The Structural Impossibility of America

It may be that the whole idea of government by the people, of the people and for the people was based on a misconception about people, even if it seemed like a good idea at the time. And it was quite a time. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen) – from the French Revolution – matched our own Declaration of Independence. There was something in the air. You assume the doctrine of natural rights – everyone, without exception, has the right to do what they want as long as they’re not hurting anyone – and you make it political. You’ve got the “the natural and impresciptible rights of man” to “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression” – and there’d be no more aristocratic privileges like exemptions from taxation, and access to public office would be based on talent, not family history. And citizens obviously had the right to take part in the legislative process. Arbitrary arrests were outlawed. Basically there would be popular sovereignty – no kings and such. Everyone would get together and decide what the rules were and what had to be done. Freedom of speech and press were a given of course – that was necessary to make it all work. But the big new idea was that the only legitimate government was a government established and run by the consent of the governed. Any other form of government was bogus.

This whole notion has been bubbling around for quite some time – from the concept of the social contract as theorized by John Locke and developed by Rousseau and so forth. Who should run things? Why should it be kings, or rich families, or the pope? It was the Enlightenment, after all. The only rational way to set up a government, one that was stable and would last, was to set up a system where everyone bought into what was being done and agreed to the rules, and could meet and change the rules if they didn’t like them. No one got all the goodies and no one got screwed over, and no one got to say my way or the highway. Government was a social contract, and no more than that, on no less. It was all very rational.

But people aren’t rational. They’re full of fears and passions, and as much as they like what government does – basic services and common defense and all the rest – they don’t much like being governed. And they like to be right, and say everyone else is wrong. That’s human nature. There’d be no more kings? Why then, every man is a king!

That was the flaw. You know how people get all defensive. I’m right and you’re wrong, and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise. The first part – thinking you’re right and the other guy is wrong – is necessary for the system to work. You need all sorts of ideas to come up with what everyone agrees to try, even if grudgingly. You want a lively debate. The second part – refusing to concede even an inch – is the fly in the ointment, the spanner in the works, or whatever cliché you’d like. Everyone is not king. No one is. No, you can’t have it your way all the time. We’re all in this together.

And that bugs people. It makes them do the Reagan thing, say that government is never the solution, it’s always the problem, and should disappear as much as possible. Reagan, of course, made it his life’s mission to dismantle FDR’s legacy, of government doing all sorts of things for the common good, like providing a social safety net and jobs when the economy tanked, and also dismantling what was a successor to that, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society stuff. Much of that had to do with eliminating taxes – not all, but as much as you could manage short of total government collapse. Let people keep their money. They’ll know what to do with it. The message was that we’re really not all in this together. Man-up and take personal responsibility for your life. You really don’t want to be governed by anyone, do you? What government we must have, well, we must have, for national defense and to fill potholes in the roads – but beyond that, government is really, really irritating. And that has been the ideology of the Republican Party since Reagan.

And they held power because for a time more people felt that way than not, until they didn’t. It’s just that elections, as they say, have consequences. More people decided to try a certain way of doing things than those who didn’t want to go that way at all. For a time the Republicans were on top, then people decided maybe it was time, once again, to have the government do things for the common good, paid for from the general funds – healthcare reform, a new regulatory system for banks and shadow banks and all that wheeling and dealing in imaginary money and promises to pay big money under odd conditions, and efforts to slow down what was causing the polar ice caps to melt and the seas to rise and the earth’s weather to go all crazy and cause geopolitical havoc, and perhaps a few other things – staving off another Great Depression perhaps. Maybe something could be done about all that, by the government. Heck, we might even rebuild New Orleans.

But that led to a structural problem. You had a party out of power, as usual, but a party whose core belief was that government never does any good at all, and that other than providing the bare-bones basics, it’s entirely useless. So they would do the usual fulminating and ranting, huffing and puffing that this, that or the other thing was a really bad idea, but would offer no alternative ideas. Naturally they wouldn’t. It wasn’t like the Democrats mad as hell about George Bush and saying he should do something else quite specific about a problem. The alternative idea was not an idea at all. The alternative idea was to do nothing at all. That was the whole point.

So they became the Party of No, colloquially. The Obama presidency opened with Limbaugh saying he hoped Obama fails – Limbaugh wanted no more, as there was no more. The consequences for the nation could be dire, but that didn’t matter – we’d muddle through, and at least no one would be thinking the government could do anything useful.

And there was the curious case of Sandra Guzman – fired from her job as an editor at the New York Post after complaining about that cartoon in the paper where Obama was shown as a dead monkey, Yeah, it was racist, and the owner of the paper, Rupert Murdoch, made a half-hearted apology for it, but weeks after getting sacked, Guzman filed a lawsuit that brought interesting allegations against the paper and Editor-in-Chief Col Allan. She sued the Post for “unlawful employment practices and retaliation” and for fostering a hostile work environment that is discriminatory toward female and minority employees (she edited the Latino section), and buried in the complaint was a remark by the paper’s Washington Bureau Chief that the paper’s “goal is to destroy Barack Obama.” It was simple – “We don’t want him to succeed.” Well, watch Murdoch’s Fox News – same thing. The smart guys in the Enlightenment, Locke through Jefferson, didn’t account for this sort of thing. A government established and run by the consent of the governed doesn’t work very well when one of the only two political parties doesn’t think government itself is that nifty an idea in the first place.

Of course this drives the folks who bought into the whole government-as-social-contract thing crazy, as with this McClatchy op-ed from Bob Ray Sanders:

Republicans in Congress remind me of a bunch of two-year-olds because it seems the only word they know how to say is, “No.”

Bailout of the giant troubled financial institutions? “No.”

Aid for America’s ailing auto industry? “No.”

A stimulus package to help states, local governments, educational institutions and private industry put people back to work? “No.”

Health-care reform? “No! No! No! No!”

And now the issue is additional plans (and money) to bring down the nation’s unemployment rate, and Republicans say we can’t afford any such thing:

They suddenly are worried about the budget deficit. The truth is, we can’t afford not to do some of these things as the country battles against a depression-like economy, record unemployment and home foreclosures, sky-rocketing health-care costs and – dare I mention? – two wars.

He sees this as a ploy, just to get back in the driver’s seat:

The other unvarnished truth is that Republicans are hoping that things stay bad, at least for another year.

That is the only way they will be able to manage anything remotely resembling victory in next year’s mid-term elections. They want unemployment high, which they think will translate into the president’s approval numbers being low.

They want people hurting in hopes that voters will take revenge for their pain against Democratic officeholders in the House, Senate and state houses around the country.

When the unemployment rate reached 10.2 percent in October, the highest since 1983, GOP congressional leaders could not even feign concern, regret or sorrow for those without jobs.

And when some economists were predicting that the rate would go higher and remain above 10 percent through next year, Republicans thanked their political gods for this manna from heaven.

Then last week when the employment figures came in and showed a drop to 10 percent, you could feel their disappointment.

There’s more, but you get the idea. He thinks they’ve overplayed their hand and will be sorry, as if anything gets better, they’ll lose their seats and have nothing to show for all their opposition to just about everything. Or they may win big if things are in a mess. But he misses an underlying issue that might be going on here. Maybe none of this is political calculation. Maybe they just want the government to stop doing… things.

Lance Simmens, writing in the Huffington Post, offers a variation:

I have a problem with conservative orthodoxy in its current form and have voiced my concerns about conservatives many times in this forum. I have never directly attacked Republicans except to state how unfortunate it is that they have increasingly aligned themselves with some of the more radical elements of the right wing lunatic fringe. But just to be absolutely clear the depth of my dismay rests with conservatives regardless of their political party.

The root of my consternation lies with contemporary application of conservative ideology. As the health care reform drama continues to unfold it has become painfully apparent that a search for moderate Republicans, thoughtful conservatives, or pragmatic right-leaning practitioners who place the welfare of the society and its citizens above political party has become increasingly fruitless.

It is simply incomprehensible for me to fathom how in the eyes of some the current iteration of health care reform legislation has absolutely no, and I mean no, redeeming elements whatsoever. You cannot even find Republicans who are willing or brave enough to admit that there is any common ground upon which to base some agreement and move on from there. Instead there is a constant litany of reasons not to do anything. The argument, it seems to me has morphed into whether or not to do anything at all, not whether we ought to employ a different approach. It is as if we are addressing a problem that doesn’t exist.

It seems Simmens is still stuck in the Enlightenment, where folks do place the welfare of the society and its citizens above political party, and concede a point to two, to get at least something they want, so things move forward. But the only ones still stuck in the Enlightenment seem to be the Democrats, arguing among themselves. The Republicans aren’t even playing in this game. Maybe they never were.

And then there is George Bush’s former speechwriter, David Frum, just not understanding the logical consequences of Reagan Republicanism, bemoaning ineffectual obstructionism rather than negotiations:

Two reports last night of what the GOP’s “No, no, no” policy has wrought:

1) Instead of a healthcare reform to slow cost increases, Democrats in the Senate seem to be converging upon an expansion of Medicare to include age 59-64 year-olds and an expansion in Medicaid up to some higher multiple of the poverty limit. You might wonder why they didn’t do this before: expanding existing programs is always easier than creating new ones. So now instead of a new system that attempts to control costs, we’re just going to have a bigger and more expensive version of the old system, with a few tinkers around the edges. Republicans could have been architects of improvement; instead we made ourselves impotent spectators as things get radically worse. Plus – the bad new Democratic proposal will likely be less unpopular with voters than their more promising earlier proposal. Nice work everybody.

2) House and Senate conferees last night rejected a proposal to deny EPA funds to enforce its new powers over greenhouse gasses. So instead of an economically rational approach to carbon abatement – a carbon tax or even a cap-and-trade system stripped of the abuses and boondoggles attached to it by House Democrats – we’re going to have the least rational approach: bureaucratic enforcement.

The furious rejectionist frenzy of the past 12 months is exacting a terrible price upon Republicans. We’re getting worse and less conservative results out of Washington than we could have negotiated, if we had negotiated.

Yep, refuse to play and you don’t get even a smidgen of the conservative governance you want. And at his Washington Post blog, Ezra Klein adds this:

It’s one thing to actually kill the legislation. It’s a whole other to unsuccessfully oppose it. The result there is a bill that you had no influence on, except to make it more liberal and politically cautious by scaring the majority away from making any hard decisions.

The upside to this strategy may be that you pick up some seats. Or maybe you don’t, at least as compared with a world in which you acted like a party of grown-ups. Either way, the other party’s achievements remain, and you may even be left defending them. As Frum concludes, “even if we gain seats in 2010, the actions of this congressional session will not be reversed. Shrink Medicare after it has expanded? Hey – we said we’d never do that.”

Yep, it’s a lose-lose trap. But it was coming. The now-retired House Speaker sees the current obstructionism as destroying congress and preventing the country from tackling major problems in the best possible way, or any way at all, as he explains in an interview with Ezra Klein on how Newt Gingrich ruined Congress:

This all seems much harder because it’s not clear that minority obstructionism is bad politics. Back in the early 1990s, of course, Bill Kristol, among others, urged Republicans to kill the Clinton health-care bill. Not modify it, or improve it, or amend it, but kill it. And then they picked up more than 50 seats.

Newt Gingrich was of course the chief proponent of that policy, and he and Bob Michel, who was leader of the Republicans, disagreed. And Gingrich eventually succeeded in pushing Michel out. Michel’s view was you sit down, offer your input, and move forward. The theory was that the American people elected the legislative body to make policy and so you make policy. Gingrich’s proposition, and maybe accurately, was that as long as you, Bob Michel, and our party cooperate with Democrats and get 20 or 30 percent of what we want and they get to say they solved the problem and had a bipartisan bill, there’s no incentive for the American people to change leadership. You have to confront, delay, and undermine and impose failure in order to move the public. To some degree, he was proven right in 1994.

Well, that’s the House. Matthew Yglesias points out things are even worse in the Senate:

We’re suffering from an incoherent institutional set-up in the senate. You can have a system in which a defeated minority still gets a share of governing authority and participates constructively in the victorious majority’s governing agenda, shaping policy around the margins in ways more to their liking. Or you can have a system in which a defeated minority rejects the majority’s governing agenda out of hand, seeks opening for attack, and hopes that failure on the part of the majority will bring them to power. But right now we have both simultaneously. It’s a system in which the minority benefits if the government fails, and the minority has the power to ensure failure. It’s insane, and it needs to be changed.

And see Jonathan Cohn:

Just think about how the filibuster, as currently practiced, distorts and constrains the process. When corralling sixty votes depends on winning over some combination of Senators Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and Olympia Snowe, passing truly liberal legislation is going to be difficult, if not impossible. The only way to change that is by electing even more liberals to the Senate, changing the way the Senate runs, or some combination of the two.

That project will require time. It will also require convincing voters of something too few of them believe already: That government action can be make a difference in their lives. Passing health care reform, even a deeply flawed one, will help enormously in that regard.

And there you have it, one party that believes in that whole idea of government by the people, of the people and for the people – that that should work – and one party that just doesn’t buy it.

Steve Benen puts it this way:

I tend to dismiss talk of the United States still being a “center-right nation,” but probably the most compelling evidence that it’s at least partially true is the way in which fear of government activism underscores our discourse.

The left and most Democrats see government as a tool that can and should be used to address policy problems. But the right’s reflexive response – the “government is the problem” paradigm – remains so prevalent that Democrats are defensive, if not downright apologetic, when “big government” and “government takeover” rhetoric looms.

President Obama’s meta-challenge – on top of the policy crises he has to address – is convincing people that government intervention isn’t evil, public solutions aren’t necessarily wrong, and government action in the midst of great challenges is both preferable and necessary.

And Benen says he keeps thinking of something Rich Lowry wrote when he said the president is “trying to redefine extensive government activism as simple pragmatism, and if he succeeds, might well shift the center of American politics for a generation.” And that was a conservative – worried sick. And now Benen is worried sick – “Ten months later, that’s proven more difficult than many of us hoped, and Democrats still feel compelled to pretend government intervention is something else entirely.”

But then, maybe America is now ungovernable. And it may be a structural issue, something the Enlightenment theorists overlooked. No one wants to be governed by others, arbitrarily – we had had more than enough with King George, and the French with King Louis. Let the people develop the government they want, making it up as they go along, but at least be masters of their own fate. That’s cool. That’s rational. But there will always be a large bloc of people who don’t want to be governed at all, even by a general agreement among friends and fellow countrymen. And they want to be in charge. Now what?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Structural Impossibility of America

  1. raymcinnis says:

    alan, your diagnosis of the pathology of the concept of what a loyal gov’t opposition should be is right on.

    at the same time, the following condition puzzles me: in the current debate in congress about resolving the health care crisis, where the gop is determined simply to kill the legislation, we still see evidence of collaborative efforts between dems and gop to add amendments: eg, wyden (OR), snowe (gop), importation of prescription drugs:–

    and dorgan’s amendment against advertising prescription drugs on tv is supported by several gop senators:–

    at the same time the minority leader in the senate has made it known that he wnats only to “kill” the healthcare bill.

    i’m confused by the disconnects

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