Our Secular Apocalypse

The notion that we live in those prophesized End Times – Jesus is coming soon, again, after the Antichrist, who is obviously Obama, and there will be that final battle at Armageddon, which actually is in Israel, followed by the Conversion of the Jews, or at least some of them, then the Rapture – has political consequences. If so, then there’d be no need to do anything about the ice caps melting and the oceans rising and every coastal city around the world underwater in a few years. There’d not even be any point in denying that any such thing is happening. None of that would matter at all. Those on the apocalyptic far right who say science is all wrong, that the earth is actually cooling, or this climate change stuff is a clever plot to destroy unregulated free-market capitalism, and thus America, could just as well say nothing. That they get hot and bothered at all the scientists shows a curious lapse in faith, or at least some theological confusion. So does any railing against government spending, deficit spending that requires borrowing that we may never be able to repay, saddling our children, and their children, and their children too, with a massive debt that will make their lives narrow and miserable and hopeless. Last time around, Mitt Romney and just about every Republican said that was a moral issue. This is robbing our own children in order to live high off the hog, with our shallow snazzy things, in the present – but if we live in End Times, the present is all we have. There will be no future generations. That would mean that there’s no logical reason not to be reasonably comfortable now, in these final few years. We can have nice things. That’s the theologically sound position. Immigration reform wouldn’t matter either, or gun control. That America return to the wholesome fifties, where blacks knew their place, there were no gay people, really, and the only Hispanic anyone knew about married Lucille Ball – or that it doesn’t return to those times – would be moot. Maybe that return to the fifties might please Jesus, as the idea is that He’s pretty damned angry now, but it’s a little late to impress Him with poodle skirts and your Perry Como collection. He made up His mind about you, and about us, long ago. He probably doesn’t care that you capitalize the pronoun either. It’s too late now.

Think about it. The apocalyptic far right really should reject political action of all sorts, even if they don’t. Get right with Jesus, any way you can. What everyone else does is their business, not yours – they’re going to burn in eternal agony anyway. You’re not.

All this is a fringe view – only one in seven Americans believes the world will end in their lifetime – mostly Republicans. Everyone else seems to assume we’ll have to muddle through, doing the best we can. We’ll have to make agreements on how to live together, however unpleasant those agreements might be. That means giving into the political process. That means compromise, which no one likes. It’s just that it’s necessary. Unless we figure out how to live together, the world really will end – without Jesus dropping by. It’s the unsatisfactory political process or Armageddon, which just isn’t coming – you can’t have both. Putting it another way, if the political process fails, we really will have Armageddon – by default.

The problem is that the political process in America is failing. It’s disintegrating, and that disintegration is accelerating. Everyone sees that Congress can do nothing these days, but that’s more than minor carping about how little they do these days. These days they’re actually doing nothing, because now they can’t. That became obvious when the House, firmly controlled by the Republicans, couldn’t pass a Republican bill that they themselves had introduced. The political process simply broke down. This was the day the House Republicans defeated their own farm bill 195-234 – a bit of an embarrassment:

In a blow to House GOP leaders, the House on Thursday rejected a five-year farm bill.

Members voted down the $940 billion bill in a 195-234 vote that only won 24 Democratic votes. Most Democrats voted against the bill because it cut food stamp programs by more than $20 billion.

Many Republicans also voted no, but for a different reason. They said it was too expensive a bill to pass when the country has $17 trillion in debt.

It was a matter of how to deal with poor people, and the deficit, and there was no agreement possible. Earlier, Paul Krugman had explained it this way:

Look, I understand the supposed rationale: We’re becoming a nation of takers, and doing stuff like feeding poor children and giving them adequate health care are just creating a culture of dependency – and that culture of dependency, not runaway bankers, somehow caused our economic crisis.

But I wonder whether even Republicans really believe that story – or at least are confident enough in their diagnosis to justify policies that more or less literally take food from the mouths of hungry children. As I said, there are times when cynicism just doesn’t cut it; this is a time to get really, really angry.

Now it’s Joe Gandelman:

The problem here for the GOP is it will continue to feed into the image – that is being fed seemingly all day – of a party that puts conservative ideology above anything else. It’s ideology versus the needs of people, needs of women, needs of rising demographic groups. Some will argue that’s a highly unfair image – but it is the image that’s being reinforced every day. It’s also another shining monument to House Speaker John Boehner being one of the most ineffective speakers in Congressional history.

Boehner was frustrated:

In the final vote, 62 Republicans opposed the bill, and with the Democratic defections, that was enough to send it to defeat.

The final tally was delayed for several minutes as GOP leaders held the vote open, while Democrats called for the vote to close.

The vote is a blow to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republican leaders who for two years have failed to move farm policy forward. The issue has badly divided Republicans.

Immediately after the vote, Republicans were apoplectic at what they characterized as a betrayal by Democratic leaders, who did not deliver the votes they promised.

“The Democrats walked away from this,” Boehner, who cast a rare vote in favor of the bill, told The Hill as he walked off the House floor.

He would not answer further questions as he returned to his office.

The chief Republican vote-counter, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), also blamed Democrats and said the bill could come back to the floor next week, with changes. “We can correct it if [Democrats] are not going to help us,” he said after the vote.

McCarthy’s comment suggests GOP leaders will seek to make the bill more appealing to conservatives.

Boehner has to find a way to buy them off, but they don’t compromise. He has a hard job, and in Politico, Jake Sherman offers this perspective:

Someone in House leadership screwed up again.

The defeat of the farm bill – after both parties were privately bullish it would pass with large margins – shows, once again, how massively dysfunctional the House and its leadership has become. And it plainly reveals that a bipartisan rewrite of the nation’s complex and politically charged immigration laws are a pipe dream in the House, at least for now. Preventing a government shutdown and debt limit fight are not far behind.

The political process is officially broken:

For decades, the farm bill has been a beacon of bipartisanship in an increasingly rough-and-tumble chamber. The defeat of Thursday’s version was propelled by the adoption of Florida GOP Rep. Steve Southerland’s amendment to institute work requirements for recipients of food stamps. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) spoke on behalf of the amendment, indicating his support.

But passage of that amendment doomed the broader bill. Thursday’s episode illustrates in real time that Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) standard for passing immigration reform will be a massive challenge. Bipartisanship is a process fraught with pitfalls in the House, and leaders in both parties can’t rally their troops to follow them, as 62 Republicans joined 172 Democrats to vote against the bill. Republicans had 171 of their members voting ‘yes,’ and Democrats had 24 in favor.

People involved in the farm debate, irate at the sudden defeat, say the House is plainly not working. Someone’s vote count was off. Someone’s political antennae were frayed. Someone miscalculated the stiff resistance from the rank and file.

Republicans are sniping that Democrats promised 40 votes – but, given the final vote count, even that wouldn’t have put the bill over the top.

Nothing gets done, and Chris Cillizza argues that noting could get done, because Boehner has to lead people who cannot be led:

Republican insiders immediately tried to foist the blame on Democrats, insisting that 40 “yea” votes had been promised and the vote count was dependent on those votes being delivered. (Worth noting: The administration made clear in a statement Monday that President Obama would veto the bill if it passed, a declaration that undoubtedly had a chilling effect on Democratic votes in favor of the legislation.)

But here’s the simple political reality: The majority party in the House should never – repeat, NEVER – lose floor votes on major (or, really, minor) pieces of legislation. Republicans, literally, write the rules governing the debate – and, as the majority, must ensure that even in the worst-case scenario they can get the “yeas” they need from their own side. That didn’t happen as a number of conservatives revolted, believing that the cuts proposed in the bill were insufficient.

Cillizza notes how this has happened before, and it’s ominous:

Earlier this week the House voted to ban abortions after 20 weeks, a measure pushed by conservatives but one that many in the party viewed as an unnecessary distraction given that the legislation had no chance of even being taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

And, late last year, conservatives revolted against Boehner’s “Plan B” proposal on the tax rate showdown with the White House – forcing the Speaker to pull the legislation before he even offered it.

It’s easy in the wake of this trifecta of votes to make the case that Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy are simply ineffective leaders. (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who knows something about rounding up votes, described Thursday’s vote as “major amateur hour”.)

But laying the blame at the feet of Boehner etc. overlooks a more basic point: The Republican House conference, as currently comprised, cannot be led.

The political process, even within the party, is broken:

The main reason for that fact is the rump group of tea party-aligned conservatives who do not take orders from their party leadership. A look at the Republican votes against the legislation reads like a “who’s who” of tea party icons: Justin Amash (Mich.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Paul Broun (Ga.), Steve Stockman (Texas) and so on and so forth.

If you think that anyone – and that includes much-discussed Speaker-in-Waiting Paul Ryan (Wisc.) – can tell that group of legislators what to do, you don’t understand the political calculus they use to make decisions. They are far more loyal to the tea party movement than to the House Republican establishment. Jim DeMint or Ted Cruz would have a far better chance of convincing them how to vote than Boehner, Cantor or McCarthy do.

Add one more factor too:

It’s also worth remembering that the way votes were whipped in the old days was by inserting various earmarks that benefited the districts of wavering members. When House Republicans re-took control of the House in the 2010 midterms, they instituted a ban on earmarks – effectively robbing the leadership of just the sort of plums that had always been used to sweeten the pot for lawmakers who needed a little something extra to get to “yes.”

Things have simply changed:

Five House Committee chairmen – Ryan (Budget), Jeb Hensarling (Financial Services), Ed Royce (Foreign Affairs), Bob Goodlatte (Judiciary) and Jeff Miller (Veterans Affairs) – voted against the farm bill. While each of them undoubtedly had their own reasons for their “no” votes, chairmen are supposed to support the leadership on key bills. It’s why they are chairmen.

No one will compromise on anything:

The big takeaway from the failure of the farm bill is that House Republicans simply cannot be led by anyone at the moment. That means you should be wary of predictions about the fate of the immigration bill in the House, among others pieces of pending legislation. “If they can’t manage the farm bill, what’s going to happen on immigration?” asked Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.).

No one knows the answer to that question – up to and including House Republicans.

Also see John Stanton with Farm Bill Collapse Sets off New Round of Republican Infighting – extensive reporting on all the Republicans pointing fingers at the other and calling each other stupid or evil. You thought Congress couldn’t agree on anything? The Republicans there can’t agree on anything, and Michael McAuliff provides the gory details:

Republicans added amendments to let states drug-test SNAP program beneficiaries and set up additional work requirements that anti-hunger advocates and Democrats warned would give states incentives to boot even more people from the food-stamp rolls.

The latter amendment, from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), became a sticking point. While Democrats said the measure would essentially pay states to reduce enrollment, Republicans touted the supposed success of a similar policy in the 1996 “welfare reform” law, which instituted work requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

“We cannot continue to deny able-bodied people the dignity of work,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). “There seems to be a belief in the nanny state that there’s something wrong with requiring abled-bodied people to work. That’s what this amendment does.”

The idea was to make more SNAP beneficiaries sign up for training programs on pain of losing benefits. But Democrats noted there was no funding for training, and that it included parents of young children and even many disabled people. Nor did it place any restrictions on how states could use the money they saved, allowing them to shift it away from employment programs.

That’s right – to appease the no-compromise crowd they threw in provisions to make parents of young children and disabled people WORK for their food stamps – even if there are no jobs out there and no training is available to them. They lost everyone else’s vote with that, and Ed Kilgore sees things this way:

So, now House leaders are making vengeful noises about tilting the bill even further to the right to attract more Republicans, which will make the already-large gulf between House and Senate bills much larger.

If you begin with the proposition that a bill probably wasn’t going to be enacted this year, then the significance of this vote is probably that Boehner was reminded once again that conservatives feel no particular compunction to follow his lead…. At a minimum, they need an ideological justification for taking anything other than the hardest possible line against Big Government as represented by the New Deal and Great Society programs, and despite Steve King’s appointment as GOP manager of the Farm Bill, they didn’t get enough of it here.

Maybe this is the end of the possibility of democratic government, or one sign of the end, or maybe it’s a national thing, as the New York Times’ Charles Blow notes here:

Along with – and because of – dramatic social and demographic changes, America is quickly dividing itself into two separate nations, regional enclaves of rigid politics, as the idea of common national priorities fades further into a distant past.

Rich Morin, a senior editor at the Pew Research Center, wrote about a new study on public opinion on Wednesday and found that:

“Americans often say they want their representatives in Congress to put the country’s needs over local concerns. But four novel experiments suggest that the public does just the opposite.”

He continued:

“Respondents rated a member of Congress far more favorably if the lawmaker put the interests of his or her district or state over those of the country as a whole.”

He concluded, in part, with this damning line:

“The study’s author says legislators who ‘nobly’ put national preferences ahead of local ones will be punished by constituents.”

Here’s why this is so problematic: on a state level, and even on a county and community level, we as a country continue to self-sort into ideological islands.

Blow goes on to cite other studies and polls, and seems to be arguing that the possibility of national government is disappearing:

These new realities have changed the conversation about the role and size of government, about the line between individual liberty and the collective good, about the meaning of personal responsibility and societal responsibility.

They have also signaled that conservative arguments on many of these issues are losing their resonance nationally, and that the Republican pool of potential voters is shrinking while the Democratic pool expands.

So, to defend themselves, their ways of thinking (and, to their minds, their way of life), Republicans are pulling every lever to slow the change on the state level – gerrymandering, limiting voter access, passing anti-immigrant laws, cutting assistance to the poor.

This means we’re now at a point where people may not worry as much about all of America as about their slice of America. In the tumult and transition of change, we may be becoming a nation divided against itself.

A nation divided against itself cannot stand. Someone once said that, but no one imagined this. We seem to be becoming a loose confederation of small nation-states and fiefdoms, and the disintegration is accelerating. Maybe these are the End Times – without Jesus anywhere in sight. Consider it our secular apocalypse.

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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