Twilight of “the People”

By Bob Litton
When I started this blog, I privately resolved not to use it for political monologues or dialogues. As a retired reporter, I had had my fill of political polemics and wanted to disengage myself from all that. I did not intend to refrain from reading about politics or discussing it in the coffee shops or voting; I just wanted to maintain the purity of my blog site. However, the governing conditions in the United States — my homeland — have become so polarized and, especially at the national level, so dysfunctional that I feel impelled to comment on them here in The Vanity Mirror.

Only two political parties have governed our nation, almost in an alternating four- to eight-year pattern, since the era of Eisenhower. Although their party platforms throughout the decades of the 20th century reflected a bias among Republicans for the business and capitalist class and among Democrats for the working class, their actual legislative products often differed so little that they were depicted in cartoons as Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Helen Keller, the blind liberal activist of the first half of that century, said, “Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” Some members of Congress made careers of their service, became well-known over time to the country’s population, socialized with members of the other party, and thus found compromising on legislation relatively easy.

With the onset of instant communications, more aggressive reporters, and a scandal-hungry populace, the old-style politicians began to lose elections, wither in influence or die. Perhaps that was just as well, but an unintended consequence of it was that a sense of institutional historicity, collegiality and the art (or spirit) of compromise disappeared with them. A whole new class of politicos — some of them firebrands — took over the arena. Now the Democrats, who are mostly remnants or heirs of the old style, are left dumfounded, perplexed and often enough out-maneuvered by the Republicans’ right-wing. For their part, the conservative Republicans — what few there are remaining of the “old school” — have been either radicalized or subdued by the right-wingers, who, in turn, are under the thumb of the ultra-right Tea Party.

The Tea Partiers and their congressional minions often advertise themselves as acting on principles. Now “principle”, as pertinently defined in my Ninth Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, means 1a. a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption; 1b. a rule of code or conduct. The Tea Party’s main “principles” are 1) drastically reduce the federal $13 trillion deficit; 2) eliminate any type of socialized medicine, whether it is Obamacare or some other; 3) eliminate or at least drastically reduce entitlement programs such as Social Security and Food Stamps; 4) do not raise taxation levels, on corporations and the rich especially; 5) outlaw abortion; and 6) repeal all gun control laws. There may be others, and some of the ones listed here might be open for moderation, according to whatever right-winger you talk to; but they are the ones that linger in my mind as being the most frequently touted and strenuously fought for.

The big stumbling block here is that, while asking our young people to fight and die in wars to defend our national “principles” has been tacitly accepted throughout our history, to risk the nation’s economic and social existence for “principles” is a new stanza for the old song — one that most Americans are not willing to sing. Also, “principle”, when understood only in its strictest sense and acted upon only in that sense, does not leave room for compromise. For the Tea Party politicians even to utter the phrase “let’s talk this over and compromise” is the silliest self-contradiction one can imagine. Actually, while I can accept the emotional role of “principles” in our national culture and in our individual lives, I am not sure as yet what their practical role is or can be. And we have always governed ourselves best when we acted pragmatically. Stars can be an aid in navigating a ship, but they cannot turn the helm in such a way as to avoid ice bergs.

Besides those nettling and time-wasting political issues, our nation and the rest of the world face bewildering planet-centered problems, many of which have developed rather suddenly and exponentially. I am speaking here of cultural and religious conflicts; declining food, water and even air resources; the deadly promise of global-warming; and even the devastations caused by invasive species of animals (pythons, lionfish), plants (Russian thistle, salt cedar)  and microbes (swine flu, mad cow disease).

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking was quoted recently as warning us that, if we humans want to continue as a species, we will have to find some place beyond Earth to migrate, for the Earth will not be habitable a thousand years from now. Considering that the nearest supposedly habitable planet (as of last June) is 22 light years away (a light year = 6 trillion miles), it would take some vehicle much more sophisticated than any NASA rocket to unload a living human there — in fact, a time machine. And if a colony of us ever arrived at such a planet we would certainly, due to our congenital folly, spoil it, too.

To even come close to solving these universal problems, we are going to have to redesign our manner of governance so that we will not be wasting months and years arguing about the same special interest issues. The Republicans played a little sleight-of-hand game during the “shutdown” debates in order to prevent its being quickly settled. They changed one of the House Rules in such a way that only the Speaker (John Boehner) or the majority leader (Eric Cantor) could bring a Continuing Resolution on the floor for a vote. The Republican majorities in several states gerrymandered redistricting so that their candidates would have the greater likelihood of winning an election. (In all fairness, I should add that the Democrats have done the same thing in past years.) So, we need to edit House Rules (and no telling how many other procedural elements) to proscribe party fiddling. We need some mechanisms for redistricting that will eliminate party influence. It would be helpful, also, if we had a couple of more viable political parties — by that I mean non-dogmatic, non-special interest parties — but I realize that might lead to even more squabbling. There are many more political steps we need to take to revitalize our democracy, but are the people awake, are the people concerned enough, are the people angry enough to force those changes? And are the necessary tasks clear enough that well-meaning and eager statesmen and stateswomen can work with them? I hope so, but I am doubtful. I am skeptical enough to believe that our nation, as well as the planet, is heading for the twilight.

Please make me eat crow.


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