Saturday, December 03, 2011


Even in this quadrant of cyberspace, there has been a lot of talk lately about the 1% and the 99%. Honestly, though, you don’t have to be in the top 1% to be filthy rich. In fact, if you find yourself anywhere in the top 10%, you’re probably doing pretty well. It’s everyone else who I’m concerned about. There is something fascinating about the fact that our nation’s bottom 90% owns less than the top 1%. Indeed, it says a lot about this country that when you’re talking about wealth, it’s most meaningful to talk about the top .1, 1 or 10%, and to simply lump everyone else together into some sort of small, miscellaneous category. The myth of a thriving middle class still survives, but it is inexorably working its way out of our vocabularies. Soon enough, we will reach the point where we’re either ultra-rich or part of the “bottom X%”-- and that X will be a two digit number beginning with a 9. Who knew that 519 years after Columbus found America while looking for India, we would find India while looking for America?

Today, though, I’d like to leave aside the above numbers and focus instead on two different ones. Let’s talk about the 9% and the 43%.

The 9% are a truly bizarre bunch. These are the Americans who answer in the affirmative when they are asked whether they approve of the job the U.S. Congress is doing. When that figure is reported in the media, the point is always to indicate how low it is. But to me, the question is, “Why so high?” Who in their right mind would approve of the way Congress is doing its job?

You might think that’s a rhetorical question, and perhaps it was when I first framed it. Gradually, though, I’ve begun to realize that the 9% might not be nearly as stupid or crazy as they appear. Just assume hypothetically that you were a true American conservative – a person who believes that if you live in the “greatest country in the world,” it’s more likely than not that if you try to make substantial reforms, you’ll only make things worse. Personally, that’s not my attitude, but I wouldn’t call it crazy. And if it were my attitude, I’d like this Congress just fine.

Right now, the Congress is perfectly situated to make as little mischief as possible. No, they won’t accomplish anything either, but like they say in the NFL, “more games are lost than they are won,” and this Congress won’t fumble, throw interceptions or commit 10 or 15 yard penalties. They’ll just raise money, go home to visit their constituents, and commit the occasional act of public lewdness. (That’s the equivalent of a 5 yard penalty; no big deal.)

Consider that the House is controlled by the Republicans, who are themselves divided between the far right and the hard right (they’re the ones who think that the merely “far righters” are wimpy compromisers). As for the Senate, it is controlled by Democrats, at least in theory. In practice, though, it takes 60 Senators to pass a bill, there are nowhere near 60 Democratic Senators, and even when there were 60, a few were DINOs (Democrats in Name Only) who would demand to water down any truly progressive piece of legislation. The result is even more gridlock than you’ll see on the DC Beltway during rush hour.

In short, if your favorite principle of public policy is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” then maybe the U.S. Congress, as pathetic as it appears on the surface, is better than all the alternatives.

So that’s the 9%. Now, let’s turn to a much more plentiful, and supposedly sane, group, the 43%. These are the people who answer in the affirmative when they are asked if they approve of the job done by President Barack Obama.

Who are these 43%? They include virtually no Republicans. As for Independents, less than 1/3 of that category now finds itself in the 43%. Pitiful numbers, to be sure. But indirectly, what those numbers also indicate is that the clear majority of Democrats DO find themselves in the 43%. They like the job President Obama is doing. Imagine that.

How can the 43% watch a President essentially disappear like a magician’s prop, and yet still sing his praises? Is it just because they like the man’s style? Perhaps that has a lot to do with it. Unless my eyes and ears are deceiving me, I still see him as almost the personification of class. He is extremely affable. He has both low-brow and high-brow interests. He is equally adept at talking and listening. He comes across as open minded and open hearted. And you rarely see him sweat, let alone show any pique. What a cool guy, right?

That combination of stylistic virtues certainly goes a long way to explain why we’re talking about 43% and not 4.3%. And then let’s not forget the principle that the enemy of our enemy is my friend. So the more that Fox News anchors, Talk Radio blowhards, and their bought-and-sold politicians rip into Obama, the more the Democrats embrace him. The 43% sees Obama primarily as a victim. According to their mindset, when a pollster comes up to you and asks what you think of his job performance, why blame the victim?

And that leads me to perhaps the most important reason why the Democrats still continue to back Obama. Given how dysfunctional Congress has become, Democrats no longer expect their Presidents to actually accomplish things. As long as we have this Congress, the argument goes, the President is powerless to enact reforms, and his job is simply to ensure that things don’t get worse. It’s almost like watching a chess game that has been stalemated, and then praising your favorite player for not making a move that would lose the game. Absurd, right? But this is the story of today’s Democratic Party.

So, according to the conventional Democratic narrative, our nation is lucky to have a nice, intelligent, thoughtful, and flat-out cool President, who has the misfortune of presiding over a government that is essentially being shut down by a do-nothing Republican-dominated Congress that is propped up by a group of loathsome right-wing troglodytes. And we have a choice of blaming the perpetrator or the victim. Why blame both?

That’s the narrative that emerges from MSNBC. It is the narrative that you hear from Democratic leaders. And that’s the reason why, even though this President’s approval rating is less at this juncture of his first term then any other President in decades, he is still quite popular within his Party.

Forgive me for throwing a little wet blanket on top of this lovely fire, but I was just wondering if the 43% ever stopped to think about one set of simple facts. Do the Republicans control the Department of Treasury? The Department of Agriculture? Commerce? Labor? State? Transportation? Defense? Homeland Security? HUD? Energy? Do they control the SEC? FTC? CFTC? CPSC? I could keep going on and on. But hopefully, you get my point. A Democratic President has an enormous scope of power over a wide range of cabinet-level Departments and other agencies, and a do-nothing Congress lacks the ability to stop him from enacting all sorts of progressive reforms. So if we want to evaluate the President’s performance, why do we need to resort to viewing him as a powerless victim? Why don’t we evaluate the job he is doing in the areas in which he has complete control? Why don’t we demand that he shake things up in those domains? Perhaps the answer is that MSNBC, the New York Times, and the other sources of news for the 43% don’t report much on those areas, at least not with a coherent narrative. They would rather concentrate on throwing out red meat about how awful the Republicans are, even when the Republicans are not the ones primarily in power.

Folks, here is the sad truth. The 9% and the 43% seem like natural adversaries. The former is likely composed of self-styled “conservatives” and the latter of self-styled “liberals.” But whether they recognize it or not, they’re both working for the same objectives. The 9% is happy with their Congress, even though they believe it has little ability to accomplish significant reforms. As for the 43%, they are happy with the President, even though they believe he has little ability to accomplish significant reforms. These two groups differ in that the former embraces gridlock, whereas the latter purports not to. But the effect of their preferences is the same: both groups seem willing to live with gridlock. Both groups seem willing to live with a government that is no more activist than, say, Calvin Coolidge would be if he were in charge.

Perhaps, then, instead of talking about the 9% and the 43%, we should be talking about the 52%. I would guess that there are virtually no common members of the first two groups, but when they are properly viewed as working together to maintain the status quo … look what we have here? A majority!

And you wonder why we who care deeply about economic redistribution keep talking about the 1% and the 99%. Don’t expect the government to help solve that problem. A majority sure won’t.

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