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The Canary is Coughing

Mike Lofgren was mad as Hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore.

lofgren_partys_overSo, after almost 30 years staffing congressional Republicans as a budget, defense, and national security expert, he quit the party and his job and posted his reasons on Truthout.

That was a little over a year ago; now he’s written a book: The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.

Should you read it?  Only if you love our system and institutions of governance and fear for our future as a true—and not a banana—republic.

A Personal Aside

Before I say why, please forgive a personal observation or two.  I can relate.  I have about a decade on Lofgren.  He grew up, solidly middle class in industrial Ohio and came to his first position as a social moderate and pragmatic fiscal conservative, early in Reagan’s first term.  I was a child of moderate Idaho Republicans who moved through college and law school from 1966-1973.  Frank Church, my own study, and the tumult of war and civil rights pushed me toward and into the Democratic Party.  I joined the staff of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in 1974, just as their impeachment proceedings against President Nixon were heating up.  He was guilty of the charges against him but, outside of his prosecution of the Vietnam war, Nixon led his branch well.  He worked with a Democratic Congress and accomplished much.  My remaining five years in both houses were satisfying because the stewardship theory—do the people’s business, above all else—was still honored.  On reflection, impeachment was necessary, but traumatic.  President Ford’s immediate pardon was wise, but expensive; hyper-partisans used it as a weapon to frustrate negotiation and compromise.  (Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney each served as his Chief of Staff thereafter; it had to have had an impact on their political worldviews.)  National legislators elected after Watergate seemed to be much more issue-averse.  Dick Bolling’s 12-year assault on the seniority system produced internal reforms in 1976 that ultimately made it more difficult for leaders on both sides to lead.  Some of us who worked on 1978 legislation to create the office of the independent counsel were fearful that it could be used as a partisan political cudgel.  It was no honor to be vindicated on that score—even though it’s likely the only time I’ve ever agreed with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  In short, when I left some of the seeds of crippling partisanship had been scattered.  When Lofgren arrived, they had taken root.

The Bill of Particulars

A trained historian, Lofgren’s indictment is broad, entertaining—as it must be today, to even get noticed—and spares no one:

  • Partisan Decay.  The noble and vital creations of Jefferson and Lincoln are no more.

Republicans:

 To be sure, like any political party on Earth, the GOP has always had its share of crackpots, such as Robert K. Dornan or William E. Dannemeyer in past Congresses.  But the crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital core today:  Eric Cantor, Steve King, Michele Bachmann, Paul Broun, Patrick McHenry, Virginia Foxx, Louie Gohmert, and Allen West.  The Congressional Directory now reads like a casebook of lunacy.

Democrats:

I would like to be able to contrast this characterization with a positive one of the Democrats, the supposed party of the people, to make this book a neat and simple morality tale.  But the Democrats at this time offer only a weak and tepid alternative.  Why?  They are also in the tank with wealthy contributors.

  • Gridlock.  Lofgren describes in convincing but unencumbered detail how the “meteoric career (in the House) of Newton Leroy McPherson Gingrich”—less Washington than Robespierre—and the “restrictive, minoritarian makeup and procedures of the (U.S.) Senate”—whose primary function was to protect slavery and segregation for 175 years, using the filibuster—combined to make winning the objective, over ruling:

Republicans are now operating on the Leninist principle of ‘the worse, the better.”  According to this principle, if they hold fast against every one of the administration’s attempts at restarting the economy, the presidency and both houses of congress will fall into their laps in 2012.

  • Constitutional “Schizophrenia:”  Lofgren analyzes and impales the deliberate process of singling out provisions for reverence at the expense of others, and in contravention of the document’s plain meaning:

Like biblical literalists, Republicans assert that the Constitution is divinely inspired and inerrant.  But also like biblical literalists, they are strangely selective about those portions of their favorite document that they care to heed, and they favor rewriting it when it stands in the way of their political agenda…Democrats—ever sensitive to the whiff of corporate money (as in their vote to indemnify the telecommunications companies for illegal surveillance), or afraid of being tarred as soft on terrorism, soft on crime, or soft in general—have closely followed the GOP’s trail.

  • Devil’s Dictionary.”  Lofgren catalogues the GOP’s mastery at co-opting language, refining post-Populist “public relations” principles into Gingrich’s 1990 memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” to provoke emotions rather than thoughts:

Lee, Bernays, and Gingrich have all had a lasting impact on the political use of language in America.  If you seek monuments to their accomplishments, you have to look no further than your daily paper or television news program.  It is to them that we owe stories about ‘collateral damage’ rather than ‘dead civilians.’

Impishly or morbidly—I can’t decide which—he offers up his own glossary of 22 repurposed words and phrases.

  • Taxes and the Rich.  Having staffed former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, Lofgren saw first-hand how Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and other GOP “deficit hawks” abandoned any serious pursuit of deficit reduction in pursuit of “a broadening and flattening of the base”—i.e., raise taxes on exempt filers (the poor) to fund more relief for top-bracket taxpayers:

The GOP cares, over and above every other item on its political agenda, the rich contributors who keep them in office.  This is why tax increases on the wealthy have become an absolute Republican taboo.  Caught between their own rich contributors and their voters, Democrats are conflicted and compromised.

  • Worshipping at the Altar of Mars.  Lofgren describes his two-decade epiphany in the incestuous, revolving-door realm of defense contracting and spending, which amounts to half of all federal discretionary spending and continues to outstrip even what the Pentagon wants, and the new citadel, “Homeland security.”

Final victory is a mirage our leaders say we must chase as it recedes to the horizon.  History is littered with powers that followed this ruinous path: the Spanish Empire, the Dutch Republic, the British Empire, the Soviet Union.  Vaunting rhetoric to the contrary, our military policies of the past decade have left us less prosperous, less secure, and less free.  A course correction is desperately needed, regardless of what our entrenched, out-of-touch, and corrupt Beltway elites think is good for us.

  • Media Complicity.  Starting with Rush Limbaugh in 1988, through media complicity in selling the invasion of Iraq, and up to reports about Iran’s alleged role in the Syrian uprising—fed by over-generalized, “anonymous” official sources—he concludes:

No intelligent person every doubted the brutality of the Assad regime.  But the eagerness of our prestige media to tie Iran to events in Syria precisely at a time when the world is already on edge about Iran’s purported nuclear capabilities—a subject far more nuanced and ambiguous than you would think from reading articles in our leading papers—demonstrates the danger to our country of a credulous and uncritical press.  Liberals habitually work themselves into a lather about the antics of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, but they really are just political gargoyles looking for ratings as they whip up the GOP faithful.  The true danger lies in an ostensibly neutral journalism that most Americans count on to tell them what is going on in the world but which too often acts as a stenographer for powerful and self-serving factions in government operating under a cloak of anonymity.  These people have misled us in the past and will mislead us in the future if they are not vigorously challenged.

  • That Old-Time Religion.  Noting the irony between the Constitution’s express prohibition on establishing a religious standard for officeholders and fundamentalists’ and media’s obsession with it, Lofgren chronicles the rise within and saturation of his party by the religious right:

If the world is divided between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, then compromise in the spirit of traditional representative government becomes difficult.  As a veteran of many late-night legislative sessions, I can personally attest to the fact that achieving legislation that will pass both houses of Congress is sometimes a grubby business, like sausage making, but the practical alternatives are either anarchy or dictatorship.  As deal makers like Howard Baker or Bob Dole have given way to ideological purists infused with their own sense of godly virtue, such as Rick Santorum or [Michele] Bachmann, it is hardly a wonder that the GOP has become the party of no.

* * * * * *

If this country ever fully uncorks the genie of politicized religion, as the Republican Party has been attempting to do, we shall long regret it.

  • No Eggheads Wanted.  Quoting historian Richard Hofstadter (one of my favorites), from 1964’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

It is ironic that the United States should have been founded by intellectuals, for throughout most of our political history, the intellectual has been for the most part either an outsider, a servant or a scapegoat—

Lofgren laments:

Fifty years ago, when he wrote his seminal book on the periodic waves of anti-intellectualism in America, Richard Hofstadter was highly critical of his own times.  In retrospect, he was writing in a golden age of enlightenment…How did we ever get here?

Lofgren contrasts the bleatings of the crop of Luddites who contested for their faithfuls’ presidential anointing in 2011-12 with the value that Eisenhower, Nixon, and Kennedy placed on public policy driven by science, education, and engineering, and observes how “their contempt for science and factual evidence dovetails with corporate interests in many areas.”  He winds up this chapter thus:

More than just the passage of time separates us from the ideas of progress and education expressed by Eisenhower and his vice president, or Kennedy’s New Frontier.  There is now a powerful, well-financed countercultural movement that has substantial influence within the GOP.  It would roll back the Enlightenment if it could.

  • A Low Dishonest Decade.  Lofgren focuses on what he identifies as the crisis bookends of the first decade of the 21st Century: the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and does not neglect what happened in between.  As lead defense staff for the Senate Budget Committee’s minority members, he was intimately involved in the former—and ignored, in the headlong rush to approve the attack-authorizing resolution.  He totes up the fiscal legacy of the misadventure but saves his outrage for the utter lack of accountability for moral transgressions in making both war and money:

I believe the toxic dynamic that led to all of these ills is one, the same, and inseparable from the belligerent and avaricious mind-set that deregulated the markets, pushed the tax cuts, encouraged subprime borrowing, and botched the handling of Hurricane Katrina.  The bedrock of this mind-set is a lack of intellectual seriousness combined with ideological rigidity, sound-bite glibness, and ethical corner-cutting.  And power worship, whether the object of worship is money, high office, or military might.  The cultural witch’s brew of the last thirty years produced Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff just as surely as it produced John Yoo and Dick Cheney.

  • Are the Democrats Any Better?  In a word, “No.”  Calling Jon Corzine “the poster child for the corporatization of the Democratic Party,” Lofgren goes after other “Wall Street Democrats” in the Senate—principally Chuck Schumer, Max Baucus, and Chris Dodd—for their roles in mitigating the reform debates for both banking and investment and health care.  Bureaucrats Timothy Geithner and Robert Rubin, both enriched by Wall Street careers, don’t escape his examination for subsequent policy decisions, nor does President Obama for dealing with Big Pharma up front on the Affordable Care Act, spending more per annum on Bush’s two wars that Bush did, and short-cutting citizens’ established liberties in the name of national security.  His valedictory:

Birth certificates, death panels, sharia law, and all the other so-called issues that have roiled us for the past few years are the kabuki theater of American politics, like the May Day parades in the old Soviet Union.  Far away from the political stage of make-believe, and behind the closed doors of corporate America, is where the real show goes on, and where the real decisions are made.

Are We Totally Screwed?

Lofgren is not a “counsel of despair.”  His prescriptions:

  • Get all private money out of politics by prohibiting contributions and guaranteeing a small sum from public funds for a limited campaign to all candidates.
  • Oblige all television broadcasters to offer a reasonable but limited amount of free political advertising during the statutory campaign period.
  • If corporations try to evade the contribution ban by running “independent” issue ads, require the broadcasters who accept them to provide time for a significant opposing viewpoint.
  • Establish uniform state requirements that permit third-party and independent candidates, qualified by meeting minimum petition requirements, the same rights to ballot access and public financing as major-party candidates.
  • Require open, nonpartisan primaries, with the top two finishers facing off in the general election.
  • Transfer the constitutional duty of congressional redistricting from incumbent elected officials to nonpartisan commissions.

What the Hell…

Having spent the last three decades as a lobbyist active in electoral politics, I agree with Mike Lofgren that “there are other electoral reforms that could be instituted,” but mildly disagree that “these are more than enough to begin with.”  I believe instituting these reforms would do much to restore most American’s confidence in the electoral process.  That’s essential.  I also believe, however, that a national conversation about reforming our governing institutions themselves and the rules by which the Fourth Estate—our erstwhile guarantor of “transparency”—plays is long overdue.  Opening our Constitution to amendment at our current level of discourse gives me a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, even if we’re prescient enough to install a second-term incumbent rather than a Wall Street docent to get the ball rolling.  Nonetheless, as long as we’re guided by recognized experts and everything is done in public, we owe it to our founders and ourselves to give it a shot.

Here are a few teasers I’d like to see on the agenda:

  • How about cleaning up those provisions in the body of the document that have been obviated by amendment, but are nonetheless unfortunate reminders of our past—like when women, slaves, and Indians “not taxed” were subhuman property, and only propertied White males could vote?  (Might cut down on temptations to mischief by future “originalists.”  Just sayin’.)
  • Do we really need an Electoral College?
  • While we’re at it, how about a single, six-year term for Presidents?  (This was discussed seriously, 50 years ago.)
  • Has the U.S. Senate outlived its usefulness?
  • How about a unicameral national legislature, its members selected proportionate to vote-getting, like the British House of Commons?
  • Should U.S. Supreme Court Justices be appointed for life?  How about 18 years?

I’ll be posting about those ideas down the road.  Mike’s right, though—this can’t wait.

2 comments

  1. ThinkChick

    The website is really looking good…but methinks many of the posts are too long. For us working stiffs who must juggle hundreds of “must reads” in our electronic inbox, we need thoughts (and thoughtfulness) distilled. Think New York Times, but not the Magazine. Articles and op/eds that fly to the heart of it, dancing all the way (my personal fave: Maureen Dowd).

    1. E.G. Fabricant

      Being a fan of the long-form essay, I usually write until I think I’ve covered the subject; in the past, I’ve broken anything over, say, 1500 words into segments. What do you think?

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