Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Myth of Majority Rule


We in America are learning a truth that Israelis have known for decades:  a well-organized, right-wing group, however small, can literally hold an entire Democratic nation hostage.  

            In Israel, the norm is that neither of the two largest political parties is dominant enough to form a Government by itself, for no one party commands a majority of seats in the Parliament.  As a result, these parties strike deals with one or more of the smaller parties.  Traditionally, this involves joining forces with representatives from the well-organized Orthodox-Jewish community.  In return for voting with one of the two largest secular parties, the Orthodox receive extraordinary powers. 

For example, Orthodox rabbis have been able to decide for the entire Israeli-Jewish community what marriages are valid and what conversions are valid.   Orthodox Jews have routinely attained exemptions from military service, even though such service was compulsory for all other Jews.  (How does that sound for chivalry: Orthodox men can skip the military, but non-Orthodox women must join!)  The government has directly funded Orthodox interests in maintaining places of worship, religious cemeteries and other holy places.   And for a long time, the government has even included a “Ministry of Religious Affairs” that was routinely dominated by the Orthodox rabbinate.   

When you put all of this together, you can see why so many Palestinians have trouble understanding that the idea of a “Jewish state” doesn’t mean a theocracy.   Progressive and secular Jews can cry all we want that Zionism advocates a state for the Jewish “people” and not for the practice of the Jewish “religion,” but this is belied by the power that the Orthodox have wielded.   The truth is that, just as the Israeli people are not primarily Orthodox, the country itself is NOT a theocracy.  It is a vibrant democracy composed primarily of secular voters.  The problem is that Israel has been coping with the inherent weaknesses of the parliamentary system, in which the so-called “balance of power” can be seized by minority interests whenever the country lacks a single majority party.    

            Things were supposed to be different here in America.  We, after all, have a two-party system, and the majority party – the one receiving the most votes in the recent elections – is supposed to wield the most power. 

            In theory, President Obama and his Democratic Party should be in a great position to do just that.  In the recent elections, they earned the most votes for President, Senate and the House of Representatives.  No, they don’t control the House, but that was only because Republican Governors effectively gerrymandered their states’ districts so that Republicans could acquire more House seats even though the Democratic House candidates obtained more total votes.  Clearly, most Americans spent November 6th voicing their support for the Democratic agenda.  Obama won by millions of votes and by over a hundred points in the Electoral College.  If ever there was a President with a mandate, this is the guy.   Or so you’d think.

            In truth, Obama’s victory simply means that the Democrats will get to meet the Republicans halfway – rather than caving all the way.  Consider, for example, the flagship issue of the election: tax policy.   Obama campaigned in 2008 on the platform that the tax rates for those who earn over $250,000 per year would go back to their pre-Bush tax cut levels.  Then, with the economy in trouble, Obama agreed to put off that goal for the short term.  But in the 2012 campaign, Obama was back to his 2008 position: if he is re-elected, incomes over $250,000 will be taxed as they were under Clinton.   There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. 

            Here we are, however, one month later, and Obama is already proposing to allow folks who earn between $250,000 and $400,000 to keep their tax cuts … and more concessions can be expected on that front before a deal is ultimately reached.  The Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, proposed to set the threshold at $1,000,000 and his caucus told him where to stick that threshold.  My guess is that when negotiations ultimately resume on a long-term deal, the final result will be somewhere between that figure and a half a million.   Clearly, the President wants a deal in the worst way, and he apparently has decided that the Republicans won’t come crawling for one on his terms, notwithstanding the results of the election.   Personally, I hate the way he negotiates – concede, concede, concede … did I say concede? – yet I can’t argue with one of his basic premises: the Republicans truly have no interest in accepting a deal on his terms, and they are willing to risk economic havoc in order to avoid one.  No, I can’t be certain of that point because Obama has always caved first.  But I do believe they are prepared to wreak havoc if necessary.  That follows from the nature of the group they represent – a minority that is extremely well organized, ruled by ideology, and undaunted by the fact that they are out of the mainstream.  In those respects, they are just like the Orthodox community in Israel.

            In theory, none of that should matter.  If you combine the Democrats with the moderate Republicans, you have a clear majority, and they should be able to enact the legislative agenda that would make most Americans happy.  There’s no need here to “buy off” a third party in order to control the executive or legislative branches – the hard-right in the GOP can be marginalized, and the remainder of the government can function in a way the majority wants, right?   Wrong.  The problem is that the hard-right doesn’t just control a portion of the GOP; it controls the majority of the GOP.  And it remains to be seen that the moderates in that party are willing to take on that majority and do deals with Democrats – at least not until they watch Obama make concessions on more and more critical issues.   

            That’s how, even in a two-party system, a well-organized minority can control the day.

            In the above discussion, I have been focusing on the fiscal negotiations.   But perhaps an even more interesting dynamic is at play when it comes to the emerging battle on gun laws.  Once again, we have a well-organized and extremely ideological minority that is about to be pitted against the majority of the American people … and the President of the United States.  Surely, given the unspeakable tragedy of Newtown, the President will prevail in this struggle, right?   Surely, the American public will demand that we ban assault weapons and large magazines; we can’t be crazy enough to ignore those menaces any more, can we?

            To borrow a phrase from the President:  Yes We Can!  My friends, if political battles were decided by logic, this matter would have been resolved long ago.  Only sick people and law enforcement officers need the kind of guns and ammo that are at issue here.  Seriously – the problem isn’t that we need to get that stuff out of the hands of the mentally ill; it’s that only the mentally ill WANT to get their hands on that stuff.   (When is the last time you fired 100 rounds?)   Still, sick or not, the gun fanatics will keep enough of their toys that their children will be able to commit mass murder, if they so choose.  That’s my prediction.

Consider that the gun fanatics are organized, motivated, and politically savvy.  By contrast, their opponents tend to be rather casual when it comes to fighting for causes.    Limousine liberals, for example, love to talk about politics, but they’re “all hat and no cattle.”   You don’t effectuate social change by watching MSNBC or pontificating at Starbucks. 

Most likely, we will see some kind of gun/ammo law emerge from Newtown.  But my guess is that it will be a modest one.  It will give a sound bite that will make the (casual) liberals happy, but not the kind of meaningful reform that we need.   We need to ban large magazines and assault weapons the same way we ban heroin – root and branch.  This isn’t a time for half measures.  But half-measures are the best we can expect to get.  There just isn’t the political will among progressives in this country to fight for anything these days – other than to finance an election and to get out the vote every 2-4 years.

Don’t believe me?  Consider that we are still in Afghanistan after a full decade with more war to come, and yet we hear radio silence about the issue from the progressive community.  With the passage of time, we can expect to hear less and less about guns as well.  You’ll see.

So expect assault weapons and large magazines to be around a while, as insane as that is.  And expect more caving from Obama on taxes, with little protests from his base.  The real protests these days only come from the hard-right.  That’s why, despite their shrinking minority status, they’re still such a powerful part of America.

Sorry for such a bleak message during a time that should be festive.  But “Empathic Rationalism” requires calling it as we see it.  This truly is a time to enjoy life despite all of its imperfections.  And I will be trying to do just that – in LA-LA Land (culminating in attending the Rose Bowl game).  

I’ll talk to you guys in 2013.   Have a great holiday season and a happy New Year!

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