We have sent to Washington a company of court jesters, supplying them with portraits of knights in shining armor in the shape of a handheld mirror, so that when they gaze at themselves they perceive heroes standing strong for all that is good and right. They have been given a script and they will not wander from it. They defiantly disbelieve everything the president, the economists and even the corporate wing of their own party says. They alone represent truth, justice and the American way. They alone are God’s chosen.
Can you imagine a less effective spokesperson for a political party than the honorable Speaker of the House, John Boehner? (If you answered Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, you would get little argument here.) Can you imagine a less appealing populist than Joe McCarthy look alike, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas or Representative Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota? Where did this band of misfits come from and how can we rid ourselves of them before they can do any more harm?
In Common Sense, The American Crisis and The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine argued that the ultimate proof that the monarchy is a flawed system of governance is the incredible number of misfits and miscreants who find themselves on the throne. Paine’s argument can now be applied to our own democracy.
A representative government was designed to select the best and the brightest to lead us in decision making, to guide us through difficult times and to inspire and improve our lives in the best of times. Instead, we have prostituted the electoral process, offering offices to the highest bidder with little regard for the consequences. To the local counsel we elect individuals with ambition and private interests, with little knowledge of their political leanings, yet from this pool we select candidates for higher office. To congress we elect buffoons who share our biases and prejudicial leanings as if bias can be made acceptable when adorned with public office.
It is popular in some quarters to assign equal portions of blame for our paralyzed and dysfunctional government to both sides of the corporate aisle. In the case of the so-called debt crisis (a typical invented crisis at the convenience of a political party) there is some validity to this unofficial fairness doctrine.
The Democrats have encouraged Republican obstinacy by rewarding it time and time again. In the healthcare debate, Democrats took universal Medicare off the table before negotiations began. In the last trumped up debt crisis, the GOP was rewarded with sequestration, resetting the table and reframing the debate on firm Republican ground. We were told that sequestration was the ultimate package of across the board budget cuts; a process so crude and ill conceived that not even the most rigid debt obsessed fanatic could support it. Not so. Now the sequestered budget has become the standard from which additional cuts must be carved.
Again and again the Democrats have allowed the opposition to skew the debate rightward until we are left with a right versus far right contest. We have backed our country into austerity and our leaders seem more and more determined to press it forward. For this we can thank President Obama and the spineless Democrats. When you have continually backed off every time you have been confronted, when you finally plant the staff and say “This far and no further”, it is not surprising that the bully party does not believe you.
However, the combination of stubbornness and ignorance required to defy the debt ceiling and risk national default is distinctly a Republican phenomenon and, therefore, to them goes the lion’s share of the blame.
If an individual were to come from a faraway land, without any prior knowledge of our government and its evolution, and he were to observe the deliberations of congress in its present form, he would likely come to the conclusion that something very fundamental was wrong with our democracy. He would not be wrong and yet his understanding would fall well short of the entire truth.
If you were to judge a cake recipe by its finished product and it failed the tests of appearance, taste and smell, you would conclude that the recipe was flawed. But if you learned that rotten eggs were used in the making of the cake you would suspend your judgment. Applying a similar test to our current government, a government so flawed it fails the most basic tests of viability, you would be tempted to conclude that our democracy is at fault. You would not be wrong but your understanding would fall well short of the truth.
Our democracy is flawed but it is neither the design nor the principles of representative government that has produced this dysfunctional system. It is the rotten eggs of corruption, sanctified and institutionalized by the Supreme Court, that has produced the failure of government we see today.
When the court in its infinite wisdom ruled in Citizens United that corporations have a first amendment right to unlimited sponsorship of political candidates, for the first time in history, it legalized corruption. In the next term we can be sure that the court will extend its decision to individual contributions, striking down all limitations on campaign financing. We will then have a system in which all candidates for public office must be vetted and approved by wealthy donors and corporate sponsors.
We will then have a system that more resembles an auction than an electoral process: How much can I get for a series of bills outlawing collective bargaining and banning unions from the workplace? How much for opposition to raising the minimum wage? How much for blocking the development of green energy? How much for the renewal of a Free Trade agreement? How much for another war to capture control of Middle East oil?
Some would say we have already reached that point and from all appearances they may be right. It was the corporations that gave us the Tea Party and their trademark obstinacy now threatens the stability of the global economy. It was corporate sponsorship that gave us the bipartisan Free Trade mandate and the third way that is President Bill Clinton’s legacy. It was corporate sponsorship that made George W. Bush and his war for oil possible. It was corporate sponsorship that reduced government oversight to a shadow, leading inevitably to the near collapse of the global economy.
Over the short term, corporate sponsors will likely rescue the nation from the lunacy of the Tea Party. The debt limit will be raised but we will continue the policies of austerity that have crippled Europe and stunted our own recovery from the Great Recession. I would admire these Tea Party zealots a lot more if they stood their ground and allowed the nation to default but the damage would be too great and too enduring (some say it would be irreparable) to condone their actions. They will not hold their ground. They cannot. They have fallen in love with their power and legitimacy. They will yield to their sponsors’ greater interests.
Through all this debate the greater tragedy has been ignored. We are losing our democracy. When money interests must approve all candidates, is it a democracy at all? When districts can be manipulated to protect money interests from the will of the majority, what kind of a democracy is it? Is it a representative government or corporate fascism with a democratic façade?
We used to make fun of third world nations that claimed to be democracies but were so overrun with institutionalized corruption that their claims were a joke. We have now become the banana republic that we used to deride.
Correcting the flaws and recovering a reasonably representative form of government, one that serves the people first, will not be easy. It will not happen this year or next. It is not likely to happen in the next decade. That is the problem with a corrupt Supreme Court. The damage they do becomes systemic and resistant to all attempts at remedy. We cannot rely on the corrupted to fight the disease. They are the disease.
What we need is a new dynamic on the Supreme Court and a genuine grassroots rebellion of the electorate. What we cannot allow is for the current dysfunction to become the norm.
Throw all the bums out: The Tea Party, the Blue Dog Democrats, the corporate Republicans, the Free Trade Democrats, all of them! Let us begin again to establish democracy in America.