As a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany as a child in 1935, I have a lifelong interest in the ways nations deal with their pasts. I am closely following developments in Japan, in particular the moves to revise Japanese textbooks in a nationalistic direction, the debate about the implications of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, and, above all, steps to turn Japan’s military from a strictly defensive one into one with “normal” capabilities. Abe is hardly the first or only public leader to move in this direction. As Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of the National Interest,points out, “Nationalists in Japan have never really conceded that Tokyo did anything wrong before or during the war. . . . You will be hard-pressed to find much, if any, mention of Japan’s wartime alliance with Nazi Germany. . . . Japan emerges as a power that was simply trying to defend its own interests. . . . Nationalists also bridle at the moral guilt that outsiders have tried to affix to Japan, whether it is the 1937 invasion of Nanking, which they argue has been falsely turned into a genocidal act, or the use of so-called ‘comfort women’ in Korea.”
I hence suggested at a recent press conference that Japan should send 200 public intellectuals and political leaders to Germany to learn how a nation can come to terms with the darkest parts of its history. Germany gradually came to fully acknowledge the evils of the Nazi regime, made amends when possible (e.g., by paying “reparations” to surviving victims), and made extensive mea culpas and apologies. Above all, it has instituted extensive, elaborate, and effective educational programs in its schools—and military—to ensure that Germany will never, ever again engage in the kind of horrific, barbarous conduct that took place during World War II. Today’s Germans—while also seeking a place for their nation as a “normal” member of the international community—have made it part of their DNA to reject xenophobia and racism. None of this happened in Japan. All of these steps should. Instead, it seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
There are basically two schools of thought as to where the international community ought to go from here. One holds that we should not make too much of the revisionists’ gestures, which are said to be merely minor political maneuvers of a far from formidable public leader. Moreover, according to this line of thinking, Japan’s military buildup and reinterpretation of its constitution are steps the nation is entitled to take now that two generations have passed since WWII.
And according to this school of thought, although the United States should continue to call on Abe and his associates to take into account the sensibilities of other nations, it is important to focus on the fact that Japan is destined to play a major role in “counter balancing” China. Moreover, Japan’s military buildup can be viewed as a welcome form of burden sharing in a period during which the Pentagon is under considerable budgetary pressures. While it is rarely stated publicly, U.S. State Department officials privately admit that the United States may have to put up with “unfortunate” comments by Abe because Japan’s contributions to core U.S. interests in the region are expected to grow substantively.
In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of TheGuardian, employs three arguments to justify his publication of leaked documents whose release has caused major damage to the national security of the U.S., the U.K., and their allies, according to their governments. The U.S. director of national intelligence has stated that the leaks have done“huge, grave damage” to intelligence-gathering efforts. NSA Director Keith Alexander has argued that revelations have caused “significant and irreversible damage to our nation’s security.” And the director of the Government Communications Headquarters (the NSA’s U.K. counterpart) recently testified that the leaks have been “very damaging” and will make the job of pursuing terrorists “far, far harder for years to come.”
Rusbridger’s first argument, a libertarian claim, is contradicted by his second. The second claim, a liberal communitarian argument, leaves a major question unaddressed. And the third argument is so specious that one must wonder if Rusbridger realized his case was unconvincing and ended up grasping at straws.
Throughout the first parts of the article, Rusbridger argues that the problem is not his publication of state secrets but, rather, the American and British governments’ attack on free speech and the freedom of the press. The issue was that the state “was threatening prior restraint of reporting and discussion by the press, no matter its public interest or importance,” and is “gagging” the press. The government is working to prevent the people from finding out that it is “seeking to put entire populations under some form of surveillance,” the aim of which was to “collect and store ‘all the signals all the time’—that means all digital life, including Internet searches and all the phone calls, texts, and e-mails we make and send each other.”
Rusbridger then turns to various rhetorical expressions to characterize these acts, arguing that if the Chinese behaved in this way, “there would be barely contained fury in the West.” Then follow the obligatory references to George Orwell and the East German Stasi, even though Rusbridger does not show that anyone has been killed, tortured, sent to the gulags, or even lost their job on account of the collection of phone records and emails. The main evidence of the actual harm these systems have inflicted so far (as distinct from what might happen were the U.S. and U.K. to be overtaken by tyrants) comes from claims Edward Snowden made, which Rusbridger quotes as if they were incontestable statements of fact:
The storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude to where it’s getting to the point—you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.
If Rusbridger had stopped there, one would inevitably conclude that he agrees with those who read Benjamin Franklin as stating that those who give up even a bit of freedom in order to have security deserve neither—that the collection of such data is wrong on principle and should be stopped.
Recent news reports indicate that a major stumbling block in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is the insistence by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on maintaining a military force on the border between the future Palestinian state and Jordan, along the Jordan Valley.
This demand, and the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry seems to support it, so infuriated Mahmoud Abbas, head of the P.A., that Abbas went over Kerry’s head and appealed directly to President Obama. My suggestion for a way out of this impasse, which follows below, makes sense only once one realizes why both sides feel so strongly about this matter and why they both have good reasons for feeling this way.
Israel sees this force as necessary to prevent the new Palestinian state from turning into a Hamastan and to ensure, as Jackson Diehl put it in The Washington Post, “that the post-occupation West Bank does not become another Iranian base.” As Netanyahu recently said, “We don’t want to see rockets and missiles streaming into a Palestinian state and placed on the hills above Tel Aviv and the hills encircling Jerusalem. If Israel does not maintain a credible military and security presence in the Jordan Valley for the foreseeable future, this is exactly what could happen again.”
Given what happened in southern Lebanon, after Israel fully retreated (granted, from a place where it should not have lingered in the first place) and removed its forces behind an international border recognized by the United Nations and the nations of the world, one cannot deny that on this issue, Israel has a legitimate concern.
At the same time, the Palestinians hold strongly to the principle that Palestine will be a sovereign state. That suggests that the Palestinians “will not accept the presence of any Israeli soldiers within the borders of a Palestinian state,” said Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator in the peace process. Abbas also stated that, “All the talk about an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley is empty talk, because as long as there is a presence of the occupation army in the territory of Palestine, there will be no solution, and all the settlements on Palestinian lands must be removed.”
The Palestinian point is equally compelling. A sovereign state has a right to ensure that no foreign military forces be stationed in its confines.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — who presided over the failed war in Afghanistan and the failing intervention in Iraq — claims that Vice President Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Because of my interest in communities — including ethnic and religious ones — I followed particularly closely two major recommendations Joe Biden has made. I found that as far as can be determined, the United States — and many millions of people in the Middle East — would be much safer and better off if Biden’s counsel was heeded.
After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the U.S. Administrator, J. Paul Bremer, acting like a czar, decided to form a highly centralized government, which he assumed would allow him to run Iraq from Baghdad. He naively believed that he could turn Iraq not only into a stable state but also into a shining democracy. In contrast, Biden strongly urged for a government “based upon the principles of federalism” and advocated for a relatively weak central government with strong Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish regional administrations. (A bill Biden introduced into the Senate in 2007 to this effect was passed 75 to 23, but ignored.)
Biden’s approach had much more promise because it was based on the sociological and historical reality of Iraq. First of all, most citizens’ loyalty and commitment was much stronger to their confessional and ethnic communities than to the Iraqi nation. Second, historically the small Sunni minority much suppressed and abused the Shia majority. Bremer plan — a centralized democratic model — meant ipso facto creating a tyranny of the majority, one that turned out to be very vengeful. The Maliki government increasingly is using the governments’ powers not merely to deprive Sunnis and to support death squads. If the Sunnis had been given a considerable measure of authority in the provinces where they are the majority, they would have been much better able to govern and protect themselves from retaliatory abuses.
Making more explicit that which is viewed by many as an implicit understanding between China and the United States regarding the status of Taiwan would constitute a major step in defusing tensions between the two powers. The governments of both China and the United States have already shown considerable restraint in this matter, ignoring demands from Chinese who wish to use force to “reclaim” Taiwan as part of the mainland and from Americans who call for recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation. These measures of self-restraint should be made more explicit, by letting it be known that as long as China does not use force to coerce Taiwan to become part of the People’s Republic of China (as it did with Tibet), the United States will continue to refrain from treating Taiwan as an independent state.
True, the way Taiwan is treated is currently a much less pressing issue than settling the differences about the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and other territorial matters concerning the South China Sea and the various re drawings of Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) in the region. However, if one seeks to resolve simmering conflicts and to draw on such resolutions to build constructive relations between China and the United States based on mutually assured restraint – rather than containment or a Cold War-style arms race – clarifying the status of Taiwan could serve as a major step forward.
I recently asked eight experts on Taiwan whether there was an implicit understanding between China and the U.S. about the ways Taiwan should be treated. Five responded that there was no such understanding; two responded by saying that the answer to my question was not clear; and one held that indeed there was such an understanding. The range of their responses serves to verify that the issue surely could benefit from clarification. Indeed, it turns out that matter is far more complex than it may at first seem.
In a representative democracy, data only goes so far—and knowledge is no substitute for real regulation.
Transparency is the Vitamin C of politics. It does some good under some limited conditions, but can cause harm if used as an alternative medicine when real treatments are needed. Though always popular, transparency has been much in the news recently as the solution to that which ails us. The real treatment is more regulation.
The cost of healthcare is rising? The ACA requires hospitals to publicly report how much they charge for each item and procedure in the hope that consumers will use this information to “buy” less costly treatments. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United opened the floodgates for the flow of contributions by interest groups to politicians’ campaign chests? Anti-corruption supporters have latched onto the ruling’s upholding of political-spending disclosure requirements as the best means of keeping special interests in check. NSA surveillance programs are viewed as overreaching, ensnaring millions of Americans and tapping the personal cell phones of the leaders of friendly nations? The Obama Administration has promised to be more transparent about why these programs are needed and how they really work.
Transparency has long been hailed as the foundation of democracy. As kids are taught in civic classes, if voters cannot find out what the government is doing—either because its actions are concealed or shrouded by the release of misinformation—how are they to judge its programs and vote them up or down during the next election? Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously declared, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
There is some truth in these claims, but much less than appears at first blush. The main reason transparency is vastly oversold is that it rests on a popular—but highly naïve—theory of how our democracy functions: Namely, that it operates as a direct democracy. This theory assumes voters can learn about the ins and outs of the numerous programs the government carries out; evaluate their effectiveness and costs; and determine which they favor or are keen to change or discontinue.
The problem with this theory is that most people are busy making a living, maintaining a family and a social life, watching TV, and nursing their six-packs, and thus have limited time and energy to devote to following public affairs. And, as recent studies reviewed in Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow show definitively, people do not have the training necessary to parse and evaluate the mountains of data. This is particularly true given the complexities and nuance of the available information. For example, some hospitals have rather low mortality rates, but it turns out that they achieve these good results by transferring dying patients to hospices. And how is the public to determine who is behind the donations a politician collects from innocuously named political action committees such as “All America,” “America Works,” “America’s Foundation,” and “American Dream.” Could anyone reasonably infer that the first two groups are linked to the Democratic Party while the second two are tied to Republicans?
The left’s eyes are glued to New York City where the Great New Hope for progressive people just took office. The fact that Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected by a wide margin, that the support in several parts of the nation for increasing the minimum wage is considerable, and that public opinion polls consistently reveal that a majority of Americans want the government to curb inequality are all viewed as promising signs there may be a new wave of support for major social reforms. Some even see the coming of a left Tea Party that will prevent centrist Democrats and President Obama from making compromises that damage major liberal causes, in particular the protection of Social Security and Medicare as currently constituted.
Alas, Mayor de Blasio was barely in office a few hours before he made his first major mistake — one that was far from accidental. He declared that “we are called upon to end social and economic inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love.” Ending inequality was and is a good theme for running for office in liberal parts of the country, especially along the two coast lines. During an election campaign, there is an implicit understanding with the voters that you are mainly trying to show that your heart is in the right place and the general direction you plan to move if elected. Only those unfamiliar with the ways of politics (and the organized opposition) will take a candidate’s statements as a binding text, as signed contract, to be implemented once in office. However, once sworn in, as President Obama discovered when he promised that no one will lose their health care insurance plan if they have one, politicians are expected to deliver on what they state they are, well, delivering.
The issue here is not one unfortunate speech, albeit one that received special attention because it was centerpiece of the mayor’s inauguration. The problem is the no one is about to “end” inequality or even make major inroads. I am not speaking to practical issues, such as the fact that the new mayor cannot raise taxes on the rich (as he is calling for), as such authority belongs to the governor and the state assembly — and, without such a tax increase, the mayor’s major anti-inequality measures (e.g., universal Pre-K, after-school programs, expanding paid sick leave) cannot be financed. The problem is with the basic agenda. It is badly flawed on the face of it.
Turning phone-metadata collection over to telephone companies or a third party introduces new security risks without meaningfully addressing civil-liberties concerns.
One of the major recommendations of President Obama’s NSA review panel is that information about who Americans called (not what they said!) should no longer be stored by the NSA, but rather by either phone companies or a third party.
This may be good politics, but it is surely bad public policy.
As Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA, told the BBC, this would undermine our ability to protect ourselves from terrorists and rogue nations—yet it seems necessary because unless the libertarian beast is fed some raw meat, it may devour the whole program (his point, my words). After all, the House came within a few votes of decreeing that the whole program should be defunded—i.e., killed—just months ago.
Before I spell out why we would live to regret implementing this key recommendation, let me note the irony that the same group is simultaneously calling for curtailing or terminating the use of private-sector background checks for those employed in security work, which failed to flag either Edward Snowden or Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. Just as the group is criticizing the private sector’s security procedures, it calls for handing the very same sector a mission now carried out by the NSA! Although we have hard evidence of the damage done to national security by relying on the private sector, we do not know of a single person who has actually been harmed by NSA collection of phone records. Not one.
There are those who argue that collecting phone records does no good because there is no single incident in which these records prevented a terrorist attack. The same can be said about many other law-enforcement tools. Each provides a single piece of the puzzle; the more pieces we have, the more likely we are to catch someone seeking to blow up, say, the New York Stock Exchange or subway. Imagine: The FBI has just learned the identity of the two brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon, both of whom are still on the loose. They have additional bombs and are reportedly on the way to New York to create some more mayhem. Can you see that it might be helpful to know whom they recently or frequently called? And to find out in a short order?
In responding to the ADIZ, the U.S. needs to consider carefully its position on China as a rising power.
Practically all of the scores of articles that have been published since China announced its new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) have focused on China’s moves and on how the United States and its allies – Japan in particular – have responded and should respond. Analysts have examined China’s motives, seeking to determine whether the ADIZ is defensive, meant to protect China’s sovereignty and security; offensive, meant to prepare for a land grab; a reaction meant to indicate displeasure with Japan’s recent threat to shoot down unmanned aircraft in Japanese airspace; or meant to test U.S. resolve now that it has come to be viewed as having allowed other nations to cross one red line after another. Analysts of the U.S. response have noted signs of weakness in Washington’s instructions that civilian airlines should abide by China’s new rules, and they fear that accidental clashes between U.S. military planes engaged in overflights and the Chinese fighters that shadow them may lead to a shoot-out. Still other articles examined the side effects of China’s ADIZ on Japan, which was moving away from its pacifist orientation even before this recent development.
All of these rightful concerns deal with the immediate situation. The time has now come to also explore how to address the underlying conflict on two levels: that of the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and that of China’s rising power and regional role. Unless this is done, the U.S. is limiting itself to dealing with symptoms while ignoring the underlying lingering tensions.
I take it for granted that the U.S. and its allies cannot simply acquiesce and allow China to unilaterally change the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and their surrounding waters. True, declaring an ADIZ is a limited step, but it is fairly viewed as part of the “salami tactics” that – if permitted to continue – would likely lead to Chinese control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the nearby waters and resources. However, it is not enough to counter China’s most recent maneuver, only to return to the status quo ante of unsettled conflict over the status of the islands and their surrounding seas.
Several suggestions have been made as to what might next be done. Some hold that dispute could be submitted to a review by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or the International Court of Justice. Such a review has been suggested by Professor Jerome Cohen, an internationally renowned China law scholar at New York University. The review is likely to take several years and, during that time, all parties involved would have strong incentives to engage in serious negotiations before a decision is reached.
Another approach calls for a joint administration of resources in and around the islands could be established and the issue of sovereignty shelved. In effect, informal proposals in the 1970s for the joint development of oil and gas resources in the disputed areas were made by Japanese and Chinese officials in the past, but never implemented. An agreement between China and Japan to jointly develop gas fields in the East China Sea was signed in 2008, but has yet to be carried out. Alternatively, sovereignty over the territory could be awarded to one state, but resource-related rights could be assigned to all claimants. Both of these recommendations have been put forward by the Carter Center.
Still others have suggested that the two states could consider the formation of a supranational organization that would be authorized to exploit and manage resources in the disputed areas. Japan and China’s conflicting claims to territorial sovereignty would be effectively overridden by a supranational governing body similar to the European Coal and Steel Community – an idea advanced by former Japanese ambassador to Iran and Iraq, Magosaki Ukeru.
Arguably even more important is the resolution of other such remaining territorial disputes, especially the one concerning the Philippines. I write “remaining” because many such conflicts have already been worked out with China, a point that is often overlooked by a media that focuses on the drama of confrontation rather than on low-key, slow, grinding conflict resolution processes. As M. Taylor Fravel points out, “Since 1949, China has settled seventeen of its twenty-three territorial disputes. Moreover, it has offered substantial compromises in most of these settlements, usually receiving less than 50 percent of the contested land.” More recently, China and India signed the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement on October 23, as a significant step toward resolving their territorial differences.
China’s dispute with the Philippines is particularly important to settle for two reasons. First, while the U.S. commitment to Japan, the contested islands included, is enshrined in a treaty and widely recognized, its commitment to defending the Philippines is much less clearly delineated. Second, the Philippines has made its own provocative moves – for instance when, as part of its ongoing dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal, it detained eight Chinese fishing vessels in the surrounding waters in April 2012. Hence, the risk that misunderstandings will occur between China and the Philippines and that the U.S. will become involved in a conflict it does not seek – or that the Philippines will find itself unexpectedly unsupported in such a conflict – is particularly high.
Beyond the specific disputes lies a more general question that the U.S. has not yet adequately addressed. What is the U.S. position toward China’s rising power? Will the U.S. go so far as to allow China its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, as some have suggested? Or will it allow China to expand as long as this expansion is limited to economic and cultural means but does not involve use of force? Follow a new strategy of mutually assured restraint? Or, will the U.S. insist on opposing any and all changes to the status quo – including existing rules governing maritime navigation, territorial claims, and so forth? In other words, will it follow the course taken by many other established powers that did not yield a quarter to rising powers and fell into what is has been called the Thucydides Trap, leading to a new world war?
Until Democrats—liberals and centrists alike—show government can work, the public won’t be receptive to government-driven social-justice proposals.
I have come to dread President Obama’s speeches.
They are often thoughtful, nuanced, highly evocative, and exceptionally well-delivered—and worse than inconsequential. They raise expectations—a world without nukes! Ending global warming! Finally curbing gun violence!—but are not followed by much of anything. These barren speeches are one reason the public, and especially the young, are becoming disaffected from politics, bad news for any democracy.
I am not so ambivalent about Obama’s December 4 speech focusing on inequality, though perhaps not in the way one might expect. I hope it gains little traction—though truth be told, his track record means I am not losing much sleep over the matter. The speech’s flaw is that it seems to align the president with the Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio wing of the Democratic Party. For though this left wing may be hot during the primaries, it is most unlikely to produce a winning candidate for the 2016 election.
Democrats seem to find it too painful to stay united, sit back, and enjoy the squabbles within the GOP. After briefly standing together to oppose the budget cuts Republicans demanded in exchange for ending the government shutdown and avoiding default, the party has returned to its traditional factional infighting between the left and centrists. The very impressive victory of de Blasio, who ran an openly left-wing campaign for New York mayor; Elizabeth Warren’s election; and several locally successful campaigns to increase the minimum wage have suddenly revived the dispirited liberal branch of the party. (The fact that the usually dour and critical Paul Krugman is rhapsodic about Obama’s inequality speech is another sign of the times.)
But there is little evidence that most Americans have changed their mind about inequality. Despite the Great Recession, the stagnation of real wages, and the sharp growth of the gap in income and wealth between the rich and rest, most Americans seem to still expect to become rich one day themselves and hence do not line up behind programs that seek to soak the rich. When Obama made permanent the temporary Bush tax cuts—a policy that largely benefits the well to do—there was little pushback from the masses. Occupy Wall Street fizzled, among others reasons, because there is rather limited support for an anti-capitalist agenda.
True, polls show that 76 percent of Americans favor raising the minimum wage, at least to $9 per hour. But my research shows that often this popularity is based on Americans’ support for a fair society and to the concept of basic decency, not fondness for some version of socialism. Americans I interviewed told me that they believe a person is entitled to a “day’s wage—for a day’s work,” and to a “living wage,” by which they mean that, if a person works a full week, he or she should be able to meet the basic needs of his or her family and not be mired in poverty or have to draw on food stamps to make ends meet. Even if the minimum wage rises, it will do very little to reduce inequality, because the rich get richer much faster than the minimum wage rises. Only major tax increases on the rich—on not just income but also inheritance—and a large transfer to the lower classes can achieve that.
Centrist Democrats argue that what the nation needs is a return to fast growth, the old tune that a rising tide lifts all boats. They point to the era of centrist Democratic hero Bill Clinton—a time of peace, prosperity, and balanced budgets. They support the agenda laid out in previous Obama speeches: investing public funds in education (to ensure that American workers have the skills and knowhow to compete) and in infrastructure (to facilitate private production and commerce)—but not significant “redistribution” of wealth—the kind which would truly reduce the differences in wealth. (Progressive income tax, various anti poverty programs, Social Security and Medicare and ACA lift many millions of people out of poverty—but have not prevented the differences in income and wealth from ballooning.) The leaders of the centrist think tank Third Way published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) attacking progressive suggestions to expand the portion of income on which Social Security taxes are collected and to increase taxes on the rich, as Warren and de Blasio favor.
As I see it, the left and the center can reach a mutually beneficial understanding by focusing on tackling two major issues.
First, they should address the likely possibility that a return to a higher-growth pathway will not produce a windfall of jobs. New jobs will pay less and provide fewer benefits than the ones that disappeared. If every working person is entitled to least a living wage, American society will need to rethink how work is distributed and paid for. For example, taxing overtime could encourage workers to leave “after-hours” work for those who have no jobs. Ensuring that every dollar earned accrues sufficient benefits would make part-time jobs (which today often include few or no benefits) more rewarding. These measures may be insufficient, and they may not be politically viable—Congress is unlikely to support even such modest leveling measures. All this says is that it is an issue that needs more attention.
Second and even more essential is making clear that the government—whose power both leftist and centrist Democrats wish to employ—is increasingly captured by narrowly based private-interest groups. Thanks to these groups’ influence, Washington is increasing inequality by channeling many of the billions it raises from the general public to interests with deep pockets—from enriching Big Pharma by preventing Medicare from bargaining over drug costs to allowing hedge-fund managers to pay low capital-gains taxes on their earnings. Three Supreme Court decisions striking down campaign-finance restriction—Davis v. FEC (2008), Citizens United v. FEC (2010), and McComish v. Bennett (2011)—removed most of the few remaining barriers to this perversion of government. Now corporations and their associations can in effect legally bribe members of Congress to their bidding, with impunity.
Democrats may wish for us to think of the government as the provider of Social Security, Medicare, passports, and national parks, but many millions of Americans feel that the government is not responsive to their needs—and for good reason. The populism that feeds the Tea Party and a growing libertarian sentiment—a sentiment, which, when it comes to the economy, six in 10 Americans endorse—is, in part, a reaction to the fact that the government often does not serve the people. Until Democrats showing that lack of responsiveness is not an inherent flaw of the government but a result of private hands raiding the public till and twisting the way the state functions, any effort to draw on the government to promote growth and social justice will lack widespread support. Both factions of the Democratic Party need to return to their respective drawing boards—or, better, find one they can share—to fashion a message Obama can bring, and which will be followed by more than a day of warm sentiments.