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It's Not Unusual: The Left-Right (S)Mashup in American Politics

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A number of commentators have remarked on the "unusual" political coalition of progressive Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans that came together last week (July 24th) in Congress to support an amendment sponsored by new Michigan Tea-Party Republican Justin Amash and long-serving Michigan Democrat John Conyers, an amendment that, as Glenn Greenwald points out, would have required "the FISA court under Sec. 215 [of the Patriot Act] to order the production of records that pertain only to a person under investigation [emphasis in original]," an amendment that, in other words, required the FISA court to act in accordance with the plain meaning of the law and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which states, in full:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The passage of the Amash-Conyers amendment, mandating respect for this constitutional right, would have effectively de-funded the NSA program that bulk collects telephone records of all Americans -- an outcome the President, along with the leadership of both political parties, could not permit. To their chagrin, however, they faced surprisingly strong and widespread sentiment in favor of the amendment (and the Constitution). 

Conyers was joined by well-known progressive Democrats like   Barbara Lee, Rush Holt, James Clyburn, Nydia Velázquez, Alan Grayson, and Keith Ellison, as well as by the newly-elected representative from Hawaii, Tulsi Gabbard, one of the first two female combat veterans to serve as a member of Congress, who said: "Countless men and women from my state of Hawai'i and all across the country have worn the uniform and put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms and our liberties. I cannot, in good conscience, vote to take a single dollar from the pockets of hard-working taxpayers from across the country to pay for programs which infringe on the very liberties and freedoms our troops have fought and died for."

On the Republican side, Amash was joined by, among others, James Sensenbrenner, an author of the Patriot Act, who denounced the NSA's domestic bulk spying as outside the bounds of the law he wrote or of any reasonable limits of surveillance. 

Faced with such unexpectedly wide and strong opposition, the leadership of both parties had to whip frantically to defeat it.  A total of 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans voted for the amendment, which ultimately lost by 12 votes, a stunningly slim margin for a law that would have ended a program promoted as a crucial element of "national security." To my great unsurprise, according to "multiple sources" on the Hill, it was the Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (working for the Administration) who "saved" the NSA, and gets "most of the credit for the amendment's defeat."  Her "overtures proved decisive," and had "a big effect on more middle-of-the road hawkish Democrats who didn't want to be identified with a bunch of lefties." She kept 83 of her Democratic congresspersons in the pen with the NSA, untainted by their "leftie" colleagues. Oh, the Democratic Party.

This incident echoes the previously reported bipartisan Congressional resistance to the Obama administration's policy of sending arms to Syria, which itself echoes the 2011 moment when "House Republican leaders" abruptly canceled a vote on a resolution [by Dennis Kucinich] forcing U.S. withdrawal from Libya amid signs that "an unusual alliance of liberals and conservatives could approve the measure."  

All of this indicates that the cross-currents of American politics are more complex than the Fox-MSNBC, Democrat vs. Republican narrative that is constantly fed us, what Greenwald calls "the trite, tired prism of partisan simplicity through which American politics has been understood over the last decade." It's strictly family feud. The leadership of both parties, along with the corporate and media elite, is trying desperately to maintain for the public a coherent story, with all the characters fixed in their proper roles, and the conflict structured in terms that they control.  In fact, it's becoming harder to ignore that there are deep and enduring alliances between both parties, and serious and growing fractures within each of them -- none of which can be understood in the terms conventionally offered. 

Thus, within the terms of the dominant ideological narrative, conventional bipartisanship (since it's the norm) remains invisible and unremarked, leaving the programs and policies it produces undebatable. And, the flip side of that coin, unconventional bipartisanship (as the deviation) is, no matter how frequently it occurs, always seen as "surprising," "unusual," and impossible to understand.  We need to make conventional bipartisanship visible, and challenge it as the dangerous norm that it is, and we need to see unconventional bipartisanship as a healthy recurrent disruption that may point the way to new terms of debate, if not new political norms.

In discussing the Amash amendment, for example, Greenwald says:

What one sees in this debate is not Democrat v. Republican or left v. right. One sees authoritarianism v. individualism, fealty to The National Security State v. a belief in the need to constrain and check it, insider Washington loyalty v. outsider independence.

That's why the only defenders of the NSA at this point are the decaying establishment leadership of both political parties whose allegiance is to the sprawling permanent power faction in Washington and the private industry that owns and controls it. They're aligned against long-time liberals, the new breed of small government conservatives, the ACLU and other civil-liberties groups, many of their own members, and increasingly the American people, who have grown tired of, and immune to, the relentless fear-mongering.

In a fine article on this theme in Counterpunch, Sam Husseini puts it this way:

[T]he meme in the media and elsewhere [about this unconventional bipartisanship] is a permanent note of surprise, when it should be an established aspect of U.S. politics: There are in fact two "centers" -- one that is pro-war and Wall Street (the establishment center) -- and another that is pro-peace and populist (the anti-establishment center).

The establishment keeps the left and right populist factions at bay by demonizing them to each other; "let's you and him fight" is the mindset. Which is why MSNBC so often feeds hate of conservatives and Fox feeds hate of progressives. If they were to pay more attention to issues, they might break them down and it might become clear that there's quite a bit the principled left and right agree on. Meanwhile, establishment Democrats and Republicans collude on war, Wall Street and much else, effectively reducing principled progressives and conscientious conservatives into pawns of the Democratic and Republican party establishments. 

A left-right alliance is extremely threatening to the establishment. Rep. King recently bemoaned about the NSA scandal: "too many Republicans and conservatives have become Michael Moores." Similarly, former Iraq war military-spokesperson Dan Senor triumphantly declared: "I think this further strengthens the center on national security. I think there was a real risk over the last couple weeks that there would be this left/right coalition that would backlash against the United States government." [emphases in original]

I don't go all the way with either of these guys. I want first of all to insist that the conventional norm of American political discourse makes all kinds of intercourse between the "principled left and right" difficult. As well as agreements, it makes serious, principled left-right   dis agreements unusual and difficult to understand.  And that is because it is designed to keep "left" principles out of sight, and much more so than the principles of the right. It is not a balanced blindness. It's too damn bad there isn't a "pro-peace and populist" faction vehemently forcing the Democratic party to attend to the principles of the left.


(I understand that many liberals fear a strong populist politics. They see the whole Tea Party thing as demonstrating a radically right-wing, quasi-racist, billionaire-manipulated version thereof.  This feeds educated liberals' fear that the American people are hopelessly reactionary, and their complacence with having similarly-educated elites managing the polity. (Oh, how the principles of the left have disappeared!)  But the Tea Party's coherence is as fictional as the Democratic and Republican's -- precisely because there are contradictory populist counter-currents within it that elude the demagogic management of the Koch brothers and their corporate confrères.  The job of leftists is not to bemoan the various forms of induced ignorance that, for sure, have been assiduously inculcated into the subalterns of the capitalist state; it is to present, in clear and organized form, principles and programs of the left that will act as a pole of attraction for their fellow citizens, helping them move towards a liberatory politics. The trajectory of populist politics in the United States would certainly be unpredictable, but it is also: a) the only path for real progressive political change, and b) unavoidable. Given the worsening inequality, if there is not a populist politics of the left, there will be one of the right. That is, or should be, the lesson of the Tea Party for leftists. "[T]he decaying establishment leadership of both political parties" can only reproduce the status quo, and that is unsustainable.)


I also don't think the opposite of authoritarianism is "individualism," as Greenwald puts it, and I'd suggest that Husseini's "two centers" theory might be a little too simple. It's a helpful simplification, emphasizing his and Greenwald's main point of distinguishing a retrograde elitist and authoritarian from an insurgent, more populist politics, but I suspect that, if we look closely, we'll find more than two "centers." It may be a matter of tone, but both are also more -- blissful, shall we say, than I want to be about the real but limited possibilities of left-right alliances. I'm sure that, however many policies the "principled left and right" agree on, there will be many, many that will occasion furious fights.

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http://www.thepolemicist.net

Former college professor, native and denizen of New York City. Blogging at www.thepolemicist.net, aiming to be intellectually rigorous, politically challenging, and occasionally snarky, from a left-socialist perspective.


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Good typology.  But it should also be pointed... by George Flower on Wednesday, Aug 7, 2013 at 10:45:06 AM
"Such unconventional non-partisan populist votes ... by George Flower on Wednesday, Aug 7, 2013 at 12:16:30 PM
You make good points, especially regarding the ma... by Jim Kavanagh on Friday, Aug 9, 2013 at 8:26:15 PM