Going Down in History

I studied history in college and feel an obligation, as a witness to history, to write something about the political hostage taking in Washington, but I (like everyone I know) have crisis fatigue.  Really, since 9-11 it’s been one war, recession, mass murder or environmental disaster after another.

In the first of these posts for the year 2004, I posited that year would decide whether democracy would survive in the United States.  By December, I reached a cynical conclusion.  I was unhappy to draw it; it felt paranoid and over dramatic but warranted, I thought, by the evidence.  Now with the benefit of nearly another decade of history, I think the corpse started cooling in December 2000.

In her magisterial work The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman analyzes what she calls “wooden-headedness” or pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest.  From the fateful decision of the Trojans to bring that Greek horse into their city to Popes provoking the Protestant Reformation to British antagonism of the American colonies to America’s own folly in Vietnam, Ms. Tuchman notes that not only were all the courses of action above clearly called out as foolish in their time, they were all pursued while ignoring other, more likely alternatives and the follies were not of misguided individuals, but of entire political classes.

So it is now, but the folly is now leveraged upon us by an increasingly small but powerful group of fools.  Consider:  Democrats control the executive and half the legislative branch.  Republicans control the other half of the legislative branch and have a one-vote majority on the Supreme Court (technically apolitical

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, but let’s not kid ourselves).

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has long been in the service of a narrow agenda benefiting corporations and wealthy individuals.  In the recent years the funnel has narrowed yet more until the agenda is controlled by a minority Tea Party faction within the GOP caucus.

An article in last Sunday’s New York Times makes clear this shutdown is not a philosophical disagreement in which both sides share equal blame.  It was planned months ago as a means for a very limited number of people to use deep pockets and radical rhetoric to undermine the core of our democracy, the Congress.

In utter panic at the notion of being “primaried” by the Tea Party and the billionaires that fund them, Republicans are now ignoring Wall Street and the big banks; even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is going under the bus.

Here’s the Chamber’s Tom Donohue saying a short-term government shutdown won’t hurt the economy.  Whoops, check the date on that story: April 2011.  This week’s story has Mr. Donohue calling on Congress to raise the debt ceiling – and being ignored.

Should Tom Donohue be surprised?  He’s been pushing workers, consumers, communities overboard for years, now it’s his turn.  Talk about the one percent.

The Tea Party does the bidding of men like Charles and David Koch, who I’ve decided are the super villains of the 21st century.  Granted, they look like the elderly men they are and I hope to never see either in tights and a cape, but for the purposes of our society, they have acquired the practical equivalent of super powers.

They need not break the law; they can afford to have laws re-written to benefit themselves.  Even if we could imagine a system that would attempt to rein them in via criminal or civil jurisprudence, how could it be accomplished?  They can literally afford more legal artillery than the federal government.  Even if a conviction or a ruling against them was somehow obtained, it would, in all likelihood, not entail prison but the paying a fine.  Koch wealth is so enormous the worst penalty the system could serve up cannot penetrate their fortune to an extent that it would inconvenience, much less incapacitate them.  Just as Halliburton found it cheaper ($200,000 fine) and more convenient to destroy evidence in the BP Deepwater Horizon case than to face the truth that evidence carried, so the Kochs will never be held truly accountable for their actions.

Where does that leave us?  It leaves us with a system sliding ever faster toward corruption for at least the last 50 years and is now so far from the original intent of the founders that I quake to wonder what it will take to get us back where we need to be.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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