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What’s Wrong With Our Government

As James Joyner noted this morning, a new Gallup poll finds that a record number of Americans are dissatisfied with the manner in which the nation is being governed. Inevitably, this is likely to lead to a number of deeply concerned thought pieces about why this happened and what it means. Even before this poll came out, both Politico and National Journal had published another version of the “What’s Wrong With Congress?” article, each coming to their own conclusions. Coincidentally, CNN is out with just such a piece this morning by David Frum, who argues that one of the chief problems in politics today is the manner in which it has come to resemble a Parliamentary system:

What’s happening before our eyes is that the US congressional system is adopting the attitudes of a Westminster-style parliamentary system.

In a parliamentary system, “the duty of an opposition is to oppose” (in the famous words of Benjamin Disraeli). The opposition uses every trick and technique to thwart and defeat the government; the government uses all the powers of a parliamentary majority to overwhelm the opposition. (To quote Disraeli again: “a majority is always better than the best repartee.”)

Then, at regular intervals, the two sides switch roles.

In the American system, there is no “government” and no “opposition.” Who would lead such a “government”? President Obama? Or the man in command of the majority in the lower House — Prime Minister John Boehner?

In a system built around an administration and a bicameral Congress, everybody is part of the government — and the government only functions if there exists a certain baseline spirit of cooperation between the mutually indispensable parts.

That spirit of cooperation has tended to vanish in recent years. Back in 1986, Democratic leaders quashed those in their party who wished to try impeach Ronald Reagan over Iran-Contra. But as the Cold War ended, the party struggle intensified. The shock of the economic crisis since 2008 has made things worse still: desperate times lead to desperate politics.

As a contrast to the way we have become accustomed to working today, Frum offers the contrast of the 1981 Reagan Tax cuts. A centerpiece of Reagan’s campaign, these cuts were deeply opposed by the Democratic leadership at the time and yet they became law largely intact. Not only, Frum notes, did Tip O’Neill let the tax cuts come to a vote in the House of Representatives, 48 Democrats who broke ranks on the key procedural vote on the bill and voted with the GOP suffered no real political consequences from their party. Had that happened under the rules in effect in Washington now, the House Democrats would have refused to schedule a vote on the President’s tax bill, developed their own alternative, and jammed it through on a party line vote. In the Senate, the 46 members of the Democratic caucus would have used the filibuster to block the Senate from acting on the bill at all. And we would have been at a logjam. Yes, the Economic Recovery Act of 1981 passed in large part due to Ronald Reagan’s ability to communicate his message and prompt action by the public, but if he had been forced to operate under the same rules as those that exist today even he would have been hamstrung in getting his agenda through.

As Frum notes, though, Reagan and O’Neill, and to a large extent the people who led Congress up until fairly recently, operated under a different set of rules:

Under the old rules, there were certain things that political parties did not do — even though theoretically they could. If one party controlled the Senate and another party controlled the presidency, the Senate party did not reject all the president’s nominees. The party that controlled the House did not refuse to schedule votes on the president’s budgets. Individual senators did not use secret holds to sway national policy. The filibuster was reserved for rare circumstances — not as a routine 60-vote requirement on every Senate vote.

Someone who suggested operating under such rules today would be called a “RINO” by Republicans, and accused of capitulating to Republicans by Democrats. Things have changed since the days of Reagan and O”Neill, though. As Frum notes, Members of Congress have less in common with each other than they used (military service was, for a long time, a common bond among legislators that crossed party lines, uniting Senators like Bob Dole and Daniel Inouye, for example). There were fewer sources of news and information so Americans tended to hear the same things, even if they disagreed with each other what they meant. And, perhaps, most importantly, the nation was not nearly as polarized politically:

Americans intermingled more with people of different points of view. Bill Bishop points out in his important book, “The Big Sort,” in the very close presidential election of 1976, only 26% of Americans lived in a county that went for Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter by a margin of 20 points or more. In the also close presidential election of 2004, almost 50% of Americans lived in a county that voted by more than 20 points for either George W. Bush or John Kerry.

Perhaps above all: the long prosperity of the postwar years lubricated the system with enough resources that just about everybody could get some of what they wanted: more spending, moderate taxes, reasonable borrowing, strong national defense.

Now instead we have a country that is spatially polarized, that gets its information from highly partisan media, and that confronts the worst recession and the darkest financial outlook since the 1930s.

The result is pretty easy to figure out. The plethora of news and information sources means that Americans can pick and choose where they get their news from. Conservatives tend to gravitate toward Fox News, talk radio, and conservative sites on the Internet, while liberals can be found watching MSNBC and reading the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. Instead of talking to each other, Americans are talking at each other and repeating the talking points they hear all day. Someone on the left believes the Tea Party is racist because that’s what Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow have told them. Someone on the right believes Barack Obama wants to turn America into a bastion of European socialism because that’s what Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have told them. The result is that both sides tend to end up electing people who adhere to the extremes of their parties and, as Frum said, seem to look at themselves as the Parliamentary opposition even though we have a government that is ill-suited to such a role.

Say what one might about Frum, but this strikes me as pretty plausible explanation of what’s happened to our system, and it indicates that fixing it is going to involve more than just kicking out one set of bums and voting in a new set. In the end, the people that sit in Congress are a reflection of the people who put them there and if Congress has become more polarized, it’s because the American public has become more polarized. It’s not longer enough to just disagree with someone, in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere you have to question their sanity, their intelligence, their loyalty, or their motives. Is it any surprise that an environment like that create the kind of full-throated opposition we see in Congress today?

In a Parliamentary system, full throated opposition works out just fine, because all the power of the government is in the hands of the majority party. As long as the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition stays together in Great Britain, for example, there’s very little that Labour can do to block Parliament from acting. The main purpose of the opposition is to stand as an alternative to the government and to be prepared to take over should they become the majority. This kind of opposition doesn’t work so well in our system of government, though, which presumes some level of cooperation between the branches even if they are controlled by opposing power. That doesn’t mean that Republicans should roll over and give the President whatever he wants, or vice versa. It does mean, however, that something like the rules that were in existence at the time of the Reagan years should be what governs the relationship. Otherwise, we end up with a situation like the one  we have today where even simple things like passing a budget or Continuing Resolution, or raising the debt ceiling, become impossible.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    That all works on a mechanistic level, but it doesn’t really explain the parallel shift in worldview. In the early 80’s we had both a crest of American liberalism and the fall of true communism. People bound the two, and the American left sank with international socialism. It would have been a correct adjustment if we’d only turned a deaf ear from then on to the true socialists, but that’s not what happened. Instead, starting in the 80’s, we’ve seen a movement to roll back established American institutions, things that were part and parcel of our 20th century success. I mean, Social Security and Medicare. They were there all through the roaring advancement of American wealth and power … but they’ve targets now, in what I still think is an aftershock of the fall of communism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  2. Moosebreath says:

    I think Frum misses in his analysis by ignoring the Bush the Younger Presidency. The Democrats when they held the Senate (in 2001-2002) and both houses (in 2007-2008) did not play these games. There was no holding the debt ceiling hostage. They did not refuse to bring significant legislation to a vote, even when it contained poison pills for the Democrats. They did not seek to impeach Bush or Cheney, even with significant justification.

    Moreover, unlike a parliamentary system, the minority in the Senate has significant control when they hang together. There is nothing like the filibuster or anonymous holds which prevented Obama from passing much of his agenda and getting many appointments filled in 2009-10, in spite of having the largest Senate majority since the ’70’s and a large House majority.

    I think this is typical Frumian pox on both houses rhetoric.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 3

  3. john personna says:

    @Moosebreath:

    As we can see in the charts I linked in the other thread, the Dems did step up filibuster, though not to the degree which followed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I think there are any number of factors behind the change. The stakes are higher than ever before, for one thing.

    I think that another factor is the decline in collegiality in the practice of law. The adversarial system has been taken to extremes and the greatest responsibility of today’s attorneys are not as officers of the court but as advocates determined to win.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. john personna says:

    lol, who the heck down-checks facts which are accurate?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  6. Hey Norm says:

    “… Someone on the left believes the Tea Party is racist because that’s what Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow have told them. Someone on the right believes Barack Obama wants to turn America into a bastion of European socialism because that’s what Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have told them…”

    Talk about simplistic nonsense.
    The Tea Party is racist. Look at the crap Perry is taking because of a reasonable stand on immigration. Then there’s the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, and Birtherism. Do these things really only exist only because Ed Shultz and Rachel Maddow talk about them?
    Since Obama became President we have been adding Private Sector jobs while shedding Public Sector jobs. Corporate profits are at all-time highs. The individual mandate in the PPACA is Republican policy. The Banks were not nationalized when many were calling for it…instead risk was nationalized and reward remained privatized. How is any of this Socialism? Except that Hannity and Limbaugh and Bachmann say it is?

    “…The result is that both sides tend to end up electing people who adhere to the extremes of their parties…”

    Except Obama is governing from the center at minimum, and probably right-of-center. So there goes that idea.

    This is just more of the same tired tit-for-tat pox-on-both-your-houses crap that pretends to be critical analysis today.

    What you are really talking about, and don’t seem to have the balls to confront, is the massive structural shift from the Republican Party of Eisenhower, or even Reagan, to the Tea Party Totalitarianism of Bachmann.

    Yes – Reagan got his tax cuts passed intact. Then he got his tax increases as well. Reagan, in spite of suffering from alzheimers, was sane. Today’s so-called republicans are not. Their main domestic policy is to abolish Medicare in order to slash historically low taxes even lower. Where is the Democratic policy initiative that mirrors such a hyper-partisan approach to governing?

    If any of you missed the link John Personna provided this weekend I urge you to read it:
    http://www.truth-out.org/goodbye-all-reflections-gop-operative-who-left-cult/1314907779

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 4

  7. john personna says:

    The votes are funny. Sometimes they make sense, and sometimes there are just random haters.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 4

  8. Nikki says:

    @Hey Norm: I wish I could give your comment many more upticks. As long as we are going to embrace the “both sides do it” bull, our Congress will continue to operate in this manner we claim to abhor. The truth is that the Republican party is as far to the right as it can go and still lay claim to democracy; the next step is fascism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 4

  9. Steve Verdon says:

    @john personna:

    Probably because if you read the numerical table it provides a rather different view of the numbers.

    Specifically the 110th Congress (2007 – 2008) where the data suggests that there were 61 filibusters. During that time the Senate was 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats and 2 Independents. So the idea that the use of the filibuster skyrocketed under the Republicans is a bit dubious here, unless I’m misreading the data you linked too. Ideally it would be nice to see each instance of filibustering and who was doing it. The article you link too does not provide that information.

    Also, this article at wikipedia provides a different take on the number of cloture votes as well.

    In the 2007-08 session of Congress, there were 112 cloture votes[22] and some have used this number to argue an increase in the number of filibusters occurring in recent times. However, the Senate leadership has increasingly utilized cloture as a routine tool to manage the flow of business, even in the absence of any apparent filibuster. For these reasons, the presence or absence of cloture attempts cannot be taken as a reliable guide to the presence or absence of a filibuster. Inasmuch as filibustering does not depend on the use of any specific rules, whether a filibuster is present is always a matter of judgment.[24]

    So it isn’t necessarily the facts, it maybe the interpretation provided in the article which you seem quite sympathetic too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  10. reid says:

    The GOP has been taken over by far-right, absolutist ideologues, that’s what’s wrong. It’s a generation of people raised on Rush and Fox News. They don’t want to govern, they just know that government and liberals are always bad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  11. john personna says:

    @Steve Verdon:

    During that time the Senate was 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats and 2 Independents. So the idea that the use of the filibuster skyrocketed under the Republicans is a bit dubious here, unless I’m misreading the data you linked to.

    Funny, because I said:

    As we can see in the charts I linked in the other thread, the Dems did step up filibuster, though not to the degree which followed.

    “Silent downgrade” didn’t improve my knowledge, and as far as I can tell, you just reinforced what I said.

    Crazy.

    Now I’ve looked for numbers current to date but can’t find them. If anyone could show that 2008 was the peak or something, that would be new data. But another table ending at 2008 doesn’t do that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  12. john personna says:

    From the page Steve links:

    “The Senate Republicans of the 111th Congress again broke the record for the number of filibusters in a session, passing 100 cloture votes in the first eleven months.[30] In March 2010, freshman senator Al Franken attacked the majority of the filibusters—some on matters which later passed with little controversy—as a “perversion of the filibuster”.[31]“

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  13. Hey Norm says:

    @ JP…
    Looks like the haters are hating on your comment regarding haters.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  14. john personna says:

    @Hey Norm:

    It does seem like more than a little passive aggression.

    It would be different if my reporting, that filibusters rose under the Democrats, but more under the Republicans, was false.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  15. Hey Norm says:

    @ JP…
    I’m sure in their eyes it is false.
    I mean…when you consider some of the myths they readily admit believing…what’s one more little one?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  16. Boyd says:

    @john personna: I didn’t start it, but it was too good an opportunity to tease you, so I jumped on that bandwagon.

    I’ll stop now, but I confess to a lot of giggling this morning.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. mattb says:

    @john personna:
    Perhaps the more striking chart is to look at judicial nominee approval rates:
    http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/07/judicial_confirmations.html/print.html

    One of the common refrains about the GWB years is that the Democrats blocked all of this nominees. However, looking at percentages of success, he got more through that Clinton and — at least with district judges — his father.

    Then check out what happens when we look at Obama’s percentages. Almost a 50% drop in approval percentages across all categories.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. john personna says:

    @Boyd:

    I was actually counting some of it being humor in action. I’m pleased to hear that confirmed. It’s a better part of human nature.

    (On the darker part, it becomes a bit of a microcosm of what Doug was talking about up top.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. Or the simpler answer is that we are having ideologically coherent (at least 5 days a week) parties that don’t have cross-cutting issues (mainly race) to create cleavages on salient dimensions. One of those parties have a bunch of strategiests who take a perverse delight in reading Poli-Sci 101 tracts for basic electoral strategy and applying those basic insights against norms that had acted as hard constraints. And that party can get away with it because their core ideological base is significantly larger than the other party.

    Nahhh— can’t be structual or systemic, has to be personal and due to not enough beers being consumed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. Steve Verdon says:

    @Nikki:

    Hmmm a fascism reference, how long until a Hitler/Nazi reference?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  21. Steve Verdon says:

    Dang it, I guess I did it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. mattb says:

    @Steve Verdon:

    Specifically the 110th Congress (2007 – 2008) where the data suggests that there were 61 filibusters. During that time the Senate was 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats and 2 Independents. So the idea that the use of the filibuster skyrocketed under the Republicans is a bit dubious here, unless I’m misreading the data you linked too.

    Note that the 2 independents (Sanders and Lieberman — as that was the year he ran as an independent) both caucused with the Dems, functionally making it a Democratic Majority.

    The 110th Congress was also the session in which the Democrats took back the House and Pelosi became speaker. So we can assume that the majority of legislation coming to the House was “pro-democratic.” So while I’ve yet to find a quick breakout, its seems a good guess that the majority of the those filibusters were to block Democratic Bills.

    Further 110 also was the year we see GW issue vetos #2-8.

    Source:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/110th_United_States_Congress

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  23. Steve Verdon says:

    @john personna:

    61 vs what was it…70 is not a huge leap.

    “Silent downgrade” didn’t improve my knowledge, and as far as I can tell, you just reinforced what I said.

    I was pointing out that your interpretation of the data (and that of the article) is questionable…not exactly support, IMO.

    This article references a UCLA political science professor who says there were 52 filibusters in the 110th Congress, which is below the 61 shown in your link. I think it is fair to say that equating cloture votes to filibustering activity is probably not optimal and is biased upwards. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an increasing trend to the use of the filibuster though.

    This article suggests that the 110th was (possibly) a peak in cloture/filibustering.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. Steve Verdon says:

    @mattb:

    Lieberman did caucus with the Democrats, but he has often sided with the Republicans. The Democrat advantage was pretty slim. Plus, there is the use of cloture for things other than a filibuster. So assuming things is probably not a good idea.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. bandit says:

    The Tea Party is racist.

    Take a look in the mirror. Wanting the law enforced or opposing a shrine where thousands were murdered in a religion’s name or opposing an idiot president isn’t racist. Stop projecting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 10

  26. jan says:

    Ironically today’s social progressives seem to cast stones at conservatives, calling them evil fascists. However, indicting a group with the label of ‘fascist’ can be misleading, if you don’t really comprehend the history or defining principles of fascism.

    From conservative columnist’s Jonah’s Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism — The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning:

    fascism can be distilled down to this: It is a totalitarian movement that empowers an omnipotent government to control every nook and cranny of political, economic, social, and private life – generally in the name of “the public good.” Its leadership is commonly spearheaded by a powerful, charismatic, even deified figure who is viewed as uniquely capable – along with his hand-picked advisers – of leading his nation to new-found or restored greatness. Its economics are collectivist, socialist and redistributionist – supremely hostile to free-market capitalism and wealth inequalities. And it tends to promote and exploit the grievances of “the common man,” portraying society as the theater of a ceaseless conflict – a class war – between oppressor and oppressed, victimizer and victim. Consequently, identity politics are central to fascism.

    Social progressivism is one in the same as the above description, with conservative doctrine being completely at the other end of the political spectrum believing in: small government, individualism, private property rights, free-market capitalism, non-redistribution of wealth, and so on.

    As has been detailed in Jim Powell’s book, FDR’s Folly, one of FDR’s most influential advisers and a key member of his ‘brain trust,’ Rexford Tugwell, was also an admirer of Mussolini. Upon visiting Italy he commented, ““I find Italy doing many of the things which seem to me necessary…. Mussolini certainly has the same people opposed to him as FDR has.” Also, journalist, J.T. Flynn, a well known anti-FDR muckraker of the 1930’s, looking ahead saw that American fascism could very well evolve into, “a very genteel and dainty and pleasant form of fascism which cannot be called fascism at all because it will be so virtuous and polite.” Such speculation has now become reality, as we have today’s social progressives who have completely turned the table of the definition of “fascist,” by calling conservatives what they themselves really are. Or, as, Goldberg adroitly puts it, ““Progressivism was a sister movement of fascism, and today’s liberalism is the daughter of Progressivism.”

    Lastly, as Goldberg brings up in his book:

    American progressives, for the most part, did not disavow fascism until the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust became manifest during World War II. After the war, those progressives who had praised Mussolini and Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s had no choice but to dissociate themselves from fascism. Accordingly, leftist intellectuals redefined fascism as ‘right-wing’ and projected their own sins onto conservatives, even as they continued to borrow heavily from fascist and pre-fascist thought.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 4 Thumb down 16

  27. mantis says:

    Jan’s trotting out Liberal Fascism! Priceless.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 2

  28. MBunge says:

    @jan: “From conservative columnist’s Jonah’s Goldberg’s book”

    Goldberg is an idiot who has essentially admitted his book is nothing more than an exercise in “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces of me and sticks to you.”

    Secondly, what Frum and others like Matt Yglesias overlook is that unwritten rules like the kind that allowed Reagan and Tip O’Neill to get things done also exist in parliamentary systems. For pete’s sake, unwritten rules make up a big part of what Britain has in place of a written constitution.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2

  29. john personna says:

    @Steve Verdon:

    The New Republic claims this:

    In the historic 111th Congress, we finally saw the triumph of the complete 60 vote Senate. Nothing passed without 60 votes (and, because minority Senators often fully exerted their rights under Senate rules, many things did not pass despite having more than 60 votes because Senate floor time is scarce). It’s important to realize the context for this development: the filibuster is not Constitutionally mandated, and it has not been employed on most routine legislation and nominations until very recently.

    If that is true(?), it kind of makes vote counts meaningless. Once you are at 100%, you are at 100%, regardless of whether that is 60 or 70.

    If true, it kind of drives the “broken” meme that Frum and others are pushing in today’s news.

    Now what happened with the January vote on filibuster, and what did it achieve?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  30. slimslowslider says:

    Bahahah yes! Jan quotes Liberal Fascism! Too good to be true!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  31. Hey Norm says:

    @ Jan…
    Jonah Goldberg is the person who first took Obama out of context to start the BIG LIE that the President was apologizing for the country to or Allies. There was a Post about that on this site last week if you need to review. Jonah Goldberg is one of the totalitarian propogandists that have helped create situation being discussed here. He is not any kind of solution…he is a big part of THE PROBLEM.
    If you are not capable of having an independent thought, then you really need to start to understand the ideological leanings of the hyper-partisan commentators that you take your opinions from.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2

  32. mattb says:

    @Steve Verdon:

    Plus, there is the use of cloture for things other than a filibuster.

    Slight correction: cloture can only be applied in relation to filibusters. It’s just that there are multiple forms of filibuster AND multiple cloture votes can take place during the same bill. It can also be per-emptively invoked. That’s why you cannot do a 1:1 (source: Richard S. Beth, What We Don’t Know About Filibusters)

    But I think you miss the primary point of the above post. Lieberman, last I checked, still voted with Dems the majority of times and (outside of defense issues) on the majority of big votes. Slim majority or not, I think its fair to say that the Republicans were the minority party that year.

    But, even if we go with the idea that it was effectively a 50/50 split, the fact that the House had shifted firmly Democrat changes the dynamic and the context of legislative environment has the Legislation that is reaching the Senate for deliberation has changed.

    From that perspective, I don’t see the objection to viewing the Republicans as effectively the Minority Part.

    Also, that UCLA Poli Scientist definitely acknowledges the continual growth in the number of filibusters (both threatened and executed):
    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/12/the_right_of_the_filibuster_an.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  33. Stan says:

    @jan: “American progressives, for the most part, did not disavow fascism until the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust became manifest during World War II. After the war, those progressives who had praised Mussolini and Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s had no choice but to dissociate themselves from fascism. ”

    This is unadulterated bullshit. The main reason many progressives, particularly Jews, backed left wing parties during the 30’s was their feeling that only the far left was truly anti-fascist. I’m old enough to have known a lot of people who were communists or left-wing socialists during the 30’s, among them several cousins of mine, an uncle, and both my in-laws, and unless they were all lying, their political positions sprung out of their fear of Hitler.

    For an honest account of this period, read The American Communist Party by Howe and Coser, Sidney Hook’s autobiography, or, if you prefer novels rather than reporting, the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 2

  34. Brandon Butler says:

    Doug, as a liberal-minded person, I have to say that I think you and David Frum are absolutely right.

    I’ve actually thought and spoken as to this before. The parties are behaving like Parliamentary bodies. This is not inherently a bad thing: in fact it could be argued that it’s a NATURAL thing, since Parliament was not, like the American system, designed at one time for a specific function. It just came about the way it has bits at a time. The American system was built on the best working theories at the time, which have done service for the first two or so centuries, but are starting to break down with new realities because of the specific design.

    Parliament works for a number of reasons. First, apart from the court, the lower house is really the ONLY power. The Senate no longer plays a role. The Queen (Executive) is, rightly, ignored. These types of checks and balances are simply cumbersome in that system is not required. This is because, apart from the courts (which are always necessary), all the checks and balances are built into the lower house itself.

    For instance: American parties follow a cycle with overlapping terms of office. In order to reflect new realities, this MUST change. You can’t have parties behaving like Westminster with them always guaranteed that the party will survive the next election. Parliament works because a party can be, literally, DESTROYED in a bad cycle. They might rule the roost for 4 years without much question, but at the risk of no longer existing in that fifth year.

    Also, the executive is unnecessary. This means that technically there is not much more respect due to the PM than anyone else: he’s just another member of his party who that party has decided can rule. But that’s entirely dependent on the party. That same party can yank the PM at any point if they don’t like him, and put someone else in.

    This sometimes results in no-confidence measures, which is another check and balance: if things are not working out for whatever reason, the party in question could literally lose power at almost any time, give or take a month. Even in majorities, if the majority splits with itself, it can lose power. There is no rule, nor should there be, that any government lease is guaranteed: it’s just understood that after 4 years you call an election. If things go bad enough, even a majority could not make it to that 4 years.

    So, instead of a diffusion of power, the idea is a centralization of power, but much easier means for that power to be regularly toppled. An inherently unstable tyranny, if you will.

    The American system needs broad, sweeping changes to reflect this. Congressional terms of office have to be synchronized. Power needs to be syphoned off the executive. The Senate should be phased out. The courts, perhaps, should be given a little more power or remain unchanged, and should be as independent as possible from Congress. Also, the parties must stop messing with the underlying bureaucracy and allow certain functions of the government to remain apolitical.

    Both parties must be governed by the constant threat of irrelevance, and that threat must be real.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  35. jan says:

    @MBunge:

    Goldberg is an idiot who has essentially admitted his book is nothing more than an exercise in “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces of me and sticks to you.”

    The main problem you have with Goldberg is that he is a conservative, and writes from a right-of-center POV. Having said that, his political leanings should not discredit worthy observations, nor validate him being called an “idiot,” by people such as yourself.

    Very similar to left-of-center columnists, such as Jonathan Chait, who writes for the New Republic, the New Yorker etc., Goldberg has a distringuished background. His book, “Liberal Fascism”, was #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers List. And, his writing contributions can be seen in many top publications, including: The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, The Public Interest, The Wilson Quarterly, The Weekly Standard, The New York Post, and Slate. The Los Angeles Times added Goldberg to its editorial lineup in 2005.

    The flurry of snide remarks, from a few of you, again just indicates how when you have non-substantial rebukes the only commentary that remains is of the sophomoric, and definitely hyper-partisan kind. Your own words say it all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 15

  36. CB says:

    @jan:

    The main problem you have with Goldberg is that he is a conservative, and writes from a right-of-center POV.

    no, i dont think hes an idiot because hes ‘center right’ (as you dubiously describe him), i think he is an idiot because he has demonstrated time and again that he is…an idiot. hes a partisan hack. period.

    you decry the misuse of the term fascism by pointing to a book whose sole purpose is to bash liberals by…wait for it…completely misusing and misrepresenting fascism. that is ridiculous.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 1

  37. CB says:

    maybe, though, this points to a matter of perception. when the government is expected to be both an all powerful safety net AND an essentially weak enterprise by wide and immensely different swaths of the electorate, how can government be seen as anything but dysfunctional? how do you bring everyone back to the middle?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  38. Brandon Butler says:

    The comments here are getting silly.

    Is the Tea Party Racist? Are Liberals elitist?

    Maybe. Maybe not. It’s all beside the point. Guess what, people: there’s ALWAYS been racists and elitists around. At some point in your life, you yourself have probably had racist sentiments. You have probably had elitist sentiments. Maybe you saw them in yourself and corrected yourself, maybe not. Point is: we’re all human. It’s not a simple black and white.

    The point of Frum’s essay isn’t who said what about who’s Mom, or who started throwing the water balloons first. That sort of question only matters when you can trace it all back, which clearly we can’t here. The point is regardless of how it started, this is where things stand now. And these are the institutional issues that cause the frustration.

    Left wing or right wing policy in this case is completely beside the point. It’s not a left or right issue. It’s a question of setting up the proper boundaries for the country to continue to function while these debates are going on. Do you like gay marriage or do you hate it? Well it doesn’t exactly matter if the government can’t function, does it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  39. john personna says:

    @CB:

    an all powerful safety net

    Up until the 60’s or 70’s the homeless could be institutionalized an cared for. That was a “powerful” safety net indeed. It’s long gone.

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  40. CB says:

    @john personna:

    that whole post came out as word salad. i think i had an idea in there somewhere, but i pretty effectively murdered it. i demand a delete option!

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  41. john personna says:

    @CB:

    That’s ok. It got me thinking.

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  42. Hey Norm says:

    @ Jan…

    “…The main problem you have with Goldberg is that he is a conservative, and writes from a right-of-center POV…”

    Again…your skewed perspective is affecting your relative view of things. Goldberg is an ultra-far right wing-nut. Obama is governing from the center…probably the center-right if you really analized it. But you are such an extremeist that it looks like the left to you.
    You need to gain a little self-knowledge.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  43. WR says:

    @jan: The reason no one here is wasting their time arguing the “substance” of the idiot Goldberg book is that real historians have already torn it apart point by point. It’s a tissue of lies, deliberate misunderstandings and obvious mistakes. You can easily find any of these reviews with a Google search.

    But you won’t. Because the entire purpose of this book is to allow simple minded Republicans to shout “liberals are fascists — and now I can prove it!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2

  44. john personna says:

    @jan: @Hey Norm:

    It’s been a while since I’ve taken the test. Today I am a (slightly)left ibertarian:

    Economic Left/Right: -0.25
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -2.72

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  45. Hey Norm says:

    @ JP…
    Hard to take that test very seriously…but having said that:
    Economic Left/Right: +0.27
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.18

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  46. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    The main problem you have with Goldberg is that he is a conservative, and writes from a right-of-center POV. Having said that, his political leanings should not discredit worthy observations, nor validate him being called an “idiot,” by people such as yourself.

    No. The main problem he probably has with Goldberg is that the guy charged head-on and without any in-depth knowledge into a very difficult topic and proceeded to cherry-pick definitions until he found a narrative he liked, ignoring any contrary evidence. He is not a scholar, he is a propagandist.

    Here we see again the damage the anti-scientific mindset does to the conservative cause. Apparently in the party that once had minds like Burke and Eliot, today a NYT bestseller and a syndicated column is apparently enough to be considered an expert on completely diverse (and difficult) topics by the political right.

    “Fascism” is really a grab-bag of different movements. We can confidently say that modern fascism began after WWI in Italy. From there on there is not even a firm consensus what other movements can be considered “fascist”. The exact definition and defining attributes have been discussed ad nauseam since the 1920s!

    This, of course, makes it exceedingly easy for Goldbergh to pick and match elements of completely different movements and periods until he has the result he desires. The problem is that he ignores all evidence that does not fit his preferred narrative. He doesn’t study “fascism”. He studies contemporary American politics and then essentially casts a Goodwin on the opposing viewpoint.

    Just to give two examples: Fascism does not see society in a “class war”. On the contrary, one of the core tenets of Fascism is a class-spanning national unity that transcends class barriers for the greater cause. This is one of the reasons why the first organisations fascism aggressively destroyed were in every single case the socialist and communist parties that prioritized pan-national solidarity based on class instead of intra-national unity based on nationality (or later race).

    Of course one can argue that “a greater cause” is a defining element of liberalism. And one can also argue that this is bad. But one cannot simply ignore the fact that the greater cause of liberalism is a completely different greater cause than that of Fasiscm. Thus “it’s like Fascism” is not a valid argument. It’s a cop-out by someone who has failed to make his argument in a more coherent way who now resorts to historical name-calling. This is simply history fraud in the service of partisan sniping.

    It’s also – if not exactly wrong – then misleading to call Fascisms economics model “collectivist” and “redistributionist”. Fascism aimed at attaining nationalist goals by leveraging private property. While it sees property in service to the nation, it does not appropriate private property directly. Instead it aims at a (lopsided) alliance between the one-party political sphere and the oligarchical organized private sphere.

    When the modern man hears “collectivist” and “redistributionist” he thinks “property is going to be taken away to be given to others”. That’s not what fascism is about. Fascism actually empowers the “capitalist” in the Marxian sense. As long as the capital toes the party line on national goals it is free to keep the profits for itself. Fascism will even help by cracking down on “anti-national class warfare”, breaking strikes and destroying unions. Property is neither seized nor redistributed – it’s directed in its expansion and limited in its freedom. In fact, modern defence spending is much more “fascist” in this sense than the welfare state ever could be (fascism strives for “national strength, not justice or general welfare).

    Bad enough from a liberalist point of view (see: “The road to serfdom”), but not what Goldberg suggests when he draws parallels to the liberal welfare state. Once again: selective editing for partisan point-scoring.

    To give you an idea of the breadth of the discussion, Lyons defined fascism as:

    Fascism is a form of extreme right-wing ideology that celebrates the nation or the race as an organic community transcending all other loyalties. It emphasizes a myth of national or racial rebirth after a period of decline or destruction. To this end, fascism calls for a “spiritual revolution” against signs of moral decay such as individualism and materialism, and seeks to purge “alien” forces and groups that threaten the organic community. Fascism tends to celebrate masculinity, youth, mystical unity, and the regenerative power of violence.

    Still partisan but much more legit than Goldbergs ideas. Doesn’t sound like modern liberalism now, does it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2

  47. Hey Norm says:

    @ Ebenezer…
    Nicely put.
    Interesting that Obama is at once a Socialist, a Fascist, and a Muslim – which I always assume is code for Radical Islamist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  48. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    That’s cute. Even though some questions are somewhat strange (“Controlling inflation is more important than controlling unemployment.” Huh? That depends on the level of inflation dude. It’s economics and therefore a question of trade-off, not allegiance :P) – pretty much what I expected:

    Economic Left/Right: -3.75
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.72

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  49. Hey Norm says:

    @ Jan…
    Please name one sovereign nation…just one…that has ever adhered rigorously and successfully to small government, free-market capitalism, and non-redistribution of wealth.
    Thanks.

    Dammit – I can’t wait. You won’t be able to name one. Government grows as populations grow and demand more services. The trend since the beginning of Government is growth. It’s inevitable, unless the nation is failing. There has never, ever, been free-market capitalism. From the very beginning of this nation in particular the Government has played a major role in the economy both in terms of investment and regulation. Wealth is always re-distributed…it is never, ever, not re-distributed.

    Please try to grasp even just the basics on which you choose to Jan-tificate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  50. Ben Wolf says:

    @Jan

    Here’s a scholarly review of Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism from an actual historian.

    Jonah Goldberg tells us he wrote this book to get even.  The liberals started it by “insist[ing] that conservatism has connections with fascism” (p.  22).  Conservatives “sit dumbfounded by the nastiness of the slander” (p.  1).   “The left wields the term fascism like a cudgel” (p.  3).   So Jonah Goldberg has decided it is time to turn the tables and show that “the liberal closet has its own skeletons” (p.  22).   After years of being “called a fascist and a Nazi by smug, liberal know-nothings” he decides that “responding to this slander is a point of personal privilege” (p.  392). 

    Feeling oneself a victim is wonderfully liberating.  Anything goes.  So Jonah Goldberg pulls out all the stops to show that fascism “is not a phenomenon of the right at all.  It is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left” (p.  7).  The reader perceives at once that Goldberg likes to put things into rigid boxes: right and left, conservative and liberal, fascist and non-fascist.  He doesn’t leave room for such complexities as convergences, middle grounds, or evolution over time.  Thus Father Coughlin was always a man of the left, and so was Mussolini (Giacomo Matteotti or the Rosselli brothers, leaders of the Italian left whom Mussolini had assassinated, would have been scandalized by this view).  The very mention of a “Third Way” puts one instantly into the fascist box.

    I suggest you read the rest:
    http://hnn.us/articles/122231.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  51. Ben Wolf says:

    @Ebenezer Arvigenius: Nicely written Ebenezer. You have a good, flowing writing style. You also save me the headache of writing in response to Jan myself.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  52. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    @Ben Wolf

    Many thanks. Since English is not my primary language comments like that are, of course, immensely gratifying :D.

    It’s really depressing to what degree the modern right has adopted post-modern relativism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  53. mattb says:

    Ebenezer Arvigenius:

    The main problem he probably has with Goldberg is that the guy charged head-on and without any in-depth knowledge into a very difficult topic and proceeded to cherry-pick definitions until he found a narrative he liked, ignoring any contrary evidence. He is not a scholar, he is a propagandist. … This, of course, makes it exceedingly easy for Goldberg to pick and match elements of completely different movements and periods until he has the result he desires. The problem is that he ignores all evidence that does not fit his preferred narrative

    You beat me to it. Brilliantly stated. Jan’s citing Goldberg’s #1 NYT Bestseller(*) speaks exactly to his greatest talent: writing for an existing audience of people like Jan who, primed by Right Wing Media, are looking for “facts” to justify their preconceived notions (and allow them to summarily ignore those who offer alternate points — note of course that these folks exist on both side of the aisles).

    (*) – Jan remember that James Frey shares that same honor of having a #1 NYT Non-Fiction Bestseller… we know how accurate his account was too.

    E.A., I’m particularly happy you brought up the following point:

    On the contrary, one of the core tenets of Fascism is a class-spanning national unity that transcends class barriers for the greater cause. This is one of the reasons why the first organizations fascism aggressively destroyed were in every single case the socialist and communist parties that prioritized pan-national solidarity based on class instead of intra-national unity based on nationality (or later race).

    This is an exceptionally critical part of Facism that I remember is non-existent in Goldberg’s account (along with the importance of an ongoing war-machine to Fascists). It’s not difficult to see why:

    It emphasizes a myth of national or racial rebirth after a period of decline or destruction.

    “What to call our movement to stop the disappearance of real America and return to the faith of our founders and strict constitutionalism. If only we could think of a legendary event — one tied to the founding of our nation, in which brave patriots fought an oppressive foreign power — that we could name ourselves after…”

    To this end, fascism calls for a “spiritual revolution” against signs of moral decay such as individualism and materialism, and seeks to purge “alien” forces and groups that threaten the organic community.

    It should be noted that the individualism needs to be understood as more akin to the notions of 60’s radicals — acceptance of all people and lifestyles and a rejection of national service and overarching social institutions.

    Alien should be read as any form of identifiable other — especially those from outside of the country.

    Fascism tends to celebrate masculinity, youth, mystical unity, and the regenerative power of violence.

    Don’t think this needs to be unpacked.

    Working from this quote its easy to see why Goldberg conviently forgot to include these texts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  54. mattb says:

    @Ebenezer Arvigenius:

    Since English is not my primary language comments like that are, of course, immensely gratifying :D.@

    Crud… really?!

    God, I only speak English and wish I could get thoughts out as elegantly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  55. grumpy realist says:

    Jan–

    That you think that Jonah Goldberg’s piece of ghastliness is a scholarly work says all I need to know about you. The very first piece of research is Go To The Original Sources. Jonah has admitted he doesn’t know German and doesn’t know Italian. So how much real research do you think he has done considering he can’t even read the seminal material in the area?! Nor can he read most of the immense analysis which has been produced by historians in Europe, most of whom do NOT publish in English.

    This is like an obscure Russian not knowing English or French and then claiming to produce the most correct analysis of the American Revolution. Not bloody likely, it ain’t.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  56. steve says:

    @Jan- Quoiting Goldberg is like quoting Michael Moore. It just isnt done if you want to be taken seriously.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  57. reid says:

    @grumpy realist: Plus, he’s a blatant partisan turd, not an unbiased scholar.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  58. Boyd says:

    @reid: Goldberg or Moore?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  59. WR says:

    @Ebenezer Arvigenius: I’m stunned to hear English isn’t your primary language. What is, if I may ask?

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  60. And, perhaps, most importantly, the nation was not nearly as polarized politically:

    The key point here. The real title should be not “What’s wrong with our government?”, but “What’s wrong with our citizenry?” As much as people on both sides like to pretend that the government is really controlled by sinister conspiratorial forces, the fact is our government is incredibly reflective of the country and incredibly responsive to it. It’s screwed up because we’re by and large screwed up.

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  61. john personna says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Re. Political Compass

    Hard to take that test very seriously…but having said that:

    I don’t know. I’m kind of open to the idea that questions that seem weird, or uncomfortable, might give them a useful way to distinguish test-takers.

    And I really posted it because Jan seemed to find Goldberg reasonable. Her results, relative to ours, might illustrate the difference in perspective.

    I don’t suppose we could get Goldberg to take the test ;-)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  62. mattb says:

    @john personna:
    First time I took the test (thanks for the link) and I ended up midpoint left/libertain:
    Economic Left/Right: -6.00
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.77

    I’d be interested in how the questions were weighted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  63. Hey Norm says:

    @ JP….
    Maybe one of us should take it for her…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  64. jan says:

    @john personna:

    I already took the Political Compass test another time, at another site.

    Economics Lt/Rt: 1.38
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -2.10

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  65. jan says:

    Parting words for the evening:

    Tao for the Day… 81 of 81 written by Lao-tzu

    True words aren’t eloquent;
    eloquent words aren’t true.
    Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
    men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  66. Hey Norm says:

    @ Jan…
    You should read that Tao for the Day.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  67. mantis says:

    A brilliant riposte by jan!

    Oh, and jan, you neglected to include the next line from Daodejing:

    The Master has no possessions. The more he does for others, the happier he is. The more he gives to others, the wealthier he is.

    Soshulism! Just sayin…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  68. slimslowslider says:

    Just when I think Jan can’t get any more awesome, she ignores everything directed at her and posts something about how she is wise and doesn’t need to prove her point. There is no way this is a real person.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  69. mattb says:

    @slimslowslider: She’s done this a few time actually… the first, and possibly the best, was when she linked to a Gallup poll and then claimed that it said exactly the opposite of what she thought it said. When we pointed that out, she doubled down. Then, when we dove into the numbers ever further and showed that it REALLY said the opposite, she just disappeared.

    Similar things have happened on the AGW threads.

    You have to understand that it takes a lot of work to stay willfully ignorant… opps, I mean an “open minded” independent who used to be a democrat but now “leans” conservative (by leaning I mean reproduces verbatim RW media talking points, primarily links to conservative blogs, and quotes primarily from partisan publications like “Liberal Fascism”).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  70. Rob in CT says:

    Economic Left/Right: -1.50
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.92

    It’s been a while since I took that test. I can’t remember my old scores, but I’d wager I’ve moved slightly (very slightly) left economically and stayed the same socially. The -1.50 economic score includes a “disagree” answer to the protectionism question, but frankly I’ve gone wobbly on that one. So I might be more like -2.

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  71. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    @WR:

    I’m German (which makes it slightly … grating to be lectured about fascism by a talk show circuit celebrity whose academic record consists mainly of research for newspaper opinion columns).

    @Jan:

    Sorry, that’s too mystical for me (after all he applies this to knowledge of the Tao, not wordly knowledge). I side with Chesterton on this:

    ‘Ah, yes, these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?’

    ‘No,’ said the other priest; ‘reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason.’

    [...]

    But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest.’

    ‘What?’ asked the thief, almost gaping.

    ‘You attacked reason,’ said Father Brown. ‘It’s bad theology.’

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  72. mattb says:

    @Ebenezer Arvigenius: Which “Father Brown” is that from?

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  73. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    @mattb: It’s (to my knowledge) the first Father Brown story: “The Blue Cross” in the collection “The Innocence of Father Brown”.

    Available on-line here: http://fiction.eserver.org/short/innocence/bluecross.html

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  74. matt says:

    Economic Left/Right: -5.62
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.88

    I’m roughly equal to Ghandi..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  75. mattb says:

    thnx

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