The Party of Sour Crankiness

Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time – but when something’s not working, and you now know it’s never going to work – for structural reasons, or practical reasons, or because the parties in question simply have different aims – you walk away and try something else. At least that’s what the two ex-wives said. Some things, and many marriages, were a bad idea in the first place. It’s just that you find that out years later, and thus there’s really no need to be sorry. There may have been no possible way of knowing, at the time, that you’d be wasting many long years attempting what was quite impossible. Only those long years would reveal the original underlying conceptual mistake, ever so slowly. But there it is, now, that conceptual mistake, and there’s no use in pretending otherwise. You move on. To continue trying to square the circle or whatever would be stupid. That would be throwing your life away, for nothing. Face it – if you just try harder nothing will change, or more likely, things will get even worse, so there’s no point in being stubborn about it all. You’ll just end up a sour crank.

That may explain why there are so many sour cranks in the world, and they’re mostly Republicans. If we just cut taxes a whole lot, especially on the rich, tax revenues will skyrocket and the government will be rolling in dough, able to fix all the roads and bridges and airports and schools, and able to fund an even bigger military, with new whiz-bang weapons that no one ever thought of or even knows how to use. Yes, that never worked before, not for Reagan, not for either Bush – lower taxes somehow always resulted in lower revenues – but it might one day, maybe this time. And it’s the same with deregulation. If we just got rid of all the rules on banks and the financial services industries, and got rid of the EPA and the FDA and whatnot, American businesses would thrive and we would enter a new age of unprecedented prosperity. But each time we tried that it ended in disaster, a near-collapse of the entire economy. Don’t tell the sour cranks, who will tell you that, still, you know, it could work – maybe this time. But you’ve heard it before. Gee, honey, this time I’ll try harder – this time it will be different, I promise. But some marriages cannot be saved.

Sometimes you just walk away, as we have done in our history. We started out with the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union – the thirteen colonies, now the thirteen founding states, agreed to establish the United States of America as a confederation of independent nations – sort of a trade confederation. The Continental Congress could direct the Revolutionary War, and conduct diplomacy with Europe, and deal with territorial issues and Indian relations, but that was about it. Congress had no taxing authority – only the individual states could do that sort of thing. If the federal government needed money to do anything, well, it had to formally request the necessary funds from the states, which might or might not provide those funds, if any state felt one way or the other about it at the time. And it seemed like a good idea at the time – that’s how the country got its name, after all – and the official version of the Articles was sent to the states for ratification in late 1777, with the formal ratification by all thirteen states completed in early 1781 – and it turned out to be a disaster. On March 4, 1789, the Articles were replaced with the current Constitution, with a much stronger national government, and with an actual chief executive (the president), and with actual courts, and with taxing powers. The Articles seemed like a good idea at the time, but you cannot win a war against mighty England with everything funded by voluntary contributions by each state, contributions made when they damned well felt like it – George Washington was livid. He pulled it off, but it wasn’t easy. And you can’t conduct international diplomacy, asking for alliances, when you don’t represent a real country – no one would know quite who you’re really speaking for.

It’s all the little details:

When Adams went to London in 1785 as the first representative of the United States, he found it impossible to secure a treaty for unrestricted commerce. Demands were made for favors and there was no assurance that individual states would agree to a treaty. Adams stated it was necessary for the States to confer the power of passing navigation laws to Congress, or that the States themselves pass retaliatory acts against Great Britain. Congress had already requested and failed to get power over navigation laws. Meanwhile, each State acted individually against Great Britain to little effect. When other New England states closed their ports to British shipping, Connecticut hastened to profit by opening its ports.

And this:

The Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended hostilities with Great Britain, languished in Congress for months because several state representatives failed to attend sessions of the national legislature to ratify it. Yet Congress had no power to enforce attendance.

Hamilton, Madison, Washington, Franklin and the rest of them figured it out, the original underlying conceptual mistake, and they certainly saw the future – without a tax base there was no way to pay off any debts from the war years except by requesting money from the states, which none of them really had to pay if they didn’t feel like it at the moment, or ever. Some marriages cannot be saved.

So it was over. The only thing left from the original Articles of Confederation is the weak Tenth Amendment – they threw the states a bone. That was ratified on December 15, 1791 – powers not granted to the federal government nor prohibited to the states by the Constitution are reserved to the states, or to the people – but there are few powers there. Over and over, the Supreme Court has ruled that the states don’t have much leeway to do anything they’d like – they just told Arizona that it couldn’t have its own immigration laws. That sort of thing happens all the time. The Sovereign State of Whatever had no real sovereignty at all – those are just pretty words. We had a the Civil War about that after all. The matter was settled in March, 1789, and then settled again in 1865 – so get over it. Don’t be a sour crank.

That’s easier said than done. Back in July 2011 there was a lot of silliness about a proposed Balanced Budget Amendment, and Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Douglas Kendall offered this:

For a group that claims to revere the Constitution, the Tea Party appears pretty determined to deal it a death by a thousand cuts. Its latest attack involves a nasty little piece of constitutional revisionism, complete with a “How can you be against that?” title: the “Balanced Budget Amendment.” Putting aside the political questions about whether such a law is wise or practical, it also crashes headlong into the very constitutional principles the Tea Party purports to cherish. Not only that: Now there comes word that Republicans will hold a vote on this amendment next week before even considering raising the debt ceiling. So as part of their misguided effort to undermine the Constitution, they also plan to hold hostage the full faith and credit of the United States of America.

This was very odd:

Shortly after the November 2010 election, Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, released a poll showing that 80 percent of Republican voters wanted America to “return to the Constitution.” That was funny, since so many Tea Party candidates also demanded changes to important parts of the Constitution, supporting either outright repeal or odd mutations of the 14th, 16th, and 17th Amendments. Respectively, these amendments, among other things, guarantee citizenship to everyone born in this country; allow the progressive taxation of incomes to fund the government; and allow “the people” of each state, as opposed to its legislature, to select senators.

The question is the same today as it was last fall. Which is it, Tea Partiers: Do you want to “return to the Constitution” or to some pulpy version of it you have clubbed in your own image?

It seems that no one remembers history:

It is not an accident that the first two enumerated powers the Constitution vests in Congress are the power “to lay and collect Taxes … to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States” and “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” The Constitution’s broad textual grant of power was a direct response to the Articles of Confederation, which had imposed crippling restrictions on Congress’s power to borrow and tax. These restrictions plagued the Revolutionary War effort and made a deep and lasting impression on Washington and other war veterans.

Basically, the Constitution recognized there would be no freedom without a strong federal government to promote it, but the States Rights Tea Party crowd prefers the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, or they get the two confused – and their tax policy follows.

That Balanced Budget Amendment came to nothing, like most everything in Congress, so that was a false alarm, but here we go again. There’s Amity Shlaes’ latest column – in Bloomberg News she argues that all federal taxes should, instead, be collected by the states, like in the good old days:

There will be objections, of course. The first is that states’ collecting the money isn’t our tradition. It is, actually. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states, not individuals, owed payments to the federal government.

Jonathan Chait calls this Pre-Constitutional Conservatism:

Well, there you have it! It worked under the Articles of Confederation! I can’t think of any objections to citing that highly successful governing arrangement as a model.

Shlaes’ bizarre argument here is the latest signpost in the “Constitutional Conservative” movement, which is a general trend among right-wing activists that claims that the Constitution requires the enactment of their preferred economic policies. The movement stretches from right-wing legal types to old white guys wearing colonial garb at Tea Party rallies.

The general and recurrent flaw in their reasoning is that they assume that one side in an ongoing argument among the Founders was the sole legitimate expression of the national tradition. Often the movement’s definition of “The Founders” turns out to be the people who were arguing against the Founders.

Yes, those right-wing legal types and old white guys wearing colonial garb at Tea Party rallies are the sour cranks here. Or you can use the other metaphor. Gee, honey, this time I’ll try harder – this time it will be different, I promise. But that marriage ended in 1789, for a reason. Chait cites Andrew Koppelman saying these folks “read the Constitution as if the Antifederalists had won.”

Chait adds this:

Of course, the trick here is to pretend that their side did win. Actually going ahead and citing the Articles of Confederation as your model undermines the case a bit.

Josh Marshall also comments:

If you read about how the federal constitution came about, one thing is crystal clear: it was devised by people who wanted to create a strong federal government and saw the states as obstacles to doing so. The people who believed in states’ rights and an anemic federal government – the ancestors of today’s Tea Party – were the Anti-Federalists. And they lost.

But especially in recent decades, these modern day Anti-Federalists hatched a massive bamboozle in which they projected the aims and values of the losers – the Anti-Federalists – on to the winners of the debates.

Marshall is amazed:

This hasn’t simply been an effort on the terrain of political argument. It’s dominated the high-toned theory of the conservative legal academy as well. But now it seems that anti-federal government thought has become so powerful and accepted that it’s finally ready to come out of the Anti-Federalist closet and embrace its true heritage: The Articles of Confederation, the failed union of sovereign states the federal constitution was hatched to replace.

Maybe this is what the conservative movement has actually become now, an attempt to save a marriage that ended in divorce in 1789, with an actual divorce document – the Constitution. After all, Amity Shlaes says the idea of devolving the taxing power to the states comes from Kevin Hassett, one of Mitt Romney’s economic advisors and John McCain’s chief economic adviser during the 2000 presidential primaries and his senior economic adviser to the 2008 presidential campaign. This is the new normal, and Marshall adds this:

Whatever else, getting the real identities of the players in the “federalism” debate is a very positive development.

Now we know who’s whispering in Mitt’s ear, whispering that George Washington was a whining money-grubbing bastard, always complaining he couldn’t feed his troops and was running out of ammunition – the wimp!

Well, Kevin Hassett may not be whispering that – but he might as well be. This “confederacy of sovereign nation states” thing probably seemed like a good idea at the time, kind of like first love. But as John Barrymore once said, “Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock.” You discover things over time.

And sometimes, as with that first love, you just don’t get over it. What follows is over two hundred years of sour crankiness, which in the case of Rush Limbaugh, has become generalized:

Intellectuals hate capitalism because intellectuals are egomaniacs; they think they’re smarter than everybody else. And if capitalism were just, they would be the ones who are rich, because they’re the ones who smarter. And because they’re the ones who are smarter than everybody else, they’re the ones that deserve it! But capitalism hasn’t seen fit to reward college professors and academics with billionaire status.

And so, there’s something wrong with capitalism.

It’s pure ego, folks – nothing more than that. It’s not hard to understand. Intellectuals don’t like capitalism, and they don’t like America, because they resent it. They’re the smartest people in the world, and yet capitalism doesn’t take care of them – and that’s why it’s gotta be changed. That’s Obama; that’s his professors; that’s the people who’ve mentored him. That’s who they are. Hard work doesn’t count for squat. It’s how smart you are. In fact, in their world the smarter you are, the less hard you have to work. And that ought to be rewarded. It’s a neat perversion of so many American traditions and ethics.

That’s interesting, as an example of crankiness in its purest form, and Digby comments:

It’s a perversion – that much is true.

Oddly, Rush seems to be claiming that smart people aren’t rich and rich people aren’t smart, but I don’t think that’s what he means. (After all, if that’s the formula, at forty million a year he would be proclaiming himself one of the stupidest men on earth.)

But she digs deeper:

What he’s trying to articulate is what a fair number of conservatives believe: “if you’re so smart how come you’re not a billionaire?” That’s what any really smart person would do, right? So, you must not really be that smart. In fact, you can’t possibly be any smarter than I am! You’re just a lazy egomaniac speaking gibberish and trying to give all my hard earned money to the wrong people. Who wouldn’t want to be rich more than anything?

Hating on the intellectuals has a long pedigree, of course. (It’s one of the motivating factors in a number of revolutions, both left and right.) But the idea that the billionaire is a just a workin’ guy like you and me is an idea that only exists among conservatives – especially American conservatives.

It’s all very odd:

What I don’t get is why these John Galts and Masters of the Universe continue to get a pass despite the fact that they caused our depression and are still strutting around as if they created the world with their own two hands. Lots of elites failed in recent years, but none so obviously and catastrophically as the keepers of our capitalistic system. It’s a testament to the heroic place they hold in the American popular imagination (and our fetish for individualism) that anyone has the chutzpah to argue that they literally did it all on their own.

It’s also a testament to sour crankiness. Some of them can’t even get over their heroes tossing out the Articles of Confederation and adopting the Constitution. They didn’t mean it. It must have been a mistake. But there it is, now, that conceptual mistake, and there’s no use in pretending otherwise. You move on – or you rant about everything.

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.
This entry was posted in Articles of Confederation, Conservative Framing Devices, Republican Attraction to the Extreme, Republican Radicalism, Republicans and the Constitution, States' Rights, The Uses of History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Party of Sour Crankiness

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    Kevin Hassett was co-author of Dow 36,000 with the foolish James K. Glassman. That’s not a typo. These clowns seriously expected the Dow to be at 36,000 within a few decades. Why is ANYONE still listening to them? Again, one of the best compilations of these issues on the web, Alan.

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