TPM Cafe: Opinion

We are now about to officially enter another general election year, and earlier Democratic optimism about making major gains in the U.S. House of Representatives has recently yielded to Republican optimism about retaking control of the Senate. This shift in expectations has been based in no small part on a steady decline in the president’s job and personal approval ratings, followed up by a Republican surge in the generic congressional ballot.

For the next ten months, with the exception of occasional presidential polls, all we’ll hear about is the ‘14 cycle. And if Republican good fortune continues, we’ll hear the kind of triumphalist conservative talk that was so prevalent before and after the 2010 elections. When it comes to the midterms, it may well be justified. Second midterms for the party holding the White House are usually grim. The strong alignment of pro-Republican demographic groups with those most likely to vote in midterms — generally, older white voters — gives the GOP a significant additional boost.

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Watching the pundits and the politicians on the Sunday talk shows wrap up the year, I felt that 2013 was a far more dramatic turning point in American politics than either the party leaders or the assembled press realized. Both parties as well as the Washington punditocracy have lived in a curious consensus since the end of World War II; one that assumed America’s exceptional role in global political and economic governance.

Since his announcement of his first key cabinet appointments in December of 2008 (Tim Geithner, Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, Larry Summers) it was clear that President Barack Obama was a creature of this establishment point of view, just like every Republican and Democratic president since Eisenhower’s election in 1952.

But during the course of 2013 citizens, from liberals to libertarians, have turned against the collective wisdom of both Wall Street and the Council of Foreign Relations and so historians will regard our current moment as the end of a 60-year reign of the American establishment over our national politics. But neither Obama nor House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) seem to understand that the ground had shifted under them and that we are entering a new age of reform.

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Andrea Elliott’s masterpiece project in the New York Times documenting the tribulations of a loveable Brooklyn girl named Dasani through the unforgiving maze of social services in New York City became an instant classic. With each word in the five-part series, Elliott unmasks the countless rips in the fabric of our social safety net.

As I read through the gripping ordeal that shines a light on the corners of our society so often left in the dark, I imagined the article forming a giant exclamation mark on what’s undoubtedly been the year of exposing inequality.

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You're using a product – a phone, a credit card – and something goes wrong. The fees weren't what you thought they'd be. The phone doesn't work as advertised. You try to get relief by calling the company, waiting on hold with customer service. You write letters, to corporate headquarters and the Fair Trade Commission. You're mad, and you feel like you've been ripped off, and you decide to bite the bullet and sue. Except you can't.

You can't sue, because tucked in the fine print of the contract you signed when you bought the phone, or signed up for the credit card, was a mandatory arbitration clause. That piece of the agreement says that if a dispute arises, the only way you can pursue justice is by meeting with an arbitrator. An arbitrator picked by the company, in a place the company chooses. You can't have a day in court. No jury of your peers.

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“Blood in, blood out,” is the old, stereotypical street gang saying. Joining a gang is supposed to require an intense initiation, perhaps involving the commission of a crime to prove one’s loyalty. Leaving a gang is thought to be rare and risky – potentially even fatal. But these conceptions of gang membership are very outdated, if they were ever true to begin with.

As a criminologist, I learned these facts by interviewing former participants in various Blood, Crip, Folk, People, and Sureno gangs in San Antonio, Texas. Participants explained that gang initiations are not always required, and people often depart from gangs with no dire consequences.

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Beyond shopping and parties, the holiday season is a time for reflection, so let’s consider the contemporary meaning of the values we say we espouse. Rabbis urge Jewish Americans to ponder tikkun olam, the duty to heal the world; and Christians crowd churches to celebrate the birth of a blessed baby in a manger. As poor travelers far from home, Mary and Joseph found no room at the inn. When her time inexorably came, the baby Jesus was born in a manger.

For Americans the Christmas story has a romantic, far-away ring. But are all of us, especially the most privileged among us, giving any serious thought to today’s equivalents of the holy family? From the misplaced focus and heartless tone of our current debates about America’s new health reforms, it seems not.

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This is a time of year that is often difficult for liberal Christians in this country. We have to listen to the inane chatter about a “war on Christmas” that makes department stores spiritual battlegrounds. We are treated with the annual secular media effort to characterize contemporary Christianity, in which mainline Protestantism barely exists as a dying phenomenon, liberal Catholics are “cafeteria Catholics” who aren’t serious about their faith and angry conservatives define the Gospel as being about the restoration of 1950s sexual mores. And we are overwhelmed, like all Americans, with the conflation of the Feast of the Nativity with an economically crucial celebration of greed and guilt.

This year there are indeed tidings of great joy — or at least intimations of change — that call into question the usual identification of American Christianity with monolithic and triumphant Christian right.

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Thanks to a pair of court decisions, New Mexico and Utah became the 17th and 18th states to legalize same-sex marriage. Utah’s case in particular is interesting, because in it a federal judge, citing recent Supreme Court rulings, found that same sex couples have a right to marry under the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection.

In the midst of celebration by same-sex marriage supporters, it is important to note that many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people live in one of the 32 states where they cannot enjoy the full rights and benefits associated with marriage. Two out of every three Americans still live in a state without marriage equality.

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When op-ed writers take on the problem of dysfunction in Washington by asking the hackneyed “why is Washington broken?” question, they run the risk of offering a “solution” that merely creates new problems. David Brooks’ recent op-ed, “Strengthen the Presidency, is a case in point. Brooks overlooks the root causes of political dysfunction in the U.S. and prescribes a dangerous remedy.

Brooks argues that the solution to legislative gridlock is simple: “[m]ake the executive branch more powerful.” Brooks’ argument depends on generalizations and overlooks the historical record, as well as the foundational principles of American constitutional democracy. The drafters of the Constitution created a document with many flaws, but their work also reflected important pieces of wisdom. Among their most central insights, they rightly understood that concentrating power in any one branch of government was, in James Madison’s words, “the very definition of tyranny.”

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Hey, Sam Youngman.

It’s me, someone living in D.C. who eats, sleeps, and breathes American politics for a living. I’m taking a break from having my own opinions validated on twitter (or whatever it is you think I do all day) to respond to your recent Politico piece about working in Washington.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself.

Unlike a lot of folks you describe in “Take This Town and Shove It,” I actually have roots here in the DMV.

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Want to contribute to TPM Cafe? Email ideas for your pieces to us at talk@talkingpointsmemo.com

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