal economic system. For context, it is worthwhile to note that Cuban leader Fidel Castro ranked among the largest influences on Chavez’s leadership. After being released from captivity in the mid-1990s, Chavez visited Castro and the two quickly became close friends. Revolutionary Cuban trappings are evident throughout the Chavista platform, with the Venezuelan leader formulating the original slogan of his Bolivarian Revolution (“Motherland, socialism, or death”) from an amalgam of Castro’s motto of “Motherland or death” Che Guevara’s “Socialism or Death”.
When the success of domestic anti-poverty, resource redistribution, and education programs is juxtaposed against large-scale economic mismanagement, dictatorial absolutism, and a reputation for counterproductive international contrarianism, the lukewarm character of Chavista policies fostered by Chavez and perpetuated by Maduro are shown to have, at best, a lukewarm record. The late President’s curious brand of populism appeals most heavily to urban and rural poor in lieu of the traditional revolutionary mobilization of the working class. Though it may be unconventional, Chavez and his authoritarian brand of revolutionary socialism is nothing if not effective at remaining at the helm of Venezuelan politics. The regime has managed to survive a US-backed coup in April of 2002, a general labor strike later that year, and a recall election in August of 2004.
The Bolivarian commitment to opposition against what is perceived as the Western global hegemony has shown to have won him many regional supporters. Unlike the majority of the world’s developed countries that consider Chavez to have been a chiefly antagonist force, the Union of South American Nations (Union of South American Nations – UNASUL or UNASUR) acted quickly to endorse the results of the April 2013 election that followed the President’s death. The former vice president, Nicolas Maduro, campaigned heavily on a platform of continuity that played up his image as Chavez’s hand-picked successor. The support of neighboring governments was essential in buttressing the legitimacy of Maduro’s victory after the election results were called into question by several members of the international community.
Since the death of President Chavez, the Venezuelan Bolivare has experienced wild inflation and multiple devaluations as a reflection of the faltering economy. The country currently suffers from rampant “currency distortions” due to conditions that economists have characterized as “macroeconomic imbalances”. This includes a popular black market for currency exchanges that reflects a discouraging reality in comparison to the optimistic exchange rates set by the government. While the official exchange rate is somewhere around 6.3 Bolivars per American dollar (USD), the latest government auction of foreign currency revealed that the USD was selling for 11.36 Bolivars. Underground markets, which are fairly ubiquitous in Venezuala, are significantly tougher on the Bolivar, with dedicated exchange rate monitoring sites showing rates as discouraging as 87 Bolivars per dollar. The tangible ramifications of this situation have penetrated well beyond the nation’s financial institutions and into the lives of its citizens. While the government has been successful in significantly reducing the percentage of Venezuelans suffering from hunger and malnutrition in the post-Chavez years, the continued scarcity of common commodities and manufactured goods (most famously, toilet paper) continues to disrupt the lives of citizens.
Further compounding the country’s alimentary difficulties is the country’s continuing struggle with violence. While the government declines to release its internally gathered numbers, the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, an NGO, has compiled a report on the increasing rates of violence. The Observatory estimates that 24,000 murders took place in 2013, which represents a “14% rise” on 2012 [totals]”. Additionally, the report contends that approximately 90% of all homicides go unsolved. The issue of endemic violence plays a very significant role in the popularization of the most recent iteration of anti-government demonstrations. Most recently, anti-government protesters have rallied around the death of a 22 year-old university student which took place on February 18th. Genesis Carmona, a Miss Tourism winner in her native Carabobo, was shot in the head and killed during a clash between rival participating in one of the demonstrations. To date, at least 13 Venezuelans have lost their lives in the continuing upheaval that has done nothing to diminish the authoritarian character of Maduro’s rule.
The blame for Venezuela’s current social and political woes would, at first glance, seem to fall squarely on the political mismanagement of President Chavez (and, by extension President Maduro). However, the trends and attitudes that dominate the country’s turbulent political history reveal a more nuanced reality. While the questionable decision-making of Chavista politicans certainly has played a role in the perpetuation of a volatile status quo, the traditional “politics of exclusion” that exist in Venezuela provide valid historical grounds from which to explain the current conflict. In explaining this trend’s effect on the turbulent early years of the Chavez presidency, Professor Julia Buxton explains in the Bulletin of Latin American Research that, in many ways, the Bolivarian regime actually resembles the previous government of the Punto Fijo Pact (a coalitional consolidation of Venezuela’s three major mid-century political parties) that was displaced by Chavez and his revolutionary cadre in the late 1990s. She explains:
Rather than undermining an established democracy, Chavismo was characterised by continuity with the illiberal Punto Fijo state rather than change… Both relied on the politicisation of the state to maintain authority and both were hegemonic projects, which denied the voice of opponents on the basis that this was contrary to the national interest. Crucial to the development of this tendency in both regimes was the initial fear of revanchist actions by supporters of the preceding regime.
Buxton astutely points out that until zero-sum attitudes no longer characterize the political understandings and agendas of both the incumbent and opposition parties, “the institutional crisis cannot be approached and consensual institutions cannot be crafted”. By employing a perspective that emphasizes a bit of a “longer” durée, the current protests and upheaval can be traced back to perpetuated political oppositionalism and protracted party vs. party antagonism.
In relation to the protests, the relative inaction of Washington is anything but a problem. It does not demonstrate weakness, nor does it imply tacit approval for the Chavista project. The government’s dubious record on domestic reform, proclivity for bombastic rhetoric, and willingness to embark on campaigns of reckless domestic repression does more harm to the current government’s credibility than any American effort could ever hope to. There are plenty of genuine reasons for the American government to speak out against the Venezuelan administration and plenty of opportunities for it to do so through appropriate channels. Should the United States insist, however, on an inappropriately enthusiastic campaign of overt or covert support for the Bolivarian government’s opposition, the following outcomes are likely: the current conflict will be exacerbated and the death toll will continue to rise, the Chavista regime’santi-Western rhetoric will be strengthened and substantiated, and the American government will face embarrassment on the international scene. As history has demonstrated so many times in the past, ham-fisted over-extension by the White House will result in abject folly when a preferable outcome could have been brought about by the smallest amount of restraint.
As we’ve seen, it is important to properly consider the current situation in Venezuela in a historical context in addition to a purely political one. When analyzing the broader significance of recent events, it is essential to consider the plethora of of historical and political influences, of which only a few are discussed here, that have combined to generate such a volatile atmosphere. The present turmoil in Venezuela has significant grounding in a longer process of political exclusion that began with the Punto Fijo coalition and co-opted by the Chavista government. Furthermore, the government’s eccentric response to domestic dissent and foreign media coverage is explained by the prevailing political wisdom of Chavez and his administration. It is likely that the current crisis can only be successfully and permanently diffused by efforts of reconciliation and compromise that de-emphasize the zero-sum conceptions that dominate approaches to the Venezuelan political status quo. Finally, it is the responsibility of the international community to foster an atmosphere that is conducive to peaceful and prudent rapprochement while resisting the urge to embark on outdated and belligerent interventionism.
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.
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.
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/ ]
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/ ]
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.
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.