Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Salami Republic

Coming on the heels of the Wisconsin governor’s fight to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of government workers, the barely avoided federal government shutdown over the Tea Party’s determination to eliminate as much social spending as possible should cause Americans to revisit the rise of Hitler.

Praising the President’s cool during the week-long battle, democratic strategist Peter Fenn on MSNBC assured us that “The president is no wild-eyed socialist”, but a savvy con-sensus-builder. Commentators need to stop prolonging the opprobrium attached to the world ‘socialist’ and even ‘social democrat’ since the McCarthy era. The latest book by Chicago labor lawyer Tom Geoghagan titled “Were you Born on the Wrong Continent” details the much more agreeable - and democratic - life of Europeans lucky enough to live under governments inspired by socialist ideals, in particular Germany, which he has come to know well. I plan to devote a blog to Geoghagan’s book, but every day that passes makes it more urgent to bring up the Germany we fought for four years, when Hitler hijacked the term ‘socialist’ to make a nationalist project palatable.

Our leaders wonder aloud ‘who’ the Libyan rebels are, publicly fearing they could turn out to be Taliban or Al Qaeda types, but privately aware that many of them are more interested in real social democracy than in the global capitalist agenda. We watch Bashar Al Assad shoot Syrian demonstrators but are not aware that his supporters prefer the Muslim brand of socialism represented by the long-ruling Ba’ath Party (the party of Saddam Hussein) to American-baked capitalism. As Laurent Gbagbo clings to power in Ivory Coast, an interviewer suggests he might want to seek asylum in Mugabe’s  Zimbabwe - ‘or Venezuela...?’  Gbagbo’s government is described as ‘socialist-inspired’, while Alassane Outtara, the ‘internationally recognized winner’ of the disputed 2010 presidential election,  is a former economist at the International Monetary Fund.

As with the stand-off in Libya, the populations that have taken to the streets in so many Middle Eastern and African countries, are a mixed bag; but all yearn for more participation in decision-making. Some want Western-style personal free-dom, while others, along with many Christians and Jews, believe that freedom does not imply not license.

These conflicting ideals and concepts do not make it easy for Americans to see the implications of what is going on in their own country. The Tea Party would be a passing phenomenon were it not the child of a thirty-year long incubation by right-wing libertarians determined to limit democracy in the most powerful country. The budget crisis that has just come to an end, heralded by the attack on labor in Wisconsin and other states, utilized the same methods by which Hitler turned the Weimar Republic into a totalitarian state.

Voters are beginning to realize that elections have become something of a sham since the Supreme Court decided in 2010 that corporations can spend as much money as the want on election campaigns, and lobbying has become ‘ethical’. But we have no practice in dealing with parliamentary slicing and dicing. The budget fight has been waged over the 14 percent slice that Congress approves each year for domestic spending. Although the government narrowly avoided a shutdown, how many voters know what they were made to sacrifice?

The measure cuts nearly $2 billion in spending from transportation and housing programs, including $1.5 billion from a high-speed rail program and $280 million from capital investment grants. Were it not for the number of Americans out of work and/or who have been foreclosed on their mortgages, cuts in housing subsidies would not appear dire. Thankfully, Democrats were able to exempt the Big Three entitlement programs:  Social Security, the Medicare health plan for retirees, and the Medicaid plan for the poor, from the cuts. (The size of these programs is determined by how many people qualify for them, not by how much money Congress sets aside for them.) But students will be deprived of $550 million from the SMART Grant student-aid program at a time when official policy is to support education at all levels.

With wars having cost a trillion dollars since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the House and Senate are now considering an additional request for $33 billion in supplemental funding for the remainder of FY2010, and the Administration has also requested $159 billion to cover costs of overseas operations in FY2011. A cut of $3 billion from defense programs will have no effect on our on-going war policy.

The bill subjects the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to yearly audits by both the private sector and the congressional Government Accountability Office. We shall have to see what hay will be made under this measure.

Taken individually, each cut may seem justified by our dire financial situation and basic good housekeeping. But seen side by side with the policies the President has consistently bid the country adopt, they are ominous; and more will come. The longer-term agreement will cut spending in the current 2011 fiscal year by about $38 billion, including $17.8 billion from benefit programs, known as ‘entitlements’. The Tea Party doesn’t think citizens are ‘entitled’ to anything but security protection from the government.

Thankfully, measures to ban funding for Planned Parenthood health clinics and greenhouse-gas regulation survived the cuts. But as part of the compromise, the Senate agreed to hold a vote on blocking implementation of Obama's healthcare reform law. It is commonly expected to fail, but another round of strident de-monstrations could rattle the delicate constitutions of many Democrats.

Hitler called his methods ‘piecemeal’ but they acquired the more imaginative name of ‘salami tactics’ after the war, when the Hungarian Communist Mátyás Rákosi destroyed his country’s non-Communist parties by ‘cutting them off like slices of salami’. By portraying his opponents as fascists, or fascist sympathizers, Rakosi was able to get rid of the Parliament’s right wing, then its centrists, until only those collaborating with the Communists remained.

In America we have the mirror image: centrists and right-wingers use the accusation of ‘socialist‘ to intimidate democratic politicians who believe in the responsibility of government to protect and educate its citizens.

As we witness the slicing away from the Republican party of its moderate members in favor of its Tea Partiers, we should keep in mind Hitler’s conquest of absolute power in a country that, like our own, was known for its religiosity and cultural achievements.

The Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933, was akin, in its consequences, to our 9/11. Without evidence, it was attributed to a lone Dutch communist, and was followed by a decree that suspended many civil liberties and outlawed the Communist Party and the Social Democrats. Some 10,000 people were arrested in two weeks, and on March 24, 1933, the Enabling Act  gave Hitler plenary power, allowing him to bypass the Reichstag.

Hitler and the Nazis established totalitarian control bit by bit, eliminating potential opponents such as trade unions and rival political parties. They also established mandatory youth organizations and regimented the labor organizations organized during the Weimar Republic. The Enabling Act was renewed in 1937 and 1941. Finally, on April 26, 1942, the Reichstag passed a law making Hitler the supreme judge of the land, giving him power of life and death over every citizen until he was defeated in war.

The Tea party’s financiers and ideologues have studied both Hitler and Lenin, and have taken ‘from each according to their utility’.  According to a New Yorker July 2005 profile of Grover Norquist by Brendan Nyhan: “He talked about how to build a broad coalition. ‘If you want the votes of people who are good on guns, good on taxes, and good on faith issues, that is a very small intersection of voters," he said. "But if you say, ‘Give me the votes of anybody who agrees with you on any of these issues, that's a much bigger section of the population.’ To illustrate what he meant, Norquist drew three intersecting circles on a piece of paper. In the first one he wrote "guns," in the second he wrote "taxes," in the third he wrote "faith." Where the circles intersected: "With that group, you can take over the country, starting with the airports and the radio stations," he said. "But with all of the three circles that's sixty percent of the population, and you can win politically.”

Nyhan's 2005 article refers to a 1983 Cato Institute article that lays out a ‘Leninist strategy’ of ‘guerilla warfare’ for privatizing Social Security. commenting that “liberals could never get away with this stuff.” Six years later, a President whose heart is on the left, had to rescue the ‘third rail’. Criticizing government ‘inefficiency’, its right-wing opponents warn that we are turning into a ‘Banana Republic’. In reality, we must fear becoming a Salami Republic.

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