Where are you on the real political spectrum?

/ 13 January 2011

We are told over and over that the political spectrum in this country runs from right to left, from red to blue, from conservative to liberal. What if that is wrong? I believe there is another dimension to our politics that has always been there, but has grown to become the prominent axis on which our politics swivels since the Reagan era. I believe the real spectrum of our politics runs from anti-government to pro-government, from a sense that we are each on our own to a sense that we are at our best when we work together. If we look at the tragedy of this past weekend’s assassination attempt on a congressperson through this lens, the motivations and inspirations of the shooter become easier to understand.

There is nothing terribly new about noticing a pro/anti-government axis to our politics. But there are times when different axes are more or less prominent, and I think the last thirty years have seen the ascendence of this axis. For me it now overshadows the right/left axis. We are so used to the right/left axis, though, that we often mistake it for the pro/anti-government axis. But these are not the same things, they are, in fact, orthogonal. Where you stand on the right/left axis does not necessarily predict where you stand on the pro/anti-government axis.

During the 1960’s there was a clear thread of anti-government rhetoric and action on the left, though the predominant axis was still left/right as evidenced by our recollections of that time as peace&love vs. war&hate. By the time the 1980’s came around, Reagan claimed the anti-government banner arguing that government had grown “too big.”

The push for deregulation and free trade, which have been championed by right and left alike, are demonstrations of a lack of faith in government. Government has to get out of the way. It can’t be trusted. It must let us find our own way, a way toward individual wealth and happiness. The 2000’s brought us a presidential reign that actively dismantled government: made it incapable of even basic services like disaster recovery, made it unable to rule on the basis of law and instead resorted to torture and secret rendition, left us unable to keep the food supply safe and systematically removed science and research from government planning.

The fundamental change that Obama has delivered is a true faith in the capacity of government to be functional. For the first time since the 1980’s he is turning the tide of public opinion toward the belief that government can help us solve problems. While I believe the health care bill we got is far from ideal, I am amazed that we could get any health care bill at all in such rabidly anti-government times. It is a testament to this administration’s skills that inch by inch they are pushing back on a political axis few of us even recognize.

I think part of the reason it is hard to recognize President Obama as a liberal or a conservative is that he is not very far out on either end of that particular spectrum. But if you look at the pro/anti-government spectrum, Obama’s rhetoric and policies jump out into clear relief. He is a president who truly believes government can function and serve us all, he believes that we can do together all the things we can’t do alone.

Today I watched John Stewart grappling with the question of why the rhetoric of the “right” is so much harsher today than it was during the Bush presidency, even though many Bush policies, like No Child Left Behind, were arguably as big an intrusion of government as anything that Obama is doing. He could not get Tim Pawlenty to even see the issue he was trying to frame, I think perhaps because he was still referring to a right/left axis that is more or less irrelevant to the dynamic of politics today. No Child Left Behind is actually an anti-government policy. Remember, it only addresses public schools, it insists that public schools devote themselves to passing tests to justify their existence, and I would argue that it actually sets them up to fail as real centers for education in the process. NCLB has disempowered local governments and only focusses on punishments for non-performance rather than solutions for struggling schools. Over and over again, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush policies evidenced a distrust of government and an abdication of its role to the private sector or market forces.

The rhetoric has heated up during the last two years because the anti-government forces have recognized their first concerted opponent in President Obama. Not only is he pro-government, but he is effective and even got new laws in place against their concerted opposition. The “tea party” is not a “right wing” movement, it is an anti-government movement. It opposes Obama not because he is a “left wing” politician, but because he believes, and might convince others, that government can serve the people.

With the pro/anti-government axis clearly in mind, many contradictions or oddities of the current political climate become more comprehensible. Why is health care worth stopping? Not because it can’t work, but because it might work. In fact, obstruction becomes constructive, because by not funding portions of the health care bill or tying legislatures in knots government will appear more broken, which serves the anti-government forces. In fact, what appear to be incredibly irresponsible or incomprehensible strategies even to some conservatives, like tea-party opposition to raising the federal debt ceiling, actually make perfect strategic sense if your goal is to break government and make sure that people believe it can’t be effective. Similarly, dogged opposition to taxes, even at times of great deficits, ensures that government will not have the funds to be effective.

Who does this serve? I believe that an anti-government ideology serves organizations and individuals who have transcended national government boundaries. These are mega-corporations and the ultra-rich. Their interest is no longer the national interest. In order to continue amassing wealth they require that governments not interfere with their cross-border functioning. And they have acquired enough of that wealth that they can now effectively control governments, even our own, much of the time.

But an explicitly anti-government stance would not be very attractive to voters, and for now voters still matter. So these forces also have an interest in hiding the new axis of politics behind the old right/left rhetoric. Today they have inflamed the right, nearly bringing government to a halt amidst incredibly abusive accusations. Their interest is not actually in a healthy governing conservative movement, which is why many considerate conservatives are finding themselves increasing uncomfortable in this rabid “right” wing, the anti-government interest is in making sure our institutions remain dysfunctional.

Looking at the events of this weekend through this lens makes it clear, or at least as clear as we can be at such an early stage of investigation, that the shooter in Arizona was way out on the anti-government fringe. Some of his writings sound oddly leftist, but all of them are clearly anti-government. The FOX News rhetoric of the day may not have matched him on the left/right spectrum, but it sure is a great match for his place on the pro/anti-government spectrum. Again, the President aligned himself on the polar opposite of this position, pleading with us to build a “more perfect union” and a government worthy of the respect of an idealistic young student-council member who lost her life while catching her first glimpses of our democracy. His was a call to believe that government can be better, that government can work.

Understanding the real currents of the political landscape can help us build alliances and find common ground. America has maintained a two-party system for a spectacularly long time, but that’s not because there have only been two ends to a single spectrum. The axis of our politics have shifted before and the party’s have chosen sides and swiveled around to meet new challenges. What party would Abraham Lincoln belong to today? It would be very hard to say. I believe it is critical that we understand the real political battle of our time is not between right and left, but between pro-government and anti-government. What side are you on? Where do you want your party to be? What will you demand of your elected officials? Think about this, and if you agree, begin talking with others on the right and the left about how we can build a better world together, with effective government, appropriate regulation, and faith in one another.

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