Thursday, March 25, 2010

L-R: Steny Hoyer, John Lewis, Nancy Pelosi, John Larson

The great economic achievement of my lifetime – and I mean this absolutely seriously – has been my ability thus far to have a family with three major chronic diseases and not (yet anyway) go into bankruptcy. Over the past three years, we have paid over $45,000 above & beyond my “excellent” health plan for various prescriptions & doctors, and would have paid considerably more except for a “flex plan” benefit through my job. That saved us $5,000 each year. And this year that plan is being restricted only to those employees who choose the cheapest of the three options my employer makes available, so I won’t have access to that benefit going forward. All of which means that, other things being equal, I can expect to spend some $60,000 over the next three years, presuming of course that I keep my own health & don’t have to retire at 65 or sooner.

So it might not be surprising to discover that last Sunday, the entire family camped out in front of the TV, which we kept mostly on C-SPAN & MSNBC (with just a couple of detours over to CNN), watching the House deliberations on the health care reform bill with the sort of attention most families reserve for the Super Bowl or the Oscars. That bill is way short of adequate – women really should have control over their own bodies, a right that simply does not exist if poor (and increasingly middle class) women lack access to abortion on demand. And there is no rationale whatsoever for keeping insurance companies around just to suck on my wallet – but it is a small, critical step in the right direction.

Congress was voting on my well-being Sunday night. Congress was voting on the survivability of my family. And one political party voted unanimously against my family. That is something I will never, ever forget.

But that is not what this note is about. That ultimately was not what was most alarming about Sunday’s proceedings. Tho the idea of either political party voting unanimously for or against anything is, by itself, a symptom of something dreadfully wrong in the body politic.

No what really was most distressing about Sunday’s proceedings on & around the House floor was the utter lack of civility the two sides had for one another. It was exacerbated, no doubt, by the fact that the Republicans felt no compulsion to argue against the bill on its merits. It was amazing just how often during the debate that the arguments raised by one Republican after another were demonstrably untrue, often laughably so. If there were perfectly good reasons to oppose the bill from the right – and I’m going to presume that there were – why didn’t any member of the GOP feel compelled to raise them?

Instead they chose to spread FUD, fear, uncertainty & doubt. They raised points that their own behavior in office during the Bush administration demonstrated were not true. They argued cost in the face of their own Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of the economic impact. They argued about “government takeovers” when a major failing of the bill is its unwillingness to wrest control from the insurance industry. One Republican from Texas called Bart Stupak – the man who has done more than anyone to prevent women from controlling their own bodies – “baby-killer.” Outside the House Floor, congressmen were spat on, called the N word & subjected to homophobic slurs. Since the weekend, ten members of Congress have reported threats. In one instance, a right-wing blogger posted the wrong address for one member and the gas line to that address was sabotaged.

Somebody – I missed just who – was quoted on CNN as saying that the nation was more deeply split right now than at any time since Reconstruction. Watching Congress – and the tea-partiers in the balcony & beyond – on Sunday made that seem like an eminently reasonable assessment. Which means that this society is as nearly as deeply split as it was when it had just finished killing 3% of the entire population. Think about that for a minute. In today’s terms, you would have to kill ten million Americans to reach that threshold. That is a lot of bad mojo.

Monday, after the votes were counted, I was heartened to read this note from the US News & World Report blog. US News & World Report is an old-school Republican journal, something I used to read even back in high school to see what the GOP was thinking. To see a non-liberal make a reasonable argument felt refreshing. And it made me wonder again just how & why the debate has grown so poisonous.

In the 1970s, when I worked as a lobbyist for a coaltion of prison movement organizations in Sacramento, I had little difficulty in working with Republican members of the legislature. In fact, when we introduced legislation to end the draconian indeterminate sentence, our sponsor was State Senator John Nejedly of Walnut Creek, the former district attorney of the county & a career lawman whose nickname was “Iron John” (that was pre-Robert Bly). Nejedly would have told you that he was a Goldwater Republican, which is to say that he understood himself to be a man of the right. But he also believed that laws should mean what they do, and do what they say. He understood instinctively why sentencing everybody to either six-months to fifty years or one year to life fundamentally undercut not just the lives of prisoners, but the ability of the prison system to operate fairly. And he understood that fairness, both in practice & perception, were essential to the criminal justice system. He was a smart guy with a ready wit – he used to wear a Mickey Mouse watch just to remind people that the indeterminate sentencing system was, in his words, “Mickey Mouse time.”

All of his staffers also happened to be Democrats. In fact, in the early 1970s, this was true for almost all Republican legislators in Sacramento. There was an assumption – with good cause – that any young person fresh out of college who was a Republican wasn’t smart enough to work for a Republican legislator. (There was a corollary to the effect that a "serious Republican" didn't become one until they were in their 30s or even 40s.) The notable exception to this was another state senator, H.L. Richardson. Richardson made no bones about the fact that he was close to the John Birch Society. He also made no bones about the fact that he was the one state legislator who routinely carried a pistol, as did his chief aide-de-camp, an ex-cop.

In the 1970s, John Nejedly was a mainstream conservative, while everybody around Sacramento used to laugh at & about Richardson, especially members of his own party. I don’t believe that the same would be true today. And the person who set that transformation in motion, more than anyone, was someone to whom Nejedly once introduced me, then-governor Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan, both in his runs for the White House & in his two terms as president (tho not, it is worth noting, his terms or campaigns as governor), who first demonized government. Everyone by now knows his joke that the “9 scariest words” are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” and his motto that government is the problem.

It’s worth considering what that means and why that has become the wedge issue in the divide between the two Americas. What is government but ourselves? It’s the institutionalization of our collective being in order to accomplish some things we agree need to be done. Stop signs for example. Police for another. Schools for a third. Government may not work well, it may be bloated, sclerotic, bureaucratic. But it is ourselves. We have nobody else to blame. When Ronald Reagan argued that government is the problem, what he meant was that we are our own problem. His slogan was a direct assault on the fundamental principle of democracy: collective, communal action.

Ronald Reagan did not invent the anti-tax movement whose slogans he co-opted as his own. But he certainly recognized its potency & made great use of its potential. And he appears to have understood that the fundamental premise of the tax revolt, the right’s great perception about the 1960s that still drives that movement to this day, is that we are not ourselves. Government isn’t us, it’s not even about us, it’s about Them.

They are the people who have “invaded” “us.” The hippie commie queers, the blacks who “snuck in” on slave ships, Africans, Asians & Latin Americans who took Emma Lazarus at her word. Ultimately, I think that this is what all this lack of comity is about – one group of Americans (largely tho not entirely white males) look in the mirror & what they see does not look like America, although they may pretend that it does. That other America of difference & diversity has in their view wrested control of the government. Which of course is why everything government does has, for them, become illegitimate. (Tho they would like government, such as the courts, to do whatever it can to preserve their dying stranglehold on power.)

Time will, of course, resolve this precisely because these demographics are headed for change. If the tea-party Mad Hatters think that the socious today looks bizarrely non-white, non-male & non-straight, wait till they look at it circa 2020 or 2050. But between now & then, we can anticipate that this same cluster of conservative – or at least reactionary – values will only get more upset, more hyperbolic, more dislodged from reality, more extreme, and definitely more dangerous. The whole “Obama birth-deniers,” for example, aren’t complaining nearly so much about where the president was or was not born as they are expressing their incomprehension that a man with an African father & who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia could become president. That is the unimaginable & everything else just flows from that.

All of which is to say that we should not anticipate that the political discourse in this country is going to improve anytime soon. If the right is acting panicky, it’s because they’ve been spooked: they can taste the day when they no longer control the institutions in this society, not just on a vote or two, not just a few elections. So the right’s program can be characterized as a longterm strategy of postponement. And the real question is just how far the right will go to preserve whatever shards of privilege remain. The fact that they own the majority of weapons in this country should not be lost on anyone. 150 years ago, we saw an earlier group of Americans go to war to try to hold onto what had already become untenable & obsolete. Don’t think that couldn’t happen twice.