"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Widening Gyre

I think it's time to realize the insanity of the Tea Party is now a feature, not a bug, of our political system.

Athenae insists it's insanity, and the GOP now has a wild animal loose in the house that it cannot contain. But Mitch McConnell is telling anyone who'll listen that this is how the debt ceiling will be raised from now on; John Boehner brags that he got 98% of what he wanted; and TPM says the Tea Party flat out-worked the Democrats and their supporters in the debt ceiling fight.

Tell me again how the GOP is in trouble after this. Tell me again how they are riding a tiger they can't dismount. And given the lopsided votes on raising the debt ceiling, was there ever really any risk it wouldn't be raised? But might there come a time when there is a risk? Can we afford that, in the name of correcting our political system? The Tea Party says it wants to purge the system even if that means destroying the system. Is it best to counter that with our own insistence on armageddon? If both sides are ruled by mad men, who wins?

It may be we are witnessing the collapse of the system put in place in the late 18th century, or it may be we are seeing that the vaunted Founding Fathers weren't all that wise after all, and when they invented a non-parliamentary system, they bequeathed us a legislature that simply isn't up to the demands and challenges of the 21st century. Think about it: until FDR, Washington wasn't a major power center. Sheep ran on the lawn of the White House when Lincoln lived there. Politicians were badly out of touch with their constituents, and while we are appalled by pictures of legislative bodies decaying into brawls in other countries, no one has yet (to my knowledge) matched the caning on Representative delivered on another in Congress in the 19th century. Indeed, the system itself couldn't stand the strain of the peculiar institution, the hidden wound, the flaw of human slavery that was not only there from the beginning, but that had to be designed into the Constitution itself. The union and the Constitution which created it only survived because Lincoln insisted that it should, and he and several states with him were willing to go to war to make that happen. Since FDR, America has fitfully joined the nations of the world and recognized a central national government is essential to both domestic function and to establishing our place among the nations, and now more than ever our economy is bound up in the commerce of the world.

But we're still operating with an 18th century institution, one designed to limit the ability of anyone to get anything done. And now, after 200+ years of experimenting, someone has finally figured out how to bring the whole structure to a halt.

Grover Norquist pledged, decades ago, to establish a permanent GOP majority, or at least to bend the political will so that there might as well be a permanent GOP majority. Look around; he won. The Tea Party may be tiny, it may be astroturf instead of grassroots, it may simply be an excuse for the GOP to do what donors like the Koch brothers want; but it's working. The vote on the debt ceiling proves there was never any serious threat of default, but the Democrats acted like the crazy people were really crazy enough to go to Armageddon. Richard Nixon called it the "mad man" theory of nuclear deterrence. He knew nuclear war was neither winnable nor even thinkable, but he reasoned that, so long as the USSR didn't know Nixon (or any President) knew that, they wouldn't risk pushing us to the brink, because we might just jump over the edge. The GOP played the same game, and changed forever the way DC does business.

And not in a good way.

So what do we do now? Van Jones wants to organize a group to act as counter-weight to the Tea Party, but if recent history is any indication, that won't work: the Democrats won't embrace it quickly or completely enough (anybody else remember when the Dems "controlled" Congress? It lead to the debacle of the last mid-term elections), a third-party is an impossibility, and even if it works, it will just lead to more grid-lock and more disgust with politics in Washington by the American public. And so more apathy, and so still more Tea Party crazies in office.

I've seen this movie, I know how it comes out. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." The crazies have figured out how to gain control of the system, and they aren't going to give up soon. I don't think we can even vote them out of office. Once changed, the system doesn't snap back to its original form as it rejects the foreign bodies; there are no political anti-bodies to clean up what has happened, no reset button that allows us to purge the last upgrade and start clean from an earlier position.

Welcome to the monkey house.

Addendum: Jim Sleeper turns to Yeats, too (I did it in a moment of weakness) and crafts an argument that disturbs me, if only because it points toward a Madisonian, rather than Jacksonian, view:

Leadership like Lincoln's, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt's, and Harry Truman's is an essential stimulant, but ultimately it's civil-society institutions and mentors -- in the old colleges, in new community colleges and state universities, in immigrant settlement houses, labor unions, inner-city as well as suburban churches, Little Leagues and soccer leagues -- that nurture citizen leaders. Those institutions have to be more than just safety valves for participants' pent-up yearnings and anger. They must be wellsprings, drawing from sources of dignity and faith that states and markets don't supply.

Is any of this still plausible? I've been asking my former students what they think. One, who took my seminar in 2004, became a journalist for a few years, and is now in law school, framed the challenge this way as senior:

"A set of practices, habits, customs and beliefs must be considered basic to the practice of a functioning democracy," he wrote. "The rules of democratic engagement must be inculcated in a republic's citizens.... Unlike the Constitution, though, such subtle understandings and habits cannot be codified. The ethos of a republic is at once its most inscrutable and important attribute."
Hang it all, America, there can be but one ethos! But ethos, and my ethos?

Aye, there's the rub. He's not wrong, you see. But settling on whose ethos is the right one? Well, haven't we had that fight in America for over 200 years? "Ethos" has been used to quell dissent before (see, e.g., King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"), and while I don't like the dissent of the Tea Party crowd, I wonder if this cure isn't worse than the disease.

Anyway, it may not matter, as the GOP seems determined to be its own worst enemy:

In a meeting with editors of the Wall Street Journal, Cantor said Americans must "come to grips with the fact that promises have been made that frankly are not going to be kept for many."

The Republican plan for dealing with the exploding cost of health care is to phase out Medicare and replace it with a system of subsidized private insurance for elderly Americans, starting when people currently 55 and under reach retirement age. "The rest of us have got ample time to try and plan our lives so that we can adjust to reality here when you look at the numbers," Cantor said. "Again the math doesn't lie."

Democrats tend to favor Medicare reforms that enhance efficiency, and curtail ineffective health treatments -- basically for the government, advised by experts, to ration health care rather than to have private insurance companies do it. Eventually, before health care costs overwhelm the budget, one of these two visions will prevail. But the government can buy itself some time if it decides to raise taxes. Cantor says that won't happen as long as Republicans control the House -- even if a powerful new deficit reduction committee reaches a bipartisan agreement that includes some new tax revenue.

"The House is not going to support an increase in taxes," he said.
The solution, of course, will probably be to change the House. Easier than ditching Medicare and Social Security, I can assure you.

And 'round and 'round it goes.....


Blogger June Butler said...

My response in the comments of my blog to a commenter who suggested that change will come only through the ballot box:

...the Democrats and the electorate won't do it at the ballot box without a movement to spur them on. What we need is a leftward movement, which will not be the Democratic Party. The situation will have to get much worse before such a movement gains traction, which may happen more quickly if the Republicans take charge again, which I see as a possibility should the Republicans choose a presidential candidate who is mostly sane and not completely ignorant.

My view of the near future is quite pessimistic.

Movements don't bring immediate results, but, over time, they can make a difference. Or we do nothing but continue to bray.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Movements don't bring immediate results, but, over time, they can make a difference. Or we do nothing but continue to bray.

I agree. And braying about the betrayal of the Democrats or the insanity of the GOP is, IMHO, pointless.

A political reporter on Fresh Air this morning noted that the pattern for the future seems to be a whipsaw between Dems and the GOP running the house, i.e., it will probably change hands every two years in response to the whims/anger/what have you of the voters. Motivation is now all, and as TPM noted, the Tea Party seems to be motivated, the Dems dispirited.

Not voting is not really an option, because it doesn't mean the other side doesn't vote either. But movements will have to change the political culture, not just the political landscape. A change of heart, IOW, not just a change of platforms. And how do we do that, when people base their political participation on how much the politicians motivate them (or don't) to vote?

12:30 PM  
Blogger June Butler said...

But movements will have to change the political culture, not just the political landscape. A change of heart, IOW, not just a change of platforms.

Exactly. I didn't say it would be easy. :-)

I never advocate abstaining from the vote, even when my vote seems fruitless. It's a shameful thing to do, when, even today, people are willing to give their lives for the right to vote.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Exactly. I didn't say it would be easy. :-)


1:47 PM  

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