Friday, January 14, 2011

Bullets Beat Ballots

Ian Williams

American democracy is caught in the crosshairs

by Ian Williams
Friday, January 14th, 2011

If his YouTube ramblings are anything to go by, the young man who shot United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona clearly had big issues with reality. But Jared Loughner’s thoughts were scarcely less coherent than many on the conservative right. He could have intoned his comments on the Congressional Record and it is unlikely that the media, let alone the Republicans, would have called him on it. On “big government”, he is almost in the mainstream. He was innovative in his use of grammar, although like those who put up misspelt roadside posters about English-only legislation, he was more advanced in theory than in practice.

Sadly less innovative was his pointing a gun at the congresswoman. For a few hours after the shooting, Sarah Palin’s website still featured the crosshairs of a gun site pointing at Giffords’ district with an invocation “Don’t retreat! Instead – RELOAD!” that her staff had posted during the election.

It is no surprise that Loughner should have picked up such ideas. Arizona is a state whose Republicans have tried to round-up suspected Mexicans before the courts over-ruled it as unconstitutional and whose gun control laws are so lax that is reputedly the source of most of the weaponry used in the cartel carnage south of the border.

Exercising his alleged rights under the second amendment, a palpably deranged guy was able buy the Glock he used to shoot the congresswoman, a judge, a nine-year-old girl and four others. But then the example of the Tea Party candidate who almost beat Giffords, in having a campaign event inviting supporters to fire machine guns, is hardly one to calm as fevered a brow as Loughner’s.

In his schizophrenic way, Loughner was channelling the zeitgeist of the era. Shades of paranoia, half-baked theories about the currency and mind control are common enough, along with the assumption that anything you disapprove of must be unconstitutional. That moves beyond eccentricity when combined with a presumed second amendment right to keep and bear arms and an implied right – even duty – to overturn laws and elections that allegedly violate the “constitution” and self-defined American-ness.

As common as detachment from reality is his apparent inability to respect the decision of the ballot box. One of the elementary tests of democracy is the concept of a “loyal opposition”, which is perhaps a more important British innovation than even the railway train. The idea that people can disagree and not be accused of treachery and subversion is essential to a functioning parliamentary system. It has never gained universal acceptance in the United States, as the House Un-American Activities Committee followed a two-centuries-old tradition of loyalty oaths and lynchings for dissidents. The past two decades have seen it eroded even further.

Since they disagree with Obama, therefore he must be foreign-born, alien, not really American, is a view still held by a frightening number of registered Republicans – quite apart from the many who are just looking for excuses to rail against a black President.

Giffords herself walked a political tightrope. She was a self-proclaimed “Blue Dog” Democrat, but wanted a public option in healthcare – unlike many of her colleagues in the group who tend to be old-fashioned conservative Southern Democrats. In order to be elected, this group assumes it has to pass itself off as not really Democrat, implicitly accepting the view that to hold liberal views is inherently unacceptable and un-American.

However, it is not just the Blue Dogs who think like this. For years, the leadership of the Democratic Party in Washington has been in the hands of the Democratic Leadership Council, whose “leadership” is based on the ability to marshal huge tranches of corporate cash. While it might have been permissible to accept that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher occasionally had a point, like New Labour, the DLC has accepted neo-liberalism in its entirety. The DLC accepted the stigmatisation of their own party as “tax and spend” liberals, never challenging the huge deficits run up by Reagan and George W Bush.

It is a sad mark of the ideological triumph of Reaganism that its axioms are still received wisdom, even though they have been conclusively rebutted by reality, most notably over the past two years. Senior Democrats have been so eager to appear pro-business and to keep the cheques rolling in that they do not challenge the economic orthodoxy. So it is outrageous that, with overtime, a city employee might make $100,000 a year, but it is anti-business and un-American to question a banker making the same amount in a day in bonuses. As local government across America teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, we are told it is municipal unions at fault – not the bankers, whose price for bringing the world to ruin has been a relatively unchallenged record payout.

Friends of Giffords have reported the strain on her of raising $4 million to fight the last election against a deranged opponent bankrolled by a few secretive billionaires and their foundations, who are prepared to encourage anti-plutocratic rhetoric as long as the reality is union-bashing and tax cuts.

Quite apart from the guns, it is a sad country where politics is reduced to mortal combat between greedy but sane rich people and ideologically motivated rich but insane people.

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