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Last Week’s News Part II: Ezra Klein’s Two-Party Propaganda

Here is Part II, a day later than expected.

Ezra Klein is a very prominent blogger and writer who cameoed as guest host of the Rachel Maddow show last week.  He also recently appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.  His recent activity reflects his position as one of the most influential voices in consistent defense of President Barack Obama.  Because his work is very important in that way, ACED has commented on a couple of articles he wrote last week that seem to show a strong bias that impedes his analysis/thinking.

Specifically, he is biased against any alternatives to the two major-party candidates for President in the 2012 election.  His bias prevents him from writing honestly about alternatives, leading to articles like this one he wrote for Bloomberg News that discusses Americans Elect.  As ACED has said before, the best vote in November will, indeed, be President Obama or the Republican nominee for some folks; but the best vote for others will be for some other candidate.  Choice is crucial to democracy.  When a pundit like Klein tries to discredit political choices with false statements, he allows himself to become an anti-democratic propagandist.  Of course, no one writes clearly all the time, and we doubt Klein intended to mislead.  But since his article contains misleading and false statements, ACED has offered some conterpoints to it.

Klein contends that Americans Elect’s “effort to nominate a bipartisan superticket to contest for the presidency” is a kind of “perennial fantasy.”  This is plainly false.  A group called Unity08 was formed along the same lines for the 2008 presidential election, but it folded in January of that year.  There is no evidence that ACED can find of a serious movement similar to Americans Elect before the 2004 and 2000 presidential elections.  Indeed, in 2000 the most significant third-party challenges came from Ralph Nader, popular with “leftists disgusted by the poll- driven moderation of President Bill Clinton,” and Pat Buchanan, the “fringe of the far right,” as Michael Kazin described them at the time.  The first strong evidence of the idea that we have found is from an LA Times article in 2005.  The article discussed the possibility of a centrist party emerging in the space between the Democrats and Republicans as those two-party became more partisan.  In it, Joe Trippi, who worked for Howard Dean, opined, “It is becoming much more possible for an independent or third party to emerge because they are leaving so much space in the middle.”

Thus, the very notion of a center party seems quite young.  Moreover, it is clear that the serious possibility of a center-party/bi-partisan presidential campaign is new for 2012.  Klein is simply wrong to call it a “perennial fantasy.”  More accurately based on the evidence we found, it is a young idea that has gathered significant momentum over the last two presidential election cycles.

We make this point because it is easier to dismiss Americans Elect if one paints it as another iteration of the same stale idea that people have rejected with each election.  That is not the case.  Even though the answer is necessarily speculative, one should ask why Klein would make the case that it is.  Does he intend to weaken the idea’s credibility, or was he just sloppy in his writing?

Klein then says, “At its best, it (Americans Elect) is mostly harmless. The candidates run weak campaigns and fade away.  At its worst, it can split the vote for reasonable candidates and let extreme politicians slip into office.”  Klein assumes that the Americans Elect candidate has no chance of winning.  Even if we go along with that, the latter claim does not make much sense – or needs much greater explanation.

Who are the “reasonable candidates,” and who are the “extreme politicians”?  How could votes for Americans Elect lead to victory for “extreme politicians”?  The only realistic way to understand this is to assume that the Democrats are the “reasonable politicians,” that the Americans Elect candidate would draw proportionately more would-be Democratic voters than would-be Republican voters and enough for the latter to win, and that Republicans are the “extreme politicians.”

But if that is the case, why “at its best” would a group like Americans Elect “fade away” instead of splitting the Republican vote and making it more likely for President Obama to win?  It seems like, from Klein’s point of view, it would clearly be better for President Obama to win a second term and for the vote share of the extremist Republicans to be cleaved.  Considering its present list of nominees (topped by three Republicans), this may be the most likely scenario.

Also, why doesn’t Klein refer to Republicans elsewhere in the article as extremists?  In fact, he contradicts the notion of the Republicans as a party of extremists.  In doing so, he refers to the Tea Party.

Is the Tea Party the group of “extreme politicians” to which he refers?  Maybe Klein thinks there is some possibility that the Tea Party will soon run a candidate independently of the Republicans.  Is there any evidence of that happening in 2012?  Even if it did in 2012 or 2016, is not much more likely that the minority Tea Party would split votes with the Republicans and receive many fewer than the Democrats who “still dominate the political playing field with more than 42 million (registered) voters, compared to 30 million Republicans and 24 million independents”?

Klein spews words that fit with his premise that the United States has a two-party system, and trying to change that is bad.  Americans Elect opening the door for an extremist take over of American politics works for Klein because it scares people from trying alternatives to the status quo that does not work for them.  Who cares if it doesn’t make sense.  It does not have to because the success of the two major parties has created the illusion that their dominance is necessary and good.  It is a false reality that short-circuits thinking critically about otherwise obviously false statements.

The last objection to Klein’s Bloomberg article also applies to his article in last week’s New Yorker.  Klein writes,

“The political system is, above all, a system. Into this machine we place leaders defined by different partisan affiliations, coalitions, ideas and personalities. Yet it continues to work much the same from year to year, presidency to presidency. If you want change — and polling suggests many Americans do — you can’t just move a new person into office. You need to change the system.”

Klein and other apologists continually labor to convince you that whatever problems you have with the President, it is not his fault.  Thus, there is no need for other choices no matter what your values are.  And remember, as Klein argued before, the only difference it could make would be to elect an “extremist politician…”  Not that it would matter in our “system”?

Klein loses a great deal of credibility with such asinine remarks.  Sure, we have a political system. And yes, as he wrote in the New Yorker, our political system “was designed to encourage division between the branches.”  It simply does not follow that a President has no power or control independent of the other branches; it does not explain why presidents are in some ways similar from year to year.  There are alternative, more persuasive explanations – or at least explanations with a greater basis than the vapid claim that a piece of a “system” cannot affect the system.

One literally could not list all of the ways that the President of the United States could act independently of the other branches.  However, last week also provided a very specific example of why “who” is the President matters.  Jeremy Scahill reported that President Barack Obama personally contacted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to “express concern” over the release of journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye.  According to Scahill:

“(Shaye’s) collision course with the US government appears to have been set in December 2009. On December 17, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label ‘Made in the USA,’ and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested. After conducting his own investigation, Shaye determined that it was a US strike. The Pentagon would not comment on the strike and the Yemeni government repeatedly denied US involvement. But Shaye was later vindicated when Wikileaks released a US diplomatic cable that featured Yemeni officials joking about how they lied to their own parliament about the US role, while President Saleh assured Gen. David Petraeus that his government would continue to lie and say ‘the bombs are ours, not yours.’”

The President did not have to exert any influence to keep Shaye in prison, but President Obama chose to.  A different President might not have allowed airstrikes in Yemen in the first place.  Klein cannot reasonably attribute those actions to the constitutional system of checks and balances, especially when the latter—not to mention other actions of our President—are probably unconstitutional themselves.

Should voters have the opportunity to vote for non-major candidates?  Not according to Ezra Klein, but I hope we have shown that Klein’s arguments are baseless.  If you think for yourself, you will probably come to a different conclusion about whether political choice is a good thing.

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