Letter To European
Friends: Understanding "The Stupid" In U.S. Politics
"Are you Americans totally round the bend? You shut down the government over an argument about a law, and you may go into debt default and throw the world economy into the crapper?" Those opening questions in your letter deserve a thoughtful reply. Short answer to them both: Yes.
Longer answer: Even in the best of times, American politics rarely makes rational sense. But right now is almost the worst of times. From Europe it may appear that you are witnessing recess at a school for naughty, malicious children. While that's true, we need to enlarge the frame of that portrait to get closer to the whole picture and to assign proper blame rather than just accept the mainstream media's false meme that "both sides are equally responsible" for the governmental shutdown and debt crisis.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Enlarging the frame means really enlarging it in order to see what is essentially being ignored these days:
Yes, of course, there are countervailing positive
things happening all over the world, including breakthroughs in
medicine and science and technology that could lead to more
happiness on a massive scale. But I'm afraid that the
gloom-and-doom developments appear to be unstoppable at this
stage of our limited human evolution. Intelligence is in short
supply, with wisdom regarded as a frivolous eccentricity. In the
baldest analysis: humanity may be well and truly f------- and
there seems no way out.
Maybe that's why political leaders, Americans and others, avoid these seemingly intractable problems and prefer to stumble and bumble in the minutiae of narrow-focus political life.
Rather than devote much time here to the daily political twists and turns of who's-on-top, I suggest that what might help you Europeans understand how Americans got to this dangerous political place is a bit of historical context:
Our democratic republic works, on those occasions when it does, on a tacit belief that one key role of government is to pass laws to try to improve the lot of all concerned: rich, poor, middle, various affinity and ethnic groups, etc. etc. The Republican Party, for decades, has asserted its core belief in the proposition that (as Ronald Reagan put it) "…Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." That was a great punch line, but history shows that when Republicans are in power, they tend to govern more or less as usual and at times (see the CheneyBush years) even greatly expand the size and role of the federal government.
TAILS AND DOG-EAT-DOG
But in recent years, with the election of dozens in the mad-dog Tea Party faction, who are rightwing ideological zealots terrorizing their Republican Party hosts into joining them in the realm of "the stupid," the rules have changed. The focus has become less on helping everyone ("capitalism with a human face") and more on greed and selfishness: "I've got mine, Jack; you're on your own." The energized, if politically insane, Teahadist tail now wags the Republican dog. In a move to weaken the Democrats in Congress, the GOP leadership (and the wealthy, manipulative Koch Brothers) helped create this scary Tea Party monster and now don't know how to rein it in as it turns on them.
These self-described Tea Party patriots didn't come to Washington to govern; they came to destroy traditional small-d democratic government and anything even slightly to the left of 1890s laissez faire capitalism; i.e., no rules or regulations on business, low to non-existent taxes, no safety net for the less fortunate, no supervision of the polluters, no strong unions, etc., giving virtually all power over to the wealthy. In short, dog-eat-dog capitalism at its extreme.
Some traditional conservatives in the GOP (somewhat more pragmatic types who sometimes are labeled "moderate" right-wingers) think their party has gone too far into this extreme philosophy, but by and large they bow to the Teahadists. And these Tea Party types, anywhere from 40 to 80 members of Congress, can't be disciplined by the GOP leadership. They don't have to worry a fig about whether they can hang onto their congressional seats, because the Republicans in the various state houses gerrymandered their districts (by re-drawing the boundaries) into Republican safe zones for re-election. How do the Tea extremists frighten more moderate Republicans? By threatening to "primary" those who are not judged pure enough in their hard-right zealotry; to "primary" is to run somebody to the right of the current Republican candidate and get their energized Tea Party electoral base to the polls to elect the new extremist.
For the Teahadists -- largely the old right-wing Birchers, Southern Klan members, militia nuts and others who emerged from the shadows under their new name in the 2010-2012 elections -- chaos and anarchy and a non-functioning government are the goals to work for. They are ecstatic that they've been able to have thrown a monkey-wrench into the gears and ground the big, bad government machine to a halt.
And there's such a deficiency in intelligent,
courageous leadership elsewhere in the Republican Establishment
that it's likely none of this warped power-structure will change
Where did all this start? One could go back to the aftermath of the Civil War, when an entire section of the country -- the Southern Confederacy, whose economic/social/political system rested on the institution of slavery -- felt victimized and humiliated. Their resentment simmered for decades and decades beneath the surface; it would re-appear in Jim Crow social customs and in laws designed to dilute the economic, social and voting power of the African-American population. And the Old South states continue to be the poorest, least-educated, most fundamentalist, ideologically blinkered part of the union in terms of fairness for minorities, women, immigrants, homosexuals. More and more, pro-slavery Confederate flags are flown at GOP rallies, and discredited Confederate concepts -- such as state "nullification" of federal law, secession from the United States, calls for impeachment of the first African-American President -- are discussed as if they were possible solutions to what ails them.
But, much of that post-Civil War behavior appeared as covert discrimination, disguised in legal jargon. To see how the U.S. moved from that more subtle discrimination and backwardness to today's loud, unsubtle politics of hate and destruction and voluntary ignorance, one can point to some more recent examples:
Because of the gerrymandering and illegal disenfranchising of tens of thousands of voters, it's possible for the Republicans to maintain their hold on the House of Representatives for a long time. But the GOP simply can't take back the presidency at least as long as they continue to insult and demean minorities, women, young people, gays, etc.
And, if the Republicans can't capture the White House, nobody else can be allowed to be effective in the presidency. Thus the impeachment of President Clinton, the attempt to destroy President Obama, the thoroughgoing obstructionism of all halfway-liberal policies. The goal has been to bog down the Democrats in constant regressive fights -- made-up scandals, serial disruptions of government every few months, impeachment threats (and, in Clinton's case, actually putting him on trial), so that nothing major can get done under a Democratic administration.
Unless there are major shifts in the body politic, this is a recipe for ongoing nasty gridlock and recklessness, with none of the big issues and problems (global warming, radiation cataclysms, immigration reform, economic failures, jobs creation, etc.) having a chance for solution.
HOPE ON THE HORIZON?
Well, my dear friends, that's one man's somewhat depressive take on our current crazyhouse of politics in the U.S. As you may have noticed, it bears an amazing resemblance to similar political confrontations over the past 50 years or so. Does anything ever change?
Assuming our politicians can fashion a short-term, medium-term and long-term way out of the current morass -- and I don't see that on any horizon -- is there any guarantee that anything will have been learned in the process, so that more time and attention can be devoted to the larger issues that require urgent solutions?
I don't think so, but I would be happy to be proven wrong. Give my regards to your delightful kids, you two. See you in Paris or Berlin in the Spring.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in American politics & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, was a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).
Copyright 2013 by Bernard Weiner.
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