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Back during the Monica Lewinski scandal, when the Republicans tried to make Clinton’s Oval Office shenanigans seem like the end of Western civilization, I had an interesting conversation with a right-leaning corporate executive about the relationship (or lack thereof) between character and political leadership.

The conversation went something like this:

Corporate Executive: The President has disgraced himself. He must resign.

Me: I don’t see it that way.

C.E.: The President has lost his moral authority.

Me: What do you mean when you use the phrase “moral authority”?

C.E.: A leader must be judged a good person. If he is not judged to be good as an individual, then what he advocates is not seen to be good. People won’t follow someone they believe is flawed either ethically or morally.

Me: Really? Suppose I am lost in the woods and come across two people. One is a sex offender who knows the woods. The other is a bona fide saint, but he has no idea about the woods. Should I follow the clueless saint through the woods just because he’s a good guy? I think that would be a classic fallacy in reasoning. I think they called it the fallacy of ad hominem.

C.E.: You can’t trust someone who lacks scruples, even if he has greater knowledge or experience. This is not a matter of logic. It’s a matter of judgment and prudence.

Me: Judgment? I don’t even understand this issue as being about leading and following. Compared to others—for example, Republicans—Bill Clinton and I share certain policy goals. We don’t agree on everything, but I agree with his objectives more than with those of Republicans. So I want him to be in power to advance these policies that we share. I really don’t care if he has sex with his interns. It’s irrelevant to me. I don’t care about his personal morals. I care about what he wants to do in his official capacity. The difference between you and me is that I never suffered under some delusion that Bill Clinton was a moral leader of the people.

C.E.: I’m disappointed to hear you say that. Good leadership depends on moral virtue. A man who is good will make good judgments. A bad one will make bad judgments and do bad things.

Me: Political leaders are not moral role models as far as I’m concerned. If I want a moral role model, I will look for one. Like maybe Jesus, or Gandhi. Or someone in my family whom I think led a good life. Politicians are there to do a job: advance policies. Their job is not to serve as my role model. Try to imagine how much pride, egocentrism, narcissism and irrational confidence is required to be an effective politician. I find the idea that any one of them could serve as a role model to be ridiculous. The only questions for me are these: First, do I agree with the policies that they are advancing, and second, do they have the required political skills? In my experience, people who are morally pure usually don’t have very strong political skills. This is because they tend to see everything in black and white and are often uncompromising. That renders them ineffective in making policy, because that process usually requires bargaining, dealmaking, pragmatism and compromise. I never expected Bill Clinton to be a moral role model. In fact, he was a known philanderer even before he stepped into the White House.

The conversation went on this vein without resolution. And while I put up a good fight, I retained a certain doubt about my own argument. I didn't believe that political leaders were or could be role models. But did I really think they should not be held to higher standard?

As the parade of morally and ethically challenged politicians has continued throughout the intervening election cycles, I have often remembered this conversation. We can think of Clinton as the elder statesman of moral shortcomings, but now there are so many other fallen “role models” to consider: Spitzer, Edwards, Weiner, Sanford, Petraeus... the list goes on and on. There are probably so many more that we don’t know about. And within our body politic, there is as much debate as ever about the relevance of personal character to leadership.

I explore the issue here and take a stand: We need to stop worrying about the immoral behavior of political leaders except to the extent that it relates directly to their official functions.

Should political leaders be condemned for sexually immoral but not illegal behavior?

35%6 votes
52%9 votes
11%2 votes

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Tue Jan 01, 2013 at 06:58 PM PST

On Negotiating With Terrorists

by DavidMCastro

Question: What is a terrorist?

Answer: Someone who is willing to harm or threaten an innocent bystander in order to achieve an objective.

We can think of the innocent person as being a hostage. We also know that terrorists are willing to harm themselves in an attack.

A central approach to negotiating with terrorists involves getting them to release their hostages. When there are no hostages left, the terrorists have lost most of their leverage.

The Republicans have been holding three main hostages: the middle class, the poor, and the entire US economy. Several times they have been willing to maim or kill the hostages in order to get what they want: destroying the welfare state, protecting the rich, protecting military contractors, whatever.

Here is one frame to understand what is happening now. Obama has simply been trying to release two of the hostages: the middle class and the poor. By protecting unemployment, middle class tax relief, education tax credits, etc., he has stopped the Republicans from threatening to injure these hostages in the next round of negotiations. He has also taken away some the explosives that the Republicans had. Now they cannot use these weapons to force the economy into recession through across the board tax increases. As we know, the wealthy could weather this recession quite well. For the rest of us, it is major threat.

In this sense, the President has gained critical leverage: The only hostage left now is the entire US economy itself (through refusal to raise the debt ceiling) and it involves a Republican suicide attack. They have to take down the whole ship; they can't just threaten to throw the second class citizens overboard while they sit comfortably on the first deck.

In this sense, I believe Obama has gained critical ground in this round of negotiations. Of course we know that the sequester remains to be negotiated as part of debt ceiling negotiations. But remember, military expenditures are tied up in the process. It is as if the Democrats had chained the loved ones of the Republicans (the military industrial complex) with the very hostages that the Republicans want to take down (social spending). Their fates are now inextricably linked. And the only thing that the Republicans have left as leverage is to sink the entire ship. Yes, they are in their first class cabins. But guess what? Seen the Titanic lately? When the whole boat goes down, the wealthy drown along with underlings.

Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. So damn it, let's do something different.
By now we can say conclusively that the Romney "bounce" from his debate performance was directly attributable to uninformed voters failing to comprehend the gusher of lies spewing from his mouth. Yes, Obama was stunned and should have been better on the spot. But we need stronger medicine than the President can deliver on his best day. Romney's epic level of mendacity compounded with the significant complexity of the issue set will defy sound bite counter-punches, no matter how pithy and cogent.

Here is an "outside of the box" proposal.

The candidates have a debate. MSNBC (for example) then rebroadcasts a delayed tape of the debate, stopping the video whenever required to allow a panel of experts to correct the record after each substantive exchange. Then the network declares a winner not on the basis of stylistic performance (who looked or sounded better) but on the basis of factual accuracy and logical coherence. FOX can do the same thing in their own "up is down," "black is white," Bizarro World universe. Who cares? They will declare Romney the winner and say that he is truthful no matter what comes out of his mouth. I would put Maddow up against Hannity any day of the week. [Actually there's a better idea, have Maddow debate Hannity.]

If the media were organized, they could actually do this analysis contemporaneously with the broadcast. The game-changing effect would be to stop the tape and have someone like Maddow or O'Donnell or Ezra Klein actually freeze the candidate and set the record straight almost in real time. An uninformed voter might actually appreciate this. It would be like listening to the debates with a trusted professor who could explain to you when the man in the suit is serving you up a crock of shit. Or like going to buy a used car with your brother who is a good mechanic. ("The paint job is nice but the engine is a piece of crap.") Did any of you pause your TV during the debate to yell at the screen? I did. Imagine what Ed Shultz could have done with Romney in real time.

Even if they were to critique Obama as well, the effect could be mesmerizing. Imagine someone really well informed who could footnote Obama's responses.

You could argue that the networks have done this piecemeal already after the debates. What I am saying is slightly different in a critical way: make it into an independent news special: "Informed Analysis of the Presidential Debate." And get someone with credibility to moderate the analysis.

If nearly 70 million people will watch the debate, I bet millions would watch such comprehensive analysis with a cogent journalistic review grounded in reality. Some might even wait and watch the analysis instead of the debate--like watching football highlights that include slow motion replays. I know I would watch rather such an analysis as it would be a significantly less painful experience. It would be satisfying to hear someone blow Romney's lies out of the water in real time using a pause button. This could completely destroy the strategy on the Right of packing more lies into each sentence than anyone can unpack in an equal amount of time: we not only educate the public on the issues, we educate them in real time about what a flagrant liar Mr. Romney really is.

The debates could be transformed from an idiot-voter-brainwashing project into a real educational experience for the public, changed from a "who is better at shooting off his mouth" contest into something that actually makes voters more intelligent. After a few doses of that, the Republicans would have to retreat completely from any debate format. Their viability as a party requires voters to be distracted, uninformed and uncritical.

Just saying. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, right? So let's do something completely different instead. Let's change the format to show what Obama really has (integrity), instead of what he lacks (Romney's willingness to lie indiscriminately in order to win).


The election of presidents in our country truly seems to involve descent into mass psychosis.

Psychosis: A loss of contact with reality that usually includes: False beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions); Seeing or hearing things that aren't there (hallucinations).
Our latest national psychotic episode involves the narrative that Obama's and Romney's fortunes rest on their debate performances.  If this is true, it says more about our collective insanity as a people than it does about our politics. Whether someone is good at looking and sounding confident and firing pointed verbal barbs at others manifestly should have nothing to do with whether or not we vote for him.

Personally, I do not care a whit if Obama, Romney, Biden or Ryan is a good debater. And I can't understand why anyone would care.


The president occupies a position of extreme political power with the ability to impede the creation of federal laws, to control the behavior of the civilian and military forces, influence the interpretation of the constitution, and to spend unimaginable amounts of money in the purported interest of Americans and others around the globe. To anyone who is not a complete and total moron, there really are only two relevant questions:

1) Do I share the president's policy goals?

2) Is the president sufficiently competent to put them into practice?

In the case of Obama, the answer to both questions is (on balance) yes. At this point, in the case of Obama, the answer is based on experience. In the case of Romney the answer to both questions is clearly no. This answer is based on the simple fact that Romney is a demonstrated liar. The only question that remains about Romney is who, in fact, is he lying to? Is his intention to screw the democrats or the members of his own party? I will take a pass on finding out.

The election really is that simple. Debate performance is completely irrelevant. With the amount of messaging already expended, no one in America today should need to see a debate to know who to vote for. If Romney and Ryan were the greatest debaters on earth brimming with "confidence" and verbal showmanship, who gives a rat's ass? Should anyone buy a load of horseshit because the horseshit salesman is really polished, well-informed and confident? This is the "narrative" that we have to advance between now and election day. Focus on the issues and encourage voters to just skip everything else.

Boiling it down, this is our point:

Do you want to go back to war around the globe and scale up military expenditures, diverting resources from rebuilding America?

Do you want to weaken Social Security and Medicare and programs that serve communities and the poor?

Do you want to further enrich those with most through additional tax cuts?

Do you want further escalation of the deficit and the debt to serve the military-industrial complex and the wealthy while the rest of the nation suffers?

Do you want to roll back regulations on critical industries, including the financial sector?

Do you want to risk another complete societal meltdown?

And about 50 others...

If the answer to these fundamental questions is "no," then you must vote for Obama, even if he is the shittiest debater on earth, even if Romney were to leave him speechless and weeping at the podium. It just doesn't matter. Only one thing matters: What will this president do when he is elected?

Clarity please.

That is more than a "narrative." That is the simple truth. We have nothing to gain from the debates but more lies and confusion from our opponents.

We don't need Obama to be the inspiring, well-spoken leader of the free world. (And he has already demonstrated that competence anyway.) We just need him to do what he says he will do on those points of policy that matter to most thinking human beings. That will be inspiring enough.

Any other framing is a self-inflicted wound.


Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 08:44 AM PDT

They live, they love and they die.

by DavidMCastro

Clarity often requires some distance, some reflection. So it is for me with the Democratic National Convention. The contrast with what we saw in Tampa was so profound on so many levels: vision, truth-telling, analysis, character, energy. But as the event recedes there is one critical difference that stands out for me: emotion. There seemed to be exponentially more heart among Democrats. I will never forget when Elizabeth Warren said this:

No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love and they die. And that matters.
The thought itself was powerful, but what will stay with me is the emotional energy that flowed through Warren at that moment, especially on that word: matters. For me, through that word, she seemed to be channeling a profound truth about the difference between Democrats and Republicans: how they value people.

Republicans tell themselves that their supposedly pro-growth, pro-business, pro-"job creator" policies will benefit everyone as all boats magically rise when they "double down on trickle down," as Clinton aptly summarized their platform. But inside they are willing to sacrifice the poor and weak and those who need help to become full participants in productive society. Republicans have a hard view of human nature, willing to throw some overboard to improve the lives of those left in the boat. In Iraq, to serve their bizarre combination of economic, geo-political and neocon policy goals, they were willing to sentence thousands and thousands of individuals to death and untold suffering. I am sure that someone will point to Obama's drone strikes as evidence that he is no better. But in their efficiency surgical drone strikes seem to recognize that even when fighting our most heinous enemies, we should preserve life where possible. Republicans seem to be different. I believe they more often see people as expendable in a just cause. They think of blunt military actions not only as being pragmatic, but also just, and simply part of American hegemony. Does anyone doubt that Bush would have blown up Osama's entire building just because it would have been less risky? In the Republican view, those who die or suffer grievously (as Rumsfeld once said, "stuff happens") must simply have been unworthy or less worthy than those others (i.e., the "job creators") whom the Lord deems worthy of prosperity. For all their talk about prosperity, at the heart of the Republican worldview is a lasting comfort with scarcity for some and inequality for all. In the game of life there will be winners and losers. The strong will survive and thrive while the weak suffer and perish. To Republicans that is justice and natural law.

The Republicans are too easily willing to give up real people in the pursuit of ideological causes.

Warren tapped into an entirely different vein in the human spirit. She quoted Jesus:

One of my favorite passages of scripture is: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Matthew 25:40. The passage teaches about God in each of us, that we are bound to each other and called to act. Not to sit, not to wait, but to act—all of us together.
What is this about? Plainly and simply: empathy. It is the ability to see with the heart that our fortunes and fates are bound together, that as long as one of us suffers, we are all diminished. The experience transcends rationality, reaching toward an emotional truth in which we feel a deep sense of connection with others. It calls forth an effort to build a society based on mutual caring and concern. Let's be bold: it aspires to a society based on love. To the Republicans, the idea of community often seems to stop  at the body politic. The Democrats are able to imagine the state itself as a caring community.

When the Republicans hear this aspiration, they think about dependency and they fear that what binds us together will enslave us to one another. They lack a certain moral courage required to extend the idea of caring to the nation as a whole. At this moment in American history it is a particularly hypocritical posture, because the truth is that the American community of the whole--the Federal government and the Federal Reserve--provided the financial bulwark that kept our overall economic system from utter collapse, thereby preserving the wealth of those in the system who had the most to lose. Now the Republicans want to forget this happened and pretend that those with most don't need anyone else, ever. They want to pretend that the wealthy "built it" and everyone else should grovel and give thanks for their greatness. They want to pretend that a community of caring is a luxury that American society writ large can't afford anymore. But Democrats know that America is better and stronger than that. Democrats know that the very community of the whole that the Republicans now reject is the one that saved them within recent history. Here's how Obama finished his speech:

America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won't promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together. We don't turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories. And we learn from our mistakes. But we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.
This inspired me, mostly because I could hear these words in the context of what Warren had said about people along with the emotion she conveyed, simple but profound:
People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters.

Wed Mar 14, 2012 at 12:29 PM PDT

My Blood Is Boiling

by DavidMCastro

Today in Pennsylvania, our Republican-controlled state legislature passed a voter-ID law designed to disenfranchise democrats. Republicans know that many low-income democrats lack the forms of ID that the law requires. Of course, the Rs want to knock them out so Obama loses Pennsylvania in November.

Jim Crow Jubilee
The concept that the law seeks to prevent voter fraud is an insult to our collective intelligence. It is also a baseless and incendiary indictment of the integrity and character of low-income voters everywhere. As we all know, the model for these voter-suppression laws came out of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think-thank whose founder, Paul Weyrich, explained to a group of religious leaders: "I don't want everybody to vote... our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."

Last year I had to get my son a non-driver's picture ID from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The process took hours and hours even though we had all the required paperwork at hand. Make no mistake: literally thousands and thousands of voters will not be able to meet the requirements to get photo IDs without overcoming tough, time-consuming barriers. The Right is counting on the strong likelihood that many Democrats will just give up. This dagger through the heart of democracy in our state is an outrageous, illegal and unconstitutional abuse of power.The gloves are off and have been for some time. This is how it is now in America: The Right has no interest in policy discussions and convincing people through peaceful dialogue that their candidates have better ideas. Forget about reasoned discourse. Instead they have chosen the politics of naked aggression and brute force. Here's what the Republicans are saying: Hey you, poor people and people of color, we don't like how you vote. So here's what we're going to do. We're going to insult your integrity. We're going to legislatively punch you in the face and knock you out of the ballot box. We're going to erect harsh legal barriers to your civic participation and use the muscle of our government to dominate you and minimize your voice in the political process.

We have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves a serious question. Are we going to lie down and take this??? I say, to hell with that. Below the fold I offer a specific idea about how to fight back. We need to move beyond complaining and demonstrating to strategic action. We need to use this stark injustice to gain momentum.

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Mon Feb 20, 2012 at 09:52 AM PST


by DavidMCastro

Conservative leaders and thinkers are strenously trying to sell the idea that Democrats hate America, hate religion, and are fascists who would like to exterminate disabled people. What is going on out there?

It's a tactic that we've seen before but it's time to name the game from here on. I suggest we call it demonism. I define demonism as the rhetorical ploy of implying or directly stating that your opponent is demonic rather than arguing the underlying points with facts and analysis. The idea is that we know whatever Satan says is wrong. Here is an example.

Democrat: "I'm concerned about the poor."

Republican: "You remind me of Adolf Hitler."

Yes, demonism usually calls for a complete non sequitur. For a recent example, look no further than the contraception issue.

I’ve been talking lately with conservatives (oh, the horror, the horror) about the contraception clash. Many maintain that the flap is not about contraception. No, they insist, it’s about government intrusion on an issue of moral conscience. Rather than debate the underlying health care policy, they want to characterize the situation as a religious war with Obama cast as the demon.

The post below is about two things.

1. Demonstrating that this controversy is about contraception and not about government intrusion on conscience. This is the style of argument that Democrats adopt in the face of demonism. The argument employs common sense and points out that there is generally no basis in reality for accusing anyone other than Hitler of being Hitler. Here's an excellent demonstration from Jon Stewart.

2. Complaining more broadly about the general Republican tactic of demonism: suggesting that if you disagree with them on policy issues then you are evil.

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Tue Nov 08, 2011 at 08:27 AM PST

Money In Time

by DavidMCastro

Have you ever stared at a wad of green currency in your hands thinking, "What the hell is this?"

Or maybe when you were a teenager you took some hallucinogenic drugs and had a deep conversation with a stoned friend about the nature of money in society, at the conclusion of which you both said, "Wow, that is some deep s**t!"

One of the bizarre features of money is its inherent worthlessness as an object. You can't eat it, wear it, live in it or sleep with it, and its not very pretty to look at. And yet... it's as vital to our life as blood. What is it exactly?

Is this a relevant question? I think so. I think questions about the nature of money and what has gone wrong with it are at the root of all the demonstrations and protests around the world.

A few days ago I saw the movie, "In Time," with Justin Timberlake. The film is a provocative, poetic meditation on money and society and what to do about it.  Follow me over the squiggle for some timely philosophical and economic musings that riff from the movie.

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Wed Oct 05, 2011 at 08:15 AM PDT

You Lie!

by DavidMCastro

Remember the Joint Session of Congress when Joe Wilson screamed "YOU LIE" at President Obama after he accurately stated that proposed health insurance reforms wouldn't provide insurance for illegal aliens? Of course you do.

Republicans do this all the time: accuse Democrats of fraud while issuing gushers of nonsense themselves. Progressives must continue to flip the script by refuting the lies and insisting on truth.

Today let's unmask and destroy the Republican lie that lowering tax rates will definitely boost the economy.

Look below the squiggle for stark and interesting evidence that this statement lacks any basis in reality.

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Wed Sep 21, 2011 at 08:20 AM PDT

Mighty Words

by DavidMCastro

"Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart."
Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (V. iii. 108).

Progressives need stronger words.

One of the many irritating things about listening to Republicans is their outrageous use of word frames to mask reality. Inheritance taxes became death taxes. Healthcare reform became Obamacare and the job-killing healthcare law. Rich people became job creators. Lately they are employing the phrase class warfare to describe any effort to increase public revenues. And what about the word entitlements and the phrase ponzi scheme to describe Social Security? Republicans have a focus-group factory that produces this garbage and a group-think culture that gets all their lemming-like leaders to lip sync it in lock step.

Listening to right-wing pundits and politicians spewing this Orwellian rot gives rise to several questions. First, do they really think Americans are that stupid? The answer must be yes, because why else would they repeat the propaganda? Second, are Americans really that stupid? We can surmise that the answer to this question is also yes, because large percentages of the population respond to Republican word frames in opinion polls.

As a result, progressive action becomes mired in unmasking the psychological and policy frames created by bogus Republican language. Instead of affirmatively advocating for what we believe, we begin our case defensively, having to rinse off the mud flung upon our positions. Just this week Obama felt the need (justifiably) to explain that restoring tax rates for millionaires and billionaires to Clinton-boom-era levels is not class warfare. It's absurd.

What can be done?

Two things.

First, we need to explicitly surface and reject the right-wing terms of the debate at every juncture. No politician should be compelled to argue a position using his opponent's concepts and language from the outset. We must question and assault the framing directly. We must attack the right-wing concepts and phrases themselves, reveal them as misrepresentations and reframe them at the debate's outset.

One example would be to refuse to suffer anyone calling Social Security a benefit or an entitlement. Workers have paid their hard-earned wages into a system that has earned a surplus year after year sufficient to fund other government operations with trillions. It isn't a benefit until every sweaty dollar paid in by workers has been repaid to those workers. Until then, it is nothing less giving Americans back their hard-earned property. Let's call it what it is, returning hard-earned wages to the people who earned them, every penny. [Yes I do recognize that it is possible for someone to extract more than they put in, but so what? This happens in businesses across American every day.] It's an insult of the highest order to call it a ponzi scheme or a broken system or to label it as bankrupt. Most of all, it's an insult to our intelligence. Bankrupt systems do not produce trillions of dollars for others to waste. What would you say if your bank told you that your deposits were now considered benefits and they might have to be cut? That's where the debate ought to start. People who call Social Security payments benefits are thieves, how about that for word framing? What do they do to thieves in Texas?

Second, we need to advance a whole new set of stronger progressive words and phrases. Then we need to insist on using this new language.  Below the squiggly, I have some suggestions along with current examples to prompt discussion and creativity. Admittedly, this is not easy work and it needs to continue every day. I hope readers will respond by generating suggestions to strengthen progressive language.

As Edward Bulwer-Lytton said, "The pen is mighter than the sword." Let us bring our pens to the duel and fight like hell for the truth.


Does progressive language need to be stronger?

3%3 votes
11%9 votes
83%67 votes

| 80 votes | Vote | Results

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Tue Sep 13, 2011 at 12:17 PM PDT

The Moment of Painful Truth

by DavidMCastro

Therefore, if the smaller side is stubborn, it becomes the captive of the larger side.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In matters of creative leadership (the kind that brings about societal transformation), there are many paths to failure. The most footworn involves self-deception. On this road, the leader ignores signs that the group’s work is off-course or meeting serious resistance. Rather than swallow the bitter pills of reality, the leader may consort with sycophants and admirers who whisper delusional reinforcing messages: Don’t worry. You are brilliant. Everything will be fine. We are doing the right things. It will all work out in the end. Despite this happy talk, the leader may have a deep intuition that all is not well. A cancer grows, a fire smolders, something rots. A traitor or trap beckons. There is a premonition of doom.

To address such a situation demands strength of character. The painful truth must be surfaced and confronted before it is too late.

The moment of painful truth for the Democratic Party is upon us right now.

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Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 07:03 AM PDT

The Red Pill

by DavidMCastro

You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. - Morpheus

Right-wing rhetoric is one of the most successful projects of our time. We know the numbers. Today 20% of Americans earn about 50% of the nation’s income, compared with the 3.4% earned by the roughly 15% of the population in poverty. Meanwhile the top 1% feast on a whopping 24% of the national paycheck. Playing out these disparities over decades has caused unprecedented concentrations of wealth. 1% of Americans own over 40% of the nation’s assets, compared to the bottom 80% who own a small sliver of the pie, less than 7%.

These inequities of American life are starkly visible. The vast majority of Americans holding the short end of the stick can see clearly how the rich live, especially the unfair advantages they enjoy through virtually unlimited access to capital, education, healthcare, leisure and powerful social networks. If the economy was a pick-up game of basketball, the rich would start with 20 of 21 points and the rules would require competitors to play on their knees.

As we think about the politics of inequality, the accomplishments of conservative rhetoric should impress us as truly audacious. It is no surprise that the 20% of Americans who own 93% of the country would vote for the system that created their spoils. But the Right has managed to convince a substantial portion of the American underclass that our grossly unfair system is just and works to their benefit. This hypnotic feat stands as our most formidable opponent in the next election cycle. How did they do it? Do we really know? Answering this question effectively is the political game changer of our time.

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