Actual Irreconcilable Differences

Divorce became easier with the introduction of the concept of irreconcilable differences – California enacted America’s first purely no-fault divorce law in 1969 by adding that to its divorce petition form. No one has to explain anything. No one has to prove anything. Things just didn’t work out. The whole thing had been a mistake. Oops. Other states use the terms like irremediable breakdown or irretrievable breakdown or incompatibility, but it’s the same sort of thing. The courts won’t play marriage counselor. Saving the marriage is not the government’s job, although some states impose a waiting period or require a formal mutual-consent agreement. All that’s left after that is fighting over child support and custody, if that’s the case, and the bitter fight over who gets what stuff. Out here there was a nasty fight over who would get the massive profits from selling the Los Angeles Dodgers to Magic Johnson and his friends – a long court battle over what was community property and what was not – but most fights over which party gets what are more mundane. The marriage didn’t work. Each party tries to recover as much of what was once legally shared, fifty-fifty, by arguing that this or that really always belonged to them and it should still be theirs, damn it. It’s never pretty. It’s even uglier when the differences, never even explained, are absolutely irreconcilable.

That’s where America finds itself now too. It’s divorce time. The left and right have never been further apart, and do have irreconcilable differences – the time for dialog and compromise is long gone. Henry Clay – the Great Compromiser who headed off the Civil War at least twice – is long gone. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill no longer sip scotch together in the evenings, at least in this world. What Newt Gingrich started when he was Speaker of the House, and what the Tea Party crowd has perfected, was a statement of irreconcilable differences. What they believe is simply incompatible with what Democrats believe, and these days, on most issues, incompatible with what the majority of the country believes. If America is an uneasy marriage between competing ideas of what should be done, then this marriage cannot be saved. There are irreconcilable differences and it’s time to split up the stuff, and they want their country back. They even say just that, which makes politics these days a divorce proceeding. Grab what you can and say it was always yours in the first place.

The Obama scandals, such as they are, only make this worse. There was the massive Benghazi cover-up, where Obama called it an act of terrorism and not a terrorist act, and the IRS scandal, where the IRS seemed to be picking on Tea Party organizations that had claimed they weren’t political at all, and the Associated Press scandal, where, on May 10, the Associated Press received a letter from the Department of Justice informing them that the government had acquired two months of their telephone records, causing quite an uproar. There were scattered calls for Obama’s impeachment, although Andrew Sullivan pointed out the obvious:

Has this president broken the law, lied under oath, or authorized war crimes? Has he traded arms for hostages with Iran? Has he knowingly sent his cabinet out to tell lies about his sex life? Has he sat by idly as an American city was destroyed by a hurricane? Has he started a war with no planning for an occupation? Has he started a war based on a lie, and destroyed the US’ credibility and moral standing while he was at it, leaving nothing but a smoldering and now rekindled civil sectarian war?

So far as I can tell, this president has done nothing illegal, unethical or even wrong.

It doesn’t matter. One doesn’t have to explain the irreconcilable differences. They just are – this guy is a jerk – and now they have him dead to rights, or something. They’ll get their country back now, if they play their cards right, but divorce court isn’t that easy. The problem is the latest CNN poll:

President Barack Obama comes out of what was arguably the worst week of his presidency with his approval rating holding steady… According to the survey, which was conducted Friday and Saturday, 53% of Americans say they approve of the job the president is doing, with 45% saying they disapprove. The president’s approval rating was at 51% in CNN’s last poll, which was conducted in early April.

Yes, Obama’s approval ratings went up, not down, in spite of the scandals:

More than seven in 10 in the CNN poll say that the targeting by the Internal Revenue Service of tea party and other conservative groups that were applying for tax exempt status was unacceptable… But more than six in 10 say that the president’s statements about the IRS scandal are completely or mostly true, with 35% not agreeing with Obama’s characterizations. And 55% say that IRS acted on its own, with 37% saying that White House ordered the IRS to target tea party and other conservative groups.

None of this surprises Andrew Sullivan:

The tone of the CNN piece seems to find this data surprising. It isn’t. It simply reflects the fact that no real connection has been directly made between these scandals and the president. And, I’d say, he’s buoyed somewhat because the economy here is better than any in Europe – and less vulnerable than Japan’s current Keynesian jolt – and because he’s still a broadly liked president. In the post-re-election lull, the press corps needed a storyline, rather than just three stories. But sometimes the line falls apart for lack of evidence (at least among the non-GOP base).

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog is less measured:

Let’s start with the IRS. The message of the right is that Evil All-Powerful Obama used his Nixonian superpowers to crush opposition. But this is a guy who can barely manage to deal out a love tap to his opposition – yeah, he won reelection, but he lost on the sequester and he couldn’t even get approval in the one house of Congress his party controls for a gun control proposal with 90% national support. You and I know his problems with Congress are the result of serious flaws in our system – the filibuster in the Senate, gerrymandering of House districts, an opposition party determined to nullify yet another election, a press that never stops trying to blame both sides equally. But the general public just sees a president who’s not particularly powerful – and can’t square that with the notion of an all-powerful partisan crushing his enemies.

Wingnuts, of course, have no problem holding these two completely contradictory notions in their head simultaneously. That’s just their nature. Obama is horrible in every conceivable way, even in ways that cancel each other out.

Of course one must not forget Benghazi, as CNN also reports this:

Only 42% of the public is satisfied with how the Obama administration has handled the September attack in Benghazi, Libya, which left the US ambassador to that country and three other Americans dead. Fifty-three percent say they are dissatisfied. But those numbers are virtually unchanged from November… 59% now say that the US government could have prevented the attack in Benghazi, up 11 points from last November.

Steve M:

The one argument wingnuts are possibly getting across to the general public is the notion that the four dead in Benghazi could have been saved – note the uptick in the number of people who believe that. But that jibes with the center’s sense of Obama as a guy who often doesn’t get done what he sets out to do. The public doesn’t think he wanted the Benghazi attackers to succeed – only idiot wingnuts would believe that of the guy who ordered bin Laden killed and who sends out all those drones. The public just thinks his administration failed there, and maybe tweaked the narrative at first to downplay the errors made. The non-wingnut population doesn’t see a massive cover-up because Obama doesn’t seem like a powerful evildoer to them. He just seems like a guy with generally good intentions who frequently falls short.

In short, the argument over community property, over who gets to keep America after the divorce, isn’t going well for them, and Digby (Heather Parton) sees it this way:

It’s very important that everyone keep their eye on the prize which is the implication that the White House was petrified of being found out to be the national security blunderers they really are.

I’m sure this is a banal observation but I’ll make it anyway since it’s an important factor in understanding why people drift to modern conservatism: it’s the right that is afraid – of losing its reputation as the military leaders of American culture. It is, after all, at the center of their emotional appeal. That’s why this bizarre Benghazi obsession remains at the center of the Fox News cycle and why they are so excited about it. In their minds, it washes away any Democratic advantage from the killing of bin Laden and puts the Democrats back in the coward corner where they rightfully belong.

They have a deep psychological need to see themselves as the “manly party” protecting the babies from the bad guys. Sure, they hate taxes and love traditional values. These are very important pieces of their philosophy. But at the heart of their self-image is the idea that they are the warriors. If you look at the past 50 years of conservative thought, it’s that which animates their engagement and it’s that which they need to get back in order to feel confident again.

And it all fits together:

The IRS thing speaks specifically to the paranoid, small government, anti-tax, Obamacare hating part of the Republican Party. That part overlaps with the larger macho, military-worshiping, imperial part of the GOP. (Unfortunately, that part also overlaps a big part of the Democratic Party as well …) It’s been neglected since Bush screwed the pooch with Iraq. But they aren’t going to give it up. It’s a major piece of their identity.

They want to save that major piece of the identity in the divorce settlement, but it won’t be easy, and the blogger BooMan frames that problem this way:

If last week was the president’s worst week in office the polls show absolutely no indication of it. Perhaps that is because the president isn’t supposed to interfere in criminal investigations or direct the IRS’s decision-making process on tax-exempt applications. CNN seems somewhat baffled by the results of their polling, which join Gallup in showing a slight uptick in the president’s numbers. But it shouldn’t be that surprising. A majority of the people reelected the president and all they’ve seen since is stupid opposition and stupid reporting.

If this is the worst the media and the Republicans can do, perhaps last week was their worst week of this presidency?

It’s hard to say, but it’s easy to see the irreconcilable differences here. That’s what fascinates the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza:

In one America, the events of the past 10 days have exposed the true colors of President Obama and his administration. From edited talking points about the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, to the secret seizure of phone records of Associated Press reporters to the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, a single message has emerged: This is the inevitable result of government run amok.

In the other America, this is all much ado over nothing. The death of four Americans at the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi was a tragedy, nothing more. The Justice Department acted legally. And the IRS officials who acted wrongly did so of their own accord and had absolutely no contact with President Obama or senior officials in his administration. …

While there has been some cross-party agreement over the past week – particularly on the IRS where many Democratic members of Congress have voiced their concern with how the agency acted – the general rule of Washington still held: How you think about things depends almost entirely on the party with which you align yourself.

This marriage cannot be saved:

The investigation into what happened in Benghazi is either a “political sideshow,” as Obama said, or a look into the “most egregious cover-up in American history,” according to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla). The series of congressional hearings dedicated to the IRS’s targeting of groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their names are potentially “partisan fishing expeditions designed to distract from the real issues at hand,” in the words of White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, or a chance to explore the “culture of intimidation” in the Obama administration, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

The gap between how the two parties view the world can’t simply be explained away by the exaggerations inherent in political rhetoric. Yes, the principals in both parties are doing their best to highlight the pieces of each story that cast them in the best light and their political opponents in the worst. Nothing new there. But the disagreement goes deeper than that. It’s a belief that the other won’t, and can’t, be right and that facts are things that can be manipulated – or at least interpreted – to achieve a desired end.

The gulf is well illustrated by exit polls over the last few elections. Obama won 92 percent of Democratic voters and just six percent of Republicans in 2012. Four years earlier, he won 89 percent of Democrats and nine percent of Republicans. In 2004, George W. Bush claimed 93 percent of the Republican vote and 11 percent of the Democratic vote. …

Combine the extreme partisanship with a series of politically motivated re-drawings of Congressional district lines over the past few decades and you get two political parties who are largely preaching to their own base – with almost zero political motivation to do anything else. The ends of the political spectrum grow more populated, the middle less so. And nothing gets done – and people lose faith that government can do anything. (Just eight percent of people in the new CNN poll expressed a “great deal” of confidence in the people who run our government.)

The situation is impossible, so of course Cillizza says Obama needs to fix it right now:

Obama needs to find a way to speak to both Americas in a way he hasn’t done so far in his presidency. Economic stimulus and health care – the two big accomplishments of his first term – passed on partisan lines. The attempt to change gun laws in his second term failed largely on those same lines.

Obama’s rapid ascent up the political ladder was defined by bridging what were thought to be unbridgeable gaps. The question now is whether there is a ladder big enough to bridge the divide between our two opposing political Americas.

That question has already been answered. The divorce was approved long ago and now it’s just dividing up the stuff, and as for that, Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer and host of Behind the News covered that back in 2010:

The bourgeoisie launched a successful war on a troublesome working class in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That assault – wage-cutting, speedup, deregulation, outsourcing, union-busting, cutbacks in the welfare state, all the familiar stuff gathered under the name of neoliberalism – created a problem for a system dependent on high levels of mass consumption both to maintain aggregate demand and to secure its political legitimacy. Why put up with the volatility and tsurris [Yiddish for trouble or agitation] of American life if there’s no promise of plentiful gadgetry and upward mobility? So the answer was to counter the downdraft of falling wages with rising borrowing, via credit cards and mortgages. That model seemed to hit a wall in the recent economic crisis, but there’s no real recognition of that fact, and no new model for accumulation.

What we got instead, according to Paul Buchheit, is our current Ayn Ryan economy:

Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” fantasizes a world in which anti-government citizens reject taxes and regulations, and “stop the motor” by withdrawing themselves from the system of production. In a perverse twist on the writer’s theme the prediction is coming true. But instead of productive people rejecting taxes, rejected taxes are shutting down productive people.

Perhaps Ayn Rand never anticipated the impact of unregulated greed on a productive middle class. Perhaps she never understood the fairness of tax money for public research and infrastructure and security, all of which have contributed to the success of big business. She must have known about the inequality of the pre-Depression years. But she couldn’t have foreseen the concurrent rise in technology and globalization that allowed inequality to surge again, more quickly, in a manner that threatens to put the greediest offenders out of our reach.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy suggests that average working people are “takers.” In reality, those in the best position to make money take all they can get, with no scruples about their working-class victims, because taking, in the minds of the rich, serves as a model for success.

Consider the facts:

In the past 20 years, corporate profits have quadrupled while the corporate tax percent has dropped by half. The payroll tax, paid by workers, has doubled.

In effect, corporations have decided to let middle-class workers pay for national investments that have largely benefited businesses over the years. The greater part of basic research, especially for technology and health care, has been conducted with government money. Even today 60% of university research is government-supported. Corporations use highways and shipping lanes and airports to ship their products, the FAA and TSA and Coast Guard and Department of Transportation to safeguard them, a nationwide energy grid to power their factories, and communications towers and satellites to conduct online business.

Yet as corporate profits surge and taxes plummet, our infrastructure is deteriorating. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $3.63 trillion is needed over the next seven years to make the necessary repairs.

This is followed by a lot of tax data and ends with no real Ayn Rand hero in sight:

Only 3 percent of the CEOs, upper management, and financial professionals were entrepreneurs in 2005, even though they made up about 60 percent of the richest 0.1% of Americans. A recent study found that less than 1 percent of all entrepreneurs came from very rich or very poor backgrounds. Job creators come from the middle class.

So if the super-rich are not holding the world on their shoulders, what do they do with their money? According to both MarketWatch and economist Edward Wolff, over 90 percent of the assets owned by millionaires are held in a combination of low-risk investments (bonds and cash), personal business accounts, the stock market, and real estate.

They’re divorced from the rest of us, and from everyone else. But then this American marriage, between total individual freedom and community effort for the common good, was never going to work. The differences, never really explained, were absolutely irreconcilable from the start. So the divorce finally happened when Obama was elected the first time, and now with these scandals that aren’t really major scandals at all, we’ve come to the division of community property, where it always gets ugly. The next few years won’t be fun.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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