Sunday, November 9, 2014

What the Election Means - Part II

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on……………….."

Nina and Narric at Americans for the Arts have put together a good summary of the results of the election on the new Congress and on the Statehouses around the country.  Click here.

So what is the reality?

Despite the inevitable clarion calls for unity, for working together to do the people's business, and despite dire warnings on both sides if the other side doesn't go along with what they want, the very likely reality is not much will change in Washington.  The proffering of olive branches notwithstanding, there isn't likely to be any real rapprochement in the Capitol.  To put it mildly, these people really don't like each other.  The civility that was once the hallmark of the Senate is long gone, replaced by enmity, suspicion, distrust and out and out disdain for each other.  The winning side always calls for change and to get things done.  The losers invariably play tit for tat from the last go round.  In all probability gridlock will continue to ensue and each side will try to thwart the priorities of the other.

And despite the Republican victories, their's is hardly the party of consensus and unity.  Speaker Boehner in the House, and presumptive Majority Leader in the Senate McConnell will both have their hands full trying, against the odds, to rally their membership to put on a united front.  The far right will put pressure on the moderates and vice versa.  And everybody will have their eyes on the 2016 election which will see more Republican Senate seats up for grabs that are in play - meaning their candidates are vulnerable just as the Democrats were vulnerable this cycle.  And, on the other side of the aisle, the Democrats are hardly united either, with deep south and rural Democrats leaning more conservatively, while those from the eastern and western seaboards and the bigger states and cities more liberal.  Neither side is of a single mind, and all have their own agendas based on how they assess their own constituencies.  And all have 2016 on their minds.  The American public is fickle and not in a good mood, and the next two years will not likely change that reality.

So we have a bunch of different and competing priorities pitted against each other.  The leadership will try to effect compromise, but if the recent past is any indication, compromise is not in the air.  There will be pressure from the Tea Party Republican Presidential hopefuls, and from the moderates in districts that are decidedly anti Tea Party.  On the Democratic side, there are already cries that the Democrats should hold the line on key issues.   This is a response to the tactic of many losing candidates to table anything controversial in last week's election - which tactic failed miserably.  There are many in the Democratic party who want big ideas to hold sway, and to engage the Republicans at every turn - rather than capitulating by trying to be more Republican than the Republicans.  The failure to defend what was a pretty good record over the past four years is seen as one of the reasons the Democrats couldn't get their base of Millennial and Latino voters to the polls.  John Stewart called the Democrats 'chickenshit'' and a lot of the rank and file agree.  Expect Elizabeth Warren Democrats to demand the party fight back against the Republicans.  And expect the Tea Party right wing to demand the same of the Republicans.

The public votes for change in the hope real change will come.  Not likely.  What we can expect are entrenched positions.  And while the Republicans control both houses, they don't have the magic 60 in the Senate that would allow them to foreclose the Democrats from using all kinds of maneuvers to keep the Republicans from steamrolling a legislative agenda (assuming they could agree on one).  They will take over the committee chairs and with that comes certain power of what bills to move forward.

And then there is the Presidential veto threat and the specter that he will use his Executive Order power to advance his priorities (like immigration reform).  The Republicans may pass all kinds of legislation, and the President may veto much of it.  The big issues - immigration, certain economic policies, foreign policy, the oil pipeline, Obamacare and more will be the principal focus of the infighting.  But there are scores of other issues - the arts included - that may or may not get lost in the shuffle.  Political warfare will surface relatively quickly once the honeymoon is over - if indeed there is any honeymoon at all.

So it's impossible to know for certain where the arts will come out.  At one extreme, there may be cries to defund and eliminate the Endowment; at the other extreme, will be to leave it alone and continue its funding at the current level.  The same may be true for other issues important to us, including education policy.   The arts are symbolic to some, meaningless to others.   My own sense is that we will again come under initial attack, and at the very least, there will be a push to seriously cut the Endowment's budget.  The same may be true in a few states too.  Time will tell.

Michael Rushton, in his blog For What's It's Worth, commented last week on my blog about the election results.  Click here.  Here is what he opined:

"But public funding for the arts, and the budgets of the NEA and of state arts agencies, are not the main policies that affect the arts. The Affordable Care Act has a much larger impact on artists and the country they live and work in. Education policy, including Common Core and policies for evaluating school progress and teacher effectiveness, and unequal school budgets, has an extremely important effect on the long run health of culture in the US, far more than the budgets of granting agencies. And that’s just a beginning. I support sound and stable funding for federal and state arts agencies. But in this election, they are not the major issues facing the future of the arts.

While I agree with Professor Rushton that the issues of health care, education and many others are critically important to the future of the arts, I disagree that the funding mechanism (let alone the existence) of the NEA is not equally important to our future.  I suppose what anyone thinks is important to our future depends on whom you are talking to, and what they do.  But in the big picture, any attack on the arts, like the attacks on the funding level, or even very existence of the Endowment, go towards marginalizing and diminishing the value of the arts in the public mindset.  And that marginalization or devaluation impacts everything that might be important to our future, including our success in education policy that frames the arts, and in health care for artists.

I also note that I didn't specifically suggest people write their letter in support of the Endowment or its funding at this time.  We haven't yet been attacked on that front.  Let's not anticipate it and fuel the notion.  I merely suggested people write in support of the value of the arts, and it is that value that might just help to position the arts better at the tables for other issues.

Moreover, I don't see it as an either / or situation.  We don't have to pick between things that are important to our future.  We don't have to choose between those that think this priority is important and those that think another priority is more important.  The classic strategy of divide and conquer is to get us to do exactly that.  In large part, those choices are a matter of opinion.  We ought not to get sucked into the trap of exhalting one priority over another.  For those organizations and the work they do that depends in part on funding from the Endowment, I suspect nothing is more important to their future and the work they do, than threats to the NEA's funding level or its existence.  Included in that subset are a number of smaller, rural state agencies who depend in large part on Endowment funding to survive, along with a huge number of performing arts organizations and much of the arts education programming in the country - and the tens of thousands of people supported by that work.

What the election means in a negative sense for the arts is the elevation of a number of those whose position is that the arts should not be supported by government.  That, I categorically oppose, and think its in all of our interests to oppose.  I certainly don't want to give them ammunition of the sort that suggests the Endowment is not a priority issue for the arts, or that its' existence and health does not have a major impact on the arts in America.  Why do that?  I can easily see a Congressman or Senator quoting Professor Rushton that funding the Endowment is not one of the "main policies that affect the arts", and using that to legitimize opposition to funding the Endowment.  Will they be taking Rushton's quote out of context?  Of course, that's what they do.  If I were a Senator and wanted (for whatever reason) to eliminate the Endowment, I would quote a noted professor involved in the arts to that effect.  Why give our opponents that kind of ammunition?

As I said last week, I believe the prudent thing for the arts to do is to immediately begin to rekindle old, and form new, relationships with elected legislators in Congress and the states, and begin to lobby those officials as to the value of the arts (to local constituents) on all levels - economic, cultural, educational and otherwise.  This is not, in my opinion, the time to be timid and quiet and to move slowly.  Those relationships are essential to whatever you think are the most important priorities for the arts.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit