The Broken American Polity

Senator Ben Nelson said recently that many Republicans have yet to accept the presidential election of 2008, let alone the re-election of 2012. I see no real evidence to the contrary. Whether this is due to race, or culture, or fanaticism (they regarded Georges_DantonBill Clinton as illegitimate as well) I do not pretend to know. We know also, of course, that the corrupt gerrymandering of House districts allows those with power to rig the system so they can retain power – even when they have no broad public support. And we know that the whitest, rightest part of the Republican base controls the primaries and is determined to destroy any member of Congress who votes against the religion of permanent insolvency – which is what "no-revenue-increases-ever" means as we near a demographic wave of older folks. What a perverse cause: a party dedicated above all to the permanent, chronic insolvency of the American government. The cuts they need without any new revenues would simply end the welfare state in America and would never be tolerated by the middle classes in practice. And tax reform will only get us so far.

This, then, remains a country in a Cold Civil War – not far off the geographical contours of the first, but with the inheritors of the Confederacy concentrated in the South and now also with serious pockets of absolutists in the more rural parts of the country as a whole. Maybe it was precisely because Barack Obama campaigned against partisan polarization that the GOP has decided to ratchet it up. The right-wing media-industrial complex – from Limbaugh to Hannity to Drudge – earns money from conflict, not compromise. And these lucrative media institutions have taken over from what's left of the conservative intelligentsia (three decades ago a flourishing, growing and open group, now shrinking fast into calcified, partisan hacks).

None of this is news to Dish readers. We've been covering this Republican meltdown for years. It feels like I've been watching it for much of my adult life. And it's true that if they simply retain total unity and resist any compromise on anything, they can help destroy this country's economy – and the world's. The Constitution gives them that power, even though the founders warned precisely against the kind of purism and factionalism that now threatens the stability of the entire country. Since their ideology is all about creative destruction ("Il nous faut de l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace!" is the fanatic Bill Kristol's rallying cry, proudly citing Georges Danton, a fellow revolutionary), what do they have to lose by wreaking havoc?

We can hope that public opinion exerts its pressure. But when the popular will is exactly what the gerrymandering is supposed to inhibit, there are limits to controlling this rogue faction, refusing to accept the legitimacy of a re-elected president or the urgency of compromise for the sake of the country as a whole. All to protect the very wealthy and successful from providing an ounce of extra sacrifice in tackling the debt, even as they demand everyone else, especially the poor and vulnerable, take a hit.

Jeff Weintraub has some typically sober reflections on all this:

Is it purely a coincidence that I just happened to run across the following passage from J.R.R. Tolkien?  A film based on The Hobbit is coming out, and at one point the review in the New Yorker quotes directly from Tolkien's book.  When the dragon Smaug discovers that one cup has been removed from his vast golden hoard, how does he respond?  He falls into

"the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but never used or wanted."

It is one thing to sacrifice the general good on the altar of ideological purism, but to do it solely so that the very rich can keep their toys? I'm reminded of Robert Bolt's words put in the mouth of Thomas More (my confirmation saint), upbraiding his betrayer:

Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?