Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives held a rather extraordinary vote that says a lot more about the reality of American politics than most media pundits would have you believe, and provides Exhibit A as to why not to take either MSNBC or Fox News very seriously.
The vote was known as the Amash/Conyers Amendment–introduced by two House members from Michigan–Justin Amash, a Tea Party Republican elected in 2010, and John Conyers, a 24-term liberal Democrat. The amendment would have de-funded the part of the National Security Agency that has been engaging in mass surveillance of Americans and require that any FISA court order pertaining to the surveillance of any Americans must pertain to individuals under investigation, as opposed to the mass collection of electronic communications going through AT&T or Verizon.
The amendment lost, but the vote was uncharacteristically close for any recent U.S. House vote. The amendment lost by twelve votes, 205-217, with twelve member not voting. (I wonder if those twelve non-voters will get an earful from their constituents.) There are 234 Republicans and 200 Democrats in the House, but the votes of both were very split–94 Republicans were for it and 134 against it, while 111 Democrats were for it and 83 against it. The breakdown of the votes are here. The debate over the vote produced seemingly rather odd bedfellows, including Michele Bachmann and President Obama. Congressman James Sensenbrenner–a Republican just one or two Congressional districts away from mine who was instrumental in drafting the 2001 Patriot Act and has been a longtime advocate of the “War On Terrorism”–testified that he had not intended the Act to engage in such mass surveillance. Many other House Republicans stood up and read the text of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Another noteworthy testimonial came from Iraq War veteran freshman congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who said after the vote that she could not in good conscience support a program that violated the very Constitution for which she and other troops felt they were risking their lives.
My point in reporting this is that American politics are not as simplistic as one might think. As far back as the Clinton Administration, I saw the possibility for coalitions between certain liberals and conservatives that might not be immediately obvious. During this Obama Presidency, similar unique alignments are becoming more and more common, and the Edward Snowden affair has probably made these unusual coalitions more and more visible.
Just as The Nine Nations of North America claimed that there are actually nine nations of significant size in this continent, rather than three large ones and a collection of tiny ones, I believe that the U.S. political system has roughly four political parties. If I were to name them, I would refer to them as the “Democratic,” “Republican,” “Libertarian” and “Progressive” parties. I am referring to these parties I describe in quotation marks, and the word “party” in lowercase form, so as to distinguish them from the political parties of the same name that have existed throughout U.S. political history.
The newly constituted “Democratic” and “Republican” parties would generally conform closely to the current positions and roles of the respective parties’ leadership. As such, the “Democratic” party would be much more economically conservative and less dedicated to civil liberties than most of the real-life Democratic Party’s voting base is. Both parties would continue to be strong advocates for foreign intervention. The “Republican” party would not be a fan of civil liberties and would continue to increasingly favor big business over the public in almost all conflicts between the two–this would include Wall Street, The “Democratic” party would continue moving in that direction as well, just a few steps behind the “Republicans.” Evidence of this continued rightward tilt, which began around 1980, is the fact that the economic policies of President Clinton were much more conservative than that of President Nixon.
The “Progressive” party is more in alignment with the liberal Democrats of the 1960s and 70s. This party is most ideologically in line with the ideals behind President Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Johnson’s War on Poverty initiatives. The “Progressive” party would be much less likely to favor business interests over the public interest, and would likely be opposed to most of the foreign conflicts in which the U.S. has entangled itself over the last 25 years. There would also be a much stronger emphasis on civil liberties than present with the current Democratic Party leadership. The “Progressive party” voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pushed by President Clinton and the Republican leadership in 1993, and has been increasingly critical of President Obama on the environment, civil liberties, and foreign policy.
The “Libertarian Party” would include the current smaller real-life Libertarian Party, the Republicans who supported Ron Paul’s Presidential candidacy in 2008 and 2012, and a number of other Republicans who are strongly in favor of limiting government regulation on businesses and individuals in general. They are also strong civil libertarians and often (but not always) are much more opposed to foreign intervention than either Republicans or Democrats. A tiny minority of these “Libertarians” (think Ross Perot, for example) even opposed NAFTA as it did not fit their ideal of what a “free market” looks like.
The current majority of the membership of the U.S. Congress belong to either the “Democratic” or “Republican” parties. The “Democratic” and “Republican” parties consist of 80-90% of the U.S. Senate, and consist of a majority in the House of Representatives–but a much smaller one than the Senate.
The majority of the votes in both houses of Congress usually consist of the following coalitions:
- a non-controversial measure supported by all four parties in Congress
- coalitions of “Democrats” and “Republicans” voting together on the measure (meaning the leadership of both parties support the measure even if the measure might be controversial–I think of a famous quote from the late, great comedian George Carlin that said, “The word bipartisan means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out”),
- a coalition of “Democratic” and “Progressive” representatives on one side of a measure, and “Republicans” and “Libertarians” on the other side. These votes are the ones most often reported by the mainstream U.S. media.
But the vote yesterday represented a coalition that is becoming increasingly common:
4. A coalition of “Progressives” and “Libertarians” on one side, and “Republicans” and “Democrats” on the other side.
This coalition also surfaced in the vote on the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Looking at the votes, one can see that “Libertarians” and “Progressives” are less present in the Senate than in the House. This is not surprising, as being elected to the Senate or any higher office requires pleasing a larger array of constituents in order to get their votes and campaign donations. The higher the office one seeks, the more votes and campaign donations one must solicit in order to win the elections.
This is not to say that all of the House members who voted for the Amash-Conyers amendment were “Libertarians” and “Progressives”–I know, for example, that Rep. Sensenbrenner would not fall into either category.
The U.S. political system is even more complicated than that. For example, the Green Party shares the Libertarian distrust of big government, but not regulation. The real-life Green Party tends to favor decentralized and more locally accountable government, but are more in favor of government regulations as long as they occur at the local level.
There is also what I would classify as a “Christian evangelical” group consisting of a majority of “Republicans,” perhaps half of the “Libertarians” and a decent-sized number of “Democrats,” who want, to varying degrees, to make Christianity the official religion of the United States and tend to be intolerant of non-Christians.
My observation is that the Tea Party as we know it today is not really a unified or cohesive movement, despite what the mass media might say. The Tea Party consists of a grouping of extreme “Republicans” and extreme “Libertarians,” who don’t always agree with each other. For example, Reps. Amash (R-MI) and Bachmann (R-MN) both have widespread Tea Party support but were very much on opposite sides during yesterday’s vote in the House.
My point in making this post is that the current partisan attacks and maneuverings in U.S. politics do not constitute a full picture of the complexity of U.S. politics. I don’t want to throw myself into the mud with the other partisans well-versed in Fox News and MSNBC talking points (and I wouldn’t even put Fox News and MSNBC at opposite ends of the political spectrum), but it is still very necessary to be an astute observer of politics. Being able do so means:
- an increased ability to find common ground with people one might not normally associate with,
- that being in favor of more radical change might not necessarily make you a political outlier,
- being able to work with people different than you will mostly likely produce the best solutions to the problems that plague our world today.
One humorous epilogue–on the same day that the House voted down the Amash-Conyers amendment, I received a fundraising email from Michelle Obama saying, the first line of which read: “There’s a lot of noise and talk and back-and-forth going on in Washington, but hardly any of it seems to be about the struggles that middle-class families face.” The irony of the timing of these two events is not lost on me, even if it’s lost on the Democratic Party.