Election year politics

We are well into an election year. In my opinion, every major decision that this administration takes from now on, every major statement of policy will be based on how they think it will affect the fall elections, if it will raise Bush’s poll numbers and most importantly, whether it will help maintain Republican control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The last feature is particularly important to this administration. Part of the reason they have been able to stonewall investigations into the Iraq war (both the run-up and the conduct) and into the secret CIA prisons overseas, NSA wiretapping, indefinite detentions and violations of habeus corpus, torture, etc. is that the Republican leadership in both houses have abdicated their oversight role. In particular, since the majority party holds the chairs of the committees, they have not invoked their subpoena powers or their right to ask that witnesses and administration officials testify under oath. As a result, we have seen time and again, that congressional hearings have turned into friendly chat sessions, where administration witnesses have been able to evade accountability under gentle questioning.

To be sure, the Democrats have not shown much vigor either. They were also complicit in letting the administration get away with the foreign policy disaster that is the war in Iraq. The Democrats in Congress have their own corporate and lobbyist base to please and it is expecting too much to see them play the role of vigorous watchdogs of the public interest. But if even one of the two legislative branches of government gets a Democratic majority, then at least a few of the resulting committee chairs will be people who will invoke their subpoena and oath power, demanding answers to at least some hard questions, resulting in the kind of scrutiny and exposure that has been avoided so far. This is something that the administration does not want to see in its last two years, especially as its failed policies at home and abroad start to unravel. Hence we will see a very determined effort to do whatever it takes to retain Republican control of both houses.

As a result, the overture to familiar strains of election year sloganeering are being heard, following a similar pattern. In the months leading to November, one can expect to hear a lot about the following: gay marriage, abortion, immigrants, flag burning, English-only rhetoric, UN bashing, estate tax repeal, and assisted suicide.

All these issues (except for immigration and the estate tax) share the characteristic that they are largely symbolic and directly affect only a tiny minority of people. They have little relevance to the actual lives of most people, but they do aim straight at the emotional core of the base and provide many opportunities to push people’s buttons and make them angry. And expect to hear lots of talk about god and religion, perhaps involving those old faithfuls such as displaying the ten commandments in public places or the pledge of allegiance or prayer in schools and similar church-state separation issues.

However, I would not be surprised if a completely unexpected, but equally trivial, new issue emerges suddenly, since the ones I have listed are, like, so-o-o-o 2004, and the extremist base loves fresh raw meat.

The permanent repeal of the estate tax benefits only a tiny number of extremely rich people and provides their heirs with a huge windfall. A more accurate name for the estate tax repeal act would the “Give Paris Hilton an Even Bigger Inheritance Act.” But the act will affect all of us since the economic costs of the move are not trivial, removing a huge chunk of revenues that the government will have to recoup from the rest of us. You can ignore the rhetoric about how this tax results in family farmers and other so-called ‘ordinary Americans’ losing their farms and undergoing other hardships on the death of a parent. That is a myth to make the tax sound as if it affects more people than it does, and is carefully designed to obscure the fact that the beneficiaries are extremely rich people.

The issue of immigration is the only one that is even remotely serious but even this is unlikely to be debated in a serious way. Instead it is likely to play on xenophobia and tap into latent racism.

And if all these things fail to generate support to maintain the congressional status quo, then one can always ratchet up the hysteria about terror. We can expect to see terror alerts being manipulated and the foiling of alleged terror ‘plots’ being announced with great fanfare, even if they involve seemingly inept groups of clueless people who, apart from grandiose ambitions and rhetoric, have little else going for them, for example, like the pathetic one in Florida and the so-called New York subway plot (see here and here and here.)

We should also expect to see a continuation of attacks by hyperventilating columnists and op-ed writers on the media for reporting any news on the war and the administration’s actions that show it in a negative night. These people will accuse reporters of deliberately advancing the interests of terrorists. The amazing thing is that such people can make these bizarre charges with a straight face, and are still treated as if they were serious people, instead of being marginalized for being irrational and incoherent.

(Glenn Greenwald has a typically astute post dealing with how politics in the US have realigned from the traditional liberal-conservative divide to a pro-neoconservative v. anti-neoconservative split. He uses the tough challenge being provided by Ned Lamont to neoconservative Joe Lieberman in the Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut to showcase this change. You can read his piece here.)

And if all else fails, there is always the threat of war (or even actual war) with Iran and North Korea to fall back on. If they think that an attack on Iran or North Korea will distract voters from the administrations failures and rally people around them, they will do so.

It is interesting that in Sri Lanka too, election time brings out this kind of hysterical talk, base-pandering, and fear-mongering over hot button issues that had little to do with any issue of actual practical significance to most people. It seems as if politicians the world over instinctively resort to the same methods, irrespective of country, language, religion, and ethnicity.

I used to think that at some point people would wise up and realize that they are being played for suckers. But that day has not come yet. People seem to be willing to be used again and again, and have cynical politicians exploit their passions to advance the material interests of a few. Will this strategy work yet again to mobilize supporters this year or has it finally become so threadbare that it is seen as phony even by putative Bush supporters?

POST SCRIPT: New cartoonist

One of the many nice things about the internet is that it provides opportunities for people to get their ideas out to a wider audience and to communicate with others. I just discovered that a neighbor of mine is an amateur cartoonist who has a blog that deals with some of the same religion issues as this blog. You can see his full selection of cartoons here but two that I particularly like are this and this.