Losing Ground

by Linda Bowen posted 12/9/2015 11:41:07 AM
As October rapidly comes to a close, choosing to be optimists, perhaps the one thing that progressives and conservatives can agree upon is that government is not currently working well. The shutdown on what Americans tout as the best model of democracy in the world was not just an embarrassment as is being portrayed, but more importantly an act that had real life implications for many people in our country, especially those with less political power and fewer resources.

The federal government shutdown was just one move in a series of strategic attempts to shift our country’s governance structure from one that seeks to promote general standards of welfare to one in which the marketplace is unfettered by governmental rules and regulations. This structural change puts in play strategies designed to diminish government in favor of the free market and is based upon the belief that the free market is the best arbiter of fates. Strategies aligned with this free market approach include an insistence on running all aspects of our society from schools to social service agencies to nonprofits as if they were businesses, a strong focus on accountability, measurement and “evidence-based strategies” and an emphasis on individual responsibility.

We watched this framework in action in the piecemeal approach promoted by Congressional conservatives to rebuild the government while keeping it shut down, and also in the discussion over the debt ceiling – determining on a line item basis what was absolutely necessary to pay for and what was not. This approach asserts the free market structural frame by holding up a consumerist approach to solving the country’s problems.

This latest manufactured crisis in governance was yet another attempt to dismantle both the remaining social safety net and the progress made in leveling the playing field among Americans over the past 50 years. In seeking to defund the Affordable Care Act, conservatives were also seeking to limit government's ability to provide support for health care to millions of Americans who actually need it. While this attempt was averted, the months before and after the last Presidential elections have provided examples of many other steps in this slow, but strong and steady march toward structural change, highlighted by actions concerning voting rights, election funding and gerrymandering congressional districts.

Voting Rights

The organized campaign of local and state level debates contesting voting rights (from the proposal to enact stringent Voter ID requirements to limiting early voting opportunities and eliminating same-day registration) held prior to the general election in November 2012 was viewed by many as a push to counteract the surge in voting by minorities, women, youth and working class citizens that was seen in Barack Obama’s presidential elections. Voter fraud was raised as an issue in many states and localities and restrictions on voting were installed as a remedy in several swing states, despite very little evidence of its occurrence. While unsuccessful at quashing voter participation, the lifting up of a value of fairness in voting (i.e. it is not fair for folks to vote if they cheat) served to strengthen conservative bases in these places. The strategy simultaneously inserted a race-based frame in its assertion of voter fraud.

On the heels of this struggle for voter rights in the Presidential election, civil rights advocates were greatly disappointed by this summer’s Supreme Court decision that invalidated a core element of the Voting Rights Act, freeing states from federal oversight of their voting regulations. The Voting Rights Act, many argue, was the one of the most substantial pieces of legislation passed during the civil rights movement. The decision was a major blow to civil rights advocates nationwide.

Since the Supreme Court decision in June, several states have passed new voting regulation legislation, most notably North Carolina. The state's draconian bill, which limits early voting and same day registration, also includes the elimination of college voting and other practices designed to encourage voting.. The Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against North Carolina to contest the law.

Money and Elections

Corporate interests and Super PACS have had a steadily growing influence in national, state and local elections. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision on Citizens United vs. FEC allowed corporations to have the same free speech rights as individuals, asserted that political spending is a form of free speech and led to an increase in political spending by Super-PACS. This debate continues in the McCutcheon vs. FEC case currently before the Supreme Court, which takes up whether overall political contribution limits violate the First Amendment.

As Lawrence Lessig illustrated in his popular TED talk, the amount of money poured into elections has shifted the political agenda. His specific concern is that all candidates, regardless of party or political views, must in some way bow to the desires of their funders, as it is nearly impossible to win an election without the financial support provided by these Super PACS. This shifts the balance of power further towards a market-saturated presence in American politics.

Gerrymandering and the National Legislature

Every 10 years after the decennial Census, state legislatures are charged with re-drawing congressional district lines based off of changes in population density. These districts are supposed to be relatively equal in population size and must be contiguous. Gerrymandering these districts to bolster party strength in the state is an old part of American politics, and with the exception of what is referred to as benign gerrymandering which creates majority-minority districts, is illegal.

Benign gerrymandering was seen as an important way to increase minority presence in Congress at its inception, but more recent research has shown that it also creates largely white, conservative strongholds in the surrounding Congressional districts. So now instead of seeing these benign gerrymandered districts as a threat, contemporary conservatives are using this strategy to bolster their own power. Texas redrew its districts in 2010, which opponents argued did not give adequate representation to the growing minority population and therefore were drawn with discriminatory intent. The Supreme Court allowed the state to use those districts for the 2012 election, but later a federal court ruled the maps were discriminatory. The appeals for this case are still underway, but the precedent of states utilizing election procedures to bolster partisan representation is undeniable.

The Consequences of These Changes

Proponents of a market- and individual responsibility-based ideology are now poised to be largely in control of American national government through their majority power in the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives, encroaching strength in the US Senate, and quiet but ubiquitous presence in the current presidential administration. Recent decisions within the court system have upheld the notions that individuals and corporations can use their money to further their own interests in elections, essentially equating businesses with people. The Court has further ruled that the decades long work on race and gender equity have achieved their purposes, thus negating the need for protections afforded minority populations, again allowing business and market forces greater freedom.

These are all victories born out of a long-term strategy which promotes values and beliefs about the roles of government and free market in the lives of Americans, placing individualism and personal responsibility above collective needs and benefits. The long-term effects of this will be to supplant existing structures focused on collective good and shared fate. Progressives would do well to understand and employ this strategic and long-term investment in resources and infrastructure to push back against this movement. Otherwise, we will continue to lose ground on the social, political and economic issues we care about.

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Blog Archives

Confronting the Structures of Race
by Linda Bowen (12/9/2015)

Framing Inequality
by Linda Bowen (12/9/2015)

Losing Ground
by Linda Bowen (12/9/2015)

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Structural Change 101
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