Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Long Slow Death of Shared Governance, or What Would James Madison Say?

At 12:00 midnight on October 1st the United States government came to a screeching halt, or at least it did for 800,000 'non-essential' federal workers, millions of citizens who depend upon them, their families, and many others planning to visit America's museums, national parks, and presidential libraries.  The shutdown is the result of a lame-brained strategy by a few Tea Party extremists who have read a little too much Ayn Rand and spent a little too much time smoking the peace pipe with Charles and David Koch.  Their shared hatred of the president (yes, they hate the president...take a look back at the images from tea bag rallies, the birther nonsense, and the lies they have concocted and perpetuated about the Affordable Care Act) have sent many of them into 'babbling spasms of stupid.'  There is nothing honorable about what this tyrannical minority, as James Madison might have called them.  Nothing worthy of being called U.S. Congressmen and Congresswomen in a single one of these fanatics.  If the American people had any common sense every single one of them would be voted out of office next year.  But they will not be, largely because they reside in congressional districts that have been constructed to ensure they are reelected again and again regardless of how destructive their actions are to American democracy.  Our shared belief in how self-government works has dissipated and our union is weaker for it.

How did we get here?  In some ways it is the culmination of a more than 30 year war on government that began when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980.  In Reagan's first inaugural address he rallied conservatives by declaring that government was not the solution, government was the problem:

The part most commentators miss about his comment is that he was specifically addressing the crisis that existed in 1981...a stagnant economy, high inflation, and widespread unemployment.  Reagan was not anti-government like much of the libertarian infused tea partiers are today.  In fact, Reagan used the tools of government, such as the Federal Reserve, to strengthen the economy, preserve Social Security, Medicare, and deal with the crises that existed in 1981. 

The challenges that exist in 2013 are vastly different than they were in 1981.  A 30 year tax cutting binge in Washington has left the government starved of revenue.  Add to that the stagnant wages of the middle class and you have a recipe for disaster.  Contrary to conservative mythology cutting taxes does not necessarily increase revenue.  If it did the government should just lower all tax rates to zero and then there would be plenty of money, right?  Uh, not exactly. 

Yes, the American economy is stagnant today and has been since the Great Recession began in late 2007.  Things are better than they were in late 2008 and early 2009 when the economy was shedding 400,000 jobs a month.  Yet, the economy is not as good as it should be.  The GOP wants to put the blame for that solely on the shoulders of the president, something they did not do when the economy plunged into recession 6 months into Reagan's first term and unemployment went from 7.4% to 10.8% after Reagan's 1981 tax cuts were passed.  More specifically, the GOP blames the future implementation of the Affordable Care Act for our present woes, even though CEO's say it is the brinkmanship in Washington that creates uncertainty and a reluctance to hire workers and expand their businesses. 

James Madison worried about factions a lot, so much so that he argued the only way to prevent a tyranny of the majority was to break the factions into so many little pieces and so dilute power as to forestall the emergence of any faction that might try to run roughshod over the nation.  The clarity of 236 years of hindsight shows us that his plan has failed.  The emergence of the modern two party system has rent Madisonian Democracy asunder.  The ideal we once shared that elections are about ideas and the way to implement those ideas is to win elections has become but a fond memory.  The GOP has opposed 'Obamacare' from the start, even though its own 'think tank', the Heritage Foundation, proposed a very similar plan in the 1990's, and the party's presidential nominee in 2012 implemented a similar plan as governor of Massachusetts.  First, Republicans lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama.  Then they began making stuff up about 'death panels', 'government takeovers of health care', and the like.  The disinformation campaign has been very effective as nearly 70% of Americans haven't got a clue what the ACA means to them.  Having failed to stop the ACA in 2010, opponents sued in federal court, which culminated in a decision by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. that the ACA and its individual mandate were a legitimate exercise of congressional authority.  Not satisfied with that, the GOP set out to 'repeal' Obamacare and the House has passed some 40+ bills doing that though not a single one to replace it with something else.  The party's presidential nominee in 2012 promised to sign a repeal of the ACA on day one if he won the presidency.  He lost by nearly five million votes.  So now the nonsense caucus in the GOP, a small but very vocal minority to be sure, has taken the rest of the party, and the nation, hostage to its demand that the ACA be undone.  They have effectively put a gun to the head of Speaker Boehner and told him to bring measures to the floor containing attacks on the ACA or they'll revolt and fire him.  So he has complied.  Failing to get anywhere with the Senate and the president through their childish antics they've now shut down the government. 

In a strange and eerie sort of way President Reagan was right when he said government was the problem in the current crisis.  Not all the government, just the 5th column tea baggers who managed to get themselves elected into government for the sole purpose of destroying what James Madison built more than two centuries ago.  Patriots they are not.  Treacherous traitors?  Indeed.

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