The Polarized Court
Adam Liptak MAY 10, 2014
WASHINGTON — WHEN the Supreme Court issued its latest campaign finance decision last month, the justices lined up in a familiar way. The five appointed by Republican presidents voted for the Republican National Committee, which was a plaintiff. The four appointed by Democrats dissented.
That 5-to-4 split along partisan lines was by contemporary standards unremarkable. But by historical standards it was extraordinary. For the first time, the Supreme Court is closely divided along party lines.
The partisan polarization on the court reflects similarly deep divisions in Congress, the electorate and the elite circles in which the justices move.
The deep and often angry divisions among the justices are but a distilled version of the way American intellectuals — at think tanks and universities, in opinion journals and among the theorists and practitioners of law and politics — have separated into two groups with vanishingly little overlap or interaction. It is a recipe for dysfunction.
The perception that partisan politics has infected the court’s work may do lasting damage to its prestige and authority and to Americans’ faith in the rule of law.
“An undesirable consequence of the court’s partisan divide,” said Justin Driver, a law professor at the University of Texas, “is that it becomes increasingly difficult to contend with a straight face that constitutional law is not simply politics by other means, and that justices are not merely politicians clad in fine robes. If that perception becomes pervasive among today’s law students, who will become tomorrow’s judges, after all, it could assume a self-reinforcing quality.”
Presidents used to make nominations based on legal ability, to cater to religious or ethnic groups, to repay political favors or to reward friends. Even when ideology was their main concern, they often bet wrong.
Three changes have created a courthouse made up of red and blue chambers. Presidents care more about ideology than they once did. They have become better at finding nominees who reliably vote according to that ideology. And party affiliation is increasingly the best way to predict the views of everyone from justices to bank tellers.
It tells you more than gender, age, race or class, a 2012 Pew Research Center study found. And the gap between the parties is now larger than at any time in the survey’s 25-year history.
“Polarization is higher than at any time I’ve ever seen as a citizen or studied as a student of politics,” said Kay L. Schlozman, a political scientist at Boston College.
Supreme Court nominations were never immune from political considerations. But many factors used to play a role.
That is why Republican presidents routinely appointed justices who were or would turn out to be liberals. Among them were Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Harry A. Blackmun.
But it has been almost 25 years since the last such appointment, of Justice David H. Souter in 1990. And it has been more than 50 years since a Democratic president last appointed a justice who often voted with the court’s conservatives: Justice Byron R. White, who was nominated by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
That timeline may suggest more ideological rigidity among Democratic presidents. But the number of opportunities played a role, too, as there have been twice as many Republican appointments since 1953. And Republican justices were until recently more apt than Democratic ones to drift away from the positions of the presidents who appointed them.
The new era arrived with the last retirement, in 2010. Justice John Paul Stevens, a liberal appointed by President Gerald R. Ford, a Republican, left the court. Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal appointed by President Obama, arrived.
Now, just as there is no Democratic senator who is more conservative than the most liberal Republican, there is no Democratic appointee on the Supreme Court who is more conservative than any Republican appointee. “It’s not coincidence,” said Lawrence Baum, a political scientist at Ohio State, “that the court is now divided along partisan lines in a way that hasn’t been true.”
The partisan split is likely to deepen, said Neal Devins, a law professor at William & Mary and an author, along with Professor Baum, of a study examining, as its subtitle put it, “how party polarization turned the Supreme Court into a partisan court.”
Consider, Professor Devins said, the eventual retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Republican appointee who sits at the court’s ideological center and joins the court’s four-member liberal wing about a third of the time when it divides along partisan lines.
“When Kennedy leaves,” Professor Devins said, “it’s going to move the court a whole, whole lot to the left, if the president is a Democrat, or slightly to the right, if it’s a Republican.”
THESE days, candidates for the court are groomed for decades and subjected to intense vetting. They are often affiliated with the networks of conservative or liberal lawyers that have replaced more neutral groups like bar associations. And they are drawn more than ever from federal appeals courts, where their views can be closely scrutinized.
Confirmation battles have grown more partisan. With the exception of Justice Clarence Thomas, the five most senior members of the current court were confirmed easily, receiving an average of three negative votes. The four more recent nominees received an average of 33.
Once on the court, the justices surround themselves with like-minded law clerks, consume news reports that reinforce their views and appear before sympathetic audiences.
In their public statements, the justices reject the idea that their work is influenced by politics. They point out that their decisions were unanimous almost half the time in the term that ended in June 2013, and that the roughly 30 percent of 5-to-4 decisions did not all feature the classic alignments of Justice Kennedy joining either the court’s conservative wing or its liberal one.
But that was how most of the closely divided decisions came out. The conservatives won 10 times, including a decision striking down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act. The liberals won six times, including a ruling requiring the federal government to provide benefits to married same-sex couples.
But standard political-science measurements of ideology, based on many thousands of votes, confirm the rise of a court divided on partisan lines.
The very question of partisan voting hardly arose until 1937, as dissents on the Supreme Court were infrequent. When the justices did divide, it was seldom along party lines.
There is room for interpretation in such assessments. But of the 71 cases from 1790 to 1937 deemed important by a standard reference work and in which there were at least two dissenting votes, only one broke by party affiliation. “The dividing line in the court was not a party line,” Zechariah Chafee, a law professor at Harvard, wrote in a classic 1941 book.
Nonpartisan voting patterns held true until 2010, with a brief exception in the early 1940s, when a lone Republican appointee voted to the right of eight Democratic appointees. But the general trend was the same. Of the 311 cases listed as important from 1937 to 2010 with at least two dissents, only one of them, in 1985, even arguably broke along party lines.
That adds up to two cases in more than two centuries. By contrast, in just the last three terms, there were five major decisions that were closely divided along partisan lines: the ones on the Voting Rights Act, campaign finance, arbitration, immigration and strip-searches. In the current term, last month’s campaign finance ruling and Monday’s decision on legislative prayer fit the pattern, too.
MANY factors seem to contribute to partisan polarization on the court, including the people who work most closely with the justices.
Every year, the justices each hire four recent law students, mostly from a handful of elite law schools. They consider grades, recommendations and, in recent years, a political marker.
In the last nine terms, the court’s current Republican appointees hired clerks who had first served for appeals court judges appointed by Republicans at least 83 percent of the time. Justice Thomas hired one clerk from a Democratic judge’s chambers, Justice Scalia none.
The numbers on the other side are almost as striking. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan hired from Democratic chambers more than two-thirds of the time. Justice Stephen G. Breyer is the exception: His hiring has long been about evenly divided.
When law clerks move on, their career paths seem subject to the gravitational pull of ideology. Clerks for justices appointed by Democrats work for Democratic administrations, law firm practices headed by former Democratic officials and law schools dominated by liberals. Clerks for Republican appointees often go in the opposite directions.
All of this is new, according to a detailed study in the Vanderbilt Law Review. “The Supreme Court clerkship appeared to be a nonpartisan institution from the 1940s into the 1980s,” it said.
Like the rest of the country, the justices increasingly rely on sources of information that reinforce their views.
“We just get The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times,” Justice Scalia told New York magazine in September. He canceled his subscription to The Washington Post, he said, because it was “slanted and often nasty” and “shrilly liberal.” He said he did not read The New York Times either.
“I get most of my news, probably, driving back and forth to work, on the radio,” he said. “Talk guys, usually.”
Before the political and social culture of Washington grew polarized, most of the justices moved in a mixed and often liberal milieu. “The social atmosphere in Washington had a role in the leftward movement of some of the justices,” Professor Baum said.
Those days are over, Justice Scalia said. “When I was first in Washington, and even in my early years on this court, I used to go to a lot of dinner parties at which there were people from both sides,” he said. “Katharine Graham used to have dinner parties that really were quite representative of Washington. It doesn’t happen anymore.”
In a recent 10-year period, the justices made around 1,000 public appearances for which their expenses were reimbursed, which generally means they were outside Washington. They almost certainly made at least as many local appearances. But their audiences varied. Justices Scalia, Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. have addressed the Federalist Society, a conservative group, while Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer spoke to the American Constitution Society, a liberal group. Justice Sotomayor is a featured speaker at its national convention next month.
Justice Kagan, appearing before the Federalist Society in 2005 when she was dean of the Harvard Law School, said she admired its work. But, she added, “you are not my people.”
Adam Liptak is the Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times.
Both politcal camps, with their incumbents focused upon re-election and their careers, act like assholes. With the fiscal cliff yet to be resolved, our country could become impoverished like Greece. Doubt it?
As the election nears and the fiscal cliff looms in January, President Obama could be re-elected without winning the popular vote. Like the Frankenstorm, this will be a worst case scenario — our country will be more divided than ever.
Consider this salient Fact: our major national problems, are self-inflicted.
The huge divide between Obama and Romney’s ideology makes this election campaign the most divisive in recent memory
By MAX HASTINGS
PUBLISHED: 17:36 EST, 26 October 2012 | UPDATED: 17:36 EST, 26 October 2012
On Thursday, a brilliantly sunny morning in Chicago, Barack Obama’s home town, I looked down on Michigan Avenue in the company of Rahm Emanuel, the city’s mayor, the President’s former chief of staff and one of the smartest Democratic politicians in America.
He argued that many Europeans are right to be profoundly concerned about what happens if Mitt Romney reaches the White House. For all Romney’s recent pretensions of moderation, ‘as President he will become the prisoner of the Republican Party in Congress,’ said Emanuel — and Congress is very Right-wing indeed.
America is in the last ten days of an exceptionally tight and nasty presidential contest, in which the ideological divide between the candidates is starker than in any other such contest in recent history.
Romney has pledged dramatically to shrink government and its spending, to cut taxes, repeal Obama’s flagship universal healthcare legislation, and confront Iran and China.
The Democrats deride Romney’s austerity programmes as a mirror of those of David Cameron in Britain and Angela Merkel in Germany, which they say have brought economic stagnation. They claim his aggressive foreign policy would make America the prisoner of Israel and start a trade war with China.
But the truth is many Americans today feel lost and unhappy, threatened by unaffordable government spending, foreign threats and a collapse of traditional values — on gay marriage, for example. They believe Romney offers a route back to greatness and solvency.
Obama, for his part, says the state of America is not so bad, with the economy reviving somewhat, unemployment falling significantly — to 7.8 per cent in September — and exports booming, so the country should stick with what it has got.
But to many Americans, who see their children jobless, businesses going bust and government social spending at unsustainable levels, being ‘not too bad’ does not seem good enough. They yearn for something more.
A highly intelligent and decent Chicago academic, Milt Rosenberg, with whom I did a radio debate on Thursday night, brands Obama’s past term ‘a disaster for America’. The President has been stamped ‘disappointing’ by America’s media, and even by many of his own supporters.
In some ways, this is unfair. Obama took over from George W. Bush an economic shambles no more sustainable than Cameron’s inheritance from Gordon Brown.
He has not proved an inspirational leader — indeed, he has cut a curiously limp figure in the White House. But he is a smart man who has probably achieved as much as a profoundly divided Congress and country would allow any President to do.
Rahm Emanuel defends him, pointing out that: ‘Every politician in the Western world — Cameron, Merkel, Obama, has the same problem: how to make electorates accept that the world has changed, that people are going to have less of things.’
On the credit side, Obama has resisted strident demands to bomb Iran. He has eased America out of Iraq and is withdrawing from Afghanistan. He played a critical role in preventing financial meltdown after the 2008 banking crisis with his fiscal stimulus programme, which Republicans are foolish enough to deride. The President can justly tell Americans: ‘I stopped things from getting worse.’
But four years down the track, that line no longer sounds good enough. It is both a huge virtue and weakness of the American people that they are not fatalists. They really believe it is possible to make things better.
‘People in this country want the President to be a cheerleader, an optimist, the herald of better times ahead,’ says Robert Dallek, the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson. ‘It’s almost built into our DNA.’
In 2008, Obama achieved victory because he exploited this ambition with soaring rhetoric and the slogan ‘yes, we can’. Now, however, it is the challenger’s turn to play new broom.
Important numbers published this week show economic confidence among American business leaders is alarmingly low. On the hustings, Obama has made the big mistake of projecting himself — in the words of one commentator — as ‘a failed progressive’, frustrated in his ambitions by a hostile Congress.
Romney has leaped on the issue and says: the economy is ailing, let’s fix it. His ideas for doing this through across-the-board tax cuts are incoherent, but his supporters latch on to the simple fact that he plans to spend less taxpayers’ money — except on defence. Polls show that one voter in two thinks Romney may prove a better steward of the economy than Obama.
That is not the only advantage he is attempting to press home, for he is still enjoying the benefits of having nominated 42-year-old Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential candidate.
Ryan has a modest Wisconsin background to compensate for the wealthy Romney’s silver spoon: he lost his father at 16 and depended on welfare payments to get himself through school.
Ryan, too, is a darling of the powerful Right-wing Tea Party movement, described as ‘the most conservative nominee ever to be picked for a top slot in a presidential race’. Ryan has been a big asset to the Republicans on the stump, showing himself a formidable campaigner — except in liberal states.
In short, he’s injected a clear — if somewhat extreme — Right-wing message into Romney’s campaign, and thus emphasised the political gulf between the two candidates. In personal terms, the challenger’s Reagan-esque folksiness stands in stark contrast to the President’s remoteness and sobriety. Since ‘yes, we can’, Obama has notably failed to articulate a grand vision, such as Americans love, to match Roosevelt’s New Deal, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society or the Reagan Revolution.
The President does not do the common touch.
Americans love the sort of guy who looks capable of singing a song round the campfire on a deerhunt. Obama cannot deliver that, and it costs him votes.
Indeed, if he is re-elected, it will be on the backs of minorities: Latinos — who are rooting 72 per cent for the President against 20 per cent for Romney — and black people, who are even more decisively Democratic, together with relatively sophisticated white voters.
There was a joke after George W. Bush won re-election in 2004: young Democrats put out a map showing in blue the East and West coast states their party won, with the red mass of Republican states labelled ‘the crazy bits in between’.
In today’s United States, there are an awful lot of ‘crazy bits in between’ — places whose inhabitants will fight to the death for their right to own assault rifles; who think abortion Satanic; who would happily nuke Iran; and are unashamed to despise uppity black men like their President.
Such narrow-mindedness has been reflected in the violence of Republican hatred for the incumbent.
They have thrown every ball of mud they can against Obama, any charge that might stick.
Some Florida Republicans have flooded four million mailboxes with a DVD claiming Obama is not merely a Muslim, but the son of a black Communist.
Lunatic talk-show host Rush Limbaugh declared: ‘It can now be said without equivocation that this man hates this country. He is trying to dismantle, brick-by-brick, the American dream.’
A huge billboard in Florida shows a genuine photograph of the President supposedly abasing himself as he bows before the Saudi Arabian king when they met in 2009, beside numbers showing the U.S. petrol price at $1.89 a gallon when he took office, and $3.89 today.
Republican congressman Mike Coffman claims: ‘In his heart . . . Obama’s just not an American.’ Mitt Romney merely says: ‘This President doesn’t understand freedom.’
Yet Romney himself, in the last phase of the campaign, has sought to shed his image as standard-bearer of the far Right and prospective bomber of Iran. He had two big, possibly decisive, successes in the three TV presidential debates.
First, he downplayed earlier Right-wing commitments in order to appeal to women voters, who tilt strongly towards Obama because they recoil from Romney’s beating of war drums at home and abroad.
Second, Romney stayed upright in the ring. Looking poised and confident, he was able to project himself as a serious contender. There was a brutal moment in the second debate when he got away with putting down the President, saying: ‘You’ll get your chance in a moment — I’m still speaking.’
During the first debate particularly, it was clear that four years in the White House have visibly aged and wearied Obama — how could they not?
It seems reasonable to doubt that he has enjoyed the top job as much as he expected in 2008; every TV viewer can see that their President has dignity and gravitas, but not much sense of joy.
I put this to one of the President’s closest associates, who half-agreed, saying: ‘He hugely enjoys the foreign policy stuff, but he gets very bored and frustrated by the domestic politics.’ Unfortunately, things get done in Washington by sordid horse-trading of just the kind Obama disdains.
Since no politician dares to peddle too much reality, both candidates have made this campaign almost a policy-free zone.
Neither would think of telling Americans what every intelligent person knows: that during the coming century their country is bound to lose its economic and perhaps also strategic dominance.
Aspiring Presidents are obliged to tell Americans that their country is top in the world at everything, or, if not, that they will make it so. To suggest anything else invites the devastating charge — often made by Republicans against Obama — that he is ‘un-American’.
Nobody on the hustings mentions America’s poor record on education and child poverty, its bottom-of-the-class ranking for obesity and energy waste. Instead, Romney has fiercely attacked the President for cutting the military budget, accusing him of slashing warship and plane numbers.
Obama hits back that what matters is simply military capability, and that the Republicans might as well complain that the army has fewer horses and bayonets than it used to.
It is hardly logical for Romney to urge more military spending, when his big pitch is the budget deficit’s unaffordability.
As these political exchanges rumble on, voters are having to take stock and ask themselves: what will Obama do if he secures re-election?
Connecticut’s Democratic governor recently proclaimed that he will be ‘a great second-term President’. But this endorsement failed to mention how the chief executive will achieve this, and tacitly conceded that the first term has been imperfect.
Whatever we may think about this administration’s disappointments after a 2009 inauguration when much of the world wanted to think the Messiah had come again, this President represents a ‘big’ America, outward-looking and keen to engage with the global village.
He is a man of intelligence and sophistication, who understands the limits of his nation’s power, and global realities.
In contrast, a Romney victory will mean a triumph for ‘little’ America — for tens of millions of overwhelmingly white, gun-owning, fiercely nationalistic folks who want to wind back the clock to a time when women knew their place and the United States was top dog.
The Republican candidate is a much less stupid man than he sometimes seemed on his disastrous summer tour of Britain and Europe, when his foot seldom left his mouth. But those who want a sensible America, unlikely to subject the world to nasty shocks, will be rooting for Obama on Tuesday week.
The problem is that even some leading Democrats admit this President deserves to lose the election, because he has played his hand so poorly. But it is even harder for many of us to believe that Mitt Romney deserves to win.
Rahm Emanuel left our Thursday encounter to drive to the airport to meet Obama, who was dropping in on Chicago only to cast his own vote before hastening on to the next lap of his frenzied eight-state, last-ditch campaign tour.
The mayor thinks the President will narrowly scrape home, but admits almost anything could happen in the closing days.
If I had to take a rash bet, I would suggest that yesterday’s surprise official data, showing the U.S. economy improving more than expected in the last quarter, could just swing it for Obama.
To elect a Mormon with a more conservative agenda than George W. Bush would represent a frightening leap into the unknown. The devil they know may prevail on Tuesday week.
Will 2012 see the most divided American electorate ever?
Even if Obama wins a second term, voter demographics don’t look too rosy for his hopes of being a post-partisan president
Harry J Enten
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 October 2012 18.05 EDT
America is the great melting-pot. We all come from distinct backgrounds, and yet we all come together to cast our vote for president on election day. It would be silly to think, however, that we leave our backgrounds outside the polling booth.
Four years ago, then-candidate Obama said he could heal the divisions of our country. Those who know anything about voting pattern demographics were suspicious that Obama could accomplish this goal. With this year’s election close at hand, we can now see if the president has come closer to reaching his objective.
The polls indicate that voting divisions for this year’s presidential race have either not closed or have actually expanded to near-record extents.
1). The age gap
In 2008, those 60 years and older supported John McCain by a 4-point margin, while those 18-29 voted for Obama by a 34-point margin. This 38-point age gap was the largest gap since exit polls were first taken in 1972.
It would probably surprise you to learn that the age gap is a relatively recent phenomenon. There was no relation between age and voting patterns in 1992, for instance. Today, the Greatest Generation has been replaced by the much more conservative “silent generation”. Today’s younger voters are 40% non-white, a core Democratic group, and those who are white grew up during the Bush years.
The result is that the age gap is larger today than it was even four years ago. A recent GWU/Battleground Politico poll has Obama holding a large 24-point lead among 18-29 year-olds, and trailing among those 60-plus by 18 points.
2). The ideology gap
The voting choice differences between self-identified moderate and conservatives has been growing in recent years from 44 points in 1976, to 75 points in 2000. Many Republican leaners who identified as moderate have shifted to the conservative column. Thus, conservatives have been becoming a larger part of the electorate, while moderates, as a group, have become more Democratic in their voting choice.
The 69-point division in 2008 between moderates and conservatives was the smallest it had been since 1992. Moderates supported Obama by 21 points, as conservatives gave a 48-point margin to John McCain. This was a big drop from 2004 when the gap was a staggering 78 points.
This year, it looks like the ideological disparity is reverting back to where it had been between 1996 and 2004. The latest Pew poll has conservatives with Romney by a 52-point margin and moderates with Obama by a 20-point margin – a 72-point divergence.
3). The union gap
There are few things that create a fission between Democrats and Republicans more than unions. Most Democrats like unions because they feel they give the working men and women of America the opportunity to come together to fight for better wages. Most Republicans dislike unions because they feel they allow substandard workers to keep their jobs and union bosses to steal money away from employees.
The election in 2008 was surprising in that both union and non-union households supported Obama. Union voters did so in greater numbers, at 20 points, yet the difference in margin between union and non-union households was only 16 points. This reversed a divide that had grown from only 20 points in 1976 to nearly 30 points between the late 90s and early 2000s.
The margin difference in a recent GWU/Battleground Political poll was up to 24 percentage points. It could be that many of the non-union workers in northeastern states are abandoning Obama. Indeed, union support for Obama was as high in the recent GWU/Battleground poll as it was in the 2008 exit polls.
4). The gender gap
Since the dawn of Reagan, men have drifted into the Republican column with more regularity. Men are more likely to support the hawkish national security stance of the Republican party, and women tend to be more in favor of government-aid social programs championed by Democrats.
The difference between men’s and women’s voting choice in 2008 was actually the second smallest it had been since 1976; 2012 looks a lot different.
An average of recent polls showed that women were slated to vote for the president by a 9-point margin, and men were going to vote for Romney by a 9-point margin. Obama’s edge among women is largely the same as his 13-point advantage four years ago. Obama’s 1-point lead among men in 2008 has, on the other hand, collapsed.
If the 18-point divide we currently see in an average of recent polls is just 3 points higher, then welcome to the history books. Either way, expect Democrats to keep hammering away with their “war on women” campaign against Republicans.
5.) The race gap
Minorities are more likely to support Democrats. No Republican has achieved greater than 12% of the black vote in exit polls from 1980 through 2008. This year, they’re almost assured to give Obama 95% of their votes. Likewise, Latino voters look like they’ll give 70% of their vote to the president – a near all-time high. White voters, meanwhile, won’t be so kind to the president.
Republicans haven’t gotten 60% or more of the white vote since 1984, when Reagan won by nearly 20 points nationwide. Romney has led among white voters in recent polls by an average of 18 points, and considering that pre-election polls usually underestimate the Republican margin among white voters, it might be even higher compared to the exit polls.
It seems quite possible that Romney could take a greater percentage of the white vote than George HW Bush did in 1988, 59%, and actually lose. That’s why the racial makeup of the electorate is key for 2012. If, as the Obama campaign believes, it is becoming less white, then he’ll likely win. If white Republicans are more enthusiastic than in 2008, then it’s possible that the electorate could even turn out slightly whiter than it was in 2008.
When you see how Americans are planning to vote this year, you could hardly claim that President Obama has healed the demographic divisions seen in voting patterns throughout the country. In fact, they’ve demonstrably gotten worse.
That’s not to say Obama’s at fault. I’d argue the opposite: politics are the product of the times we live in, no matter who is in charge. Blaming Obama for being a divisive figure is symptomatic more than causal.
A ‘Civil War Atmosphere’ in Washington
No one can forget the Civil War atmosphere in which this debt fight has taken place. It weighs on America’s international reputation. From the point of view of financial markets, the dysfunctional nature of Washington is a risk factor that must be calculated for in the future.
In the seventies Common Sense concluded there is no leadership in this country. Every problem confronting our country is self-inflicted: no energy policy, no immigration policy to facilitate farm labor in an orderly manner, the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The debt limit crisis has morphed into a catastrophe for the every day citizens, higher interest rates on car and home loans, in contrast to the political class and their enablers, the investor class. US history has reached a moment in time, like December 1860.
Consider these words of warning and wisdom from George Washington’s Farwell Address:
As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is, to use it as sparingly as possible; avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts, which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen, which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind, that towards the payment of debts there must be Revenue; that to have Revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised, which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment, inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties), ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue, which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.
“Congress is throwing away astonishing amounts of money, spending ‘like a drunken sailor,’ and President Bush shares the blame because he is not using his veto power, Senator John S. McCain said yesterday.”
However, the 14th Amendment still binds the nation. The US cannot miss a coupon payment on past debt without breaching the nation’s highest law, and without defiling the honour of the United States.
So this shifts the balance of probabilities a little further towards a brutal fiscal shock as spending is cut to meet the debt ceiling, if Congressional leaders fail to marshal their troops in any semblance of order over coming days.
Since tax revenues cover just 60pc of the federal budget, the squeeze would have to be on a scale large enough within a few months to tip the US economy into a downward spiral and take the world with it.
As an historic policy error it would match the New York Fed’s decision to raise interest rates twice in one week in October 1931, but at least the Fed had an excuse. (The Banque de France had withdrawn gold reserves from the US).
Mr Obama might conceivably calculate that mass furloughs or Social Security cuts or whatever shape austerity might take would do more damage to the Republicans than to the White House. It seems an unlikely hypothesis to me. I leave it to American readers to debate who would come out of this in worst shape. I adamantly refuse to take sides in this dispute. Both parties have brought America to this unhappy pass over the last 50 years. A plague on both their houses.
Politcal parties are polarized. Republicans are polarized within their own Congressional caucus. The American people are polarized versus their government. The have-nots are polarized with the haves— hedge fund managers earn billions managing portfolios and pay 15 percent tax on their income.
Common sense concluded in June that there would be no debt limit compromise before the August 2nd deadline, for the common good. Tea Party true believers contend the government has a spending problem. If true, this has been the case since the days of Ronald Reagan.
Progressive ideologues are loathe to cut entitlements when in fact this non-discretionary spending along with defense outlays and payment of interest on the debt are the main drivers of federal spending. Likewise, seniors who also vote, dislike losing their government benefits.
By now, it’s obvious that we need to rewrite the social contract that, over the past half-century, has transformed the federal government’s main task into transferring income from workers to retirees. In 1960, national defense was the government’s main job; it constituted 52 percent of federal outlays. In 2011 — even with two wars — it is 20 percent and falling. Meanwhile, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other retiree programs constitute roughly half of non-interest federal spending.
Increased revenue is required to contain this crisis. Closing loopholes and raising taxes along with serious spending cuts that chisel entitlement costs represents the only common sense solution to our collective crisis. Few voters, independent populists, Republican or Democrat, would be willing to give up something for the common good, yet the American people are smart enough to realize sacrifice is required. Politicians made promises that a weakened economy can no longer and an aging population The faces have changed over the decades but the institutions have remained. Union leaders in bygone decades behaved like politicians, making promises that change globalization, rendered non-viable
In 1860, after the election of Abraham Lincoln to the office of the presidency, South Carolina seceded December 20th. This expected event began a chain reaction where the states of the Deep South, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas left the Union. The Crittenden Compromise represented the last ditch effort avoid civil war. It failed because A. Lincoln remained intractable on the issue of extending slavery into the territories and the debate favored Southern interests. Both factions were at fault because the climate in New Mexco and Arizona was unsuited to plantation labor. Lincoln and Davis; Lee and Grant; the Blue and the Gray, today we witness the spectacle of Progressives and Publicans squabbling over ideology instead of serving the interest of the people and meeting in the middle. It’s the politics of the moment.
The essential budget question is how much we allow federal spending on the elderly to crowd out other national priorities. All else is subordinate. Yet, our “leaders” don’t debate this question with candor or intelligence. We have a generation of politicians cowed and controlled by AARP. We need to ask how much today’s programs constitute a genuine “safety net” to protect the vulnerable (which is good) and how much they simply subsidize retirees’ private pleasures.
All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind, (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight,) the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
There is an opinion, that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the Government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in Governments of a Monarchical cast, Patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in Governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And, there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.