With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Letter to European Friends: Understanding "The Stupid" in U.S. Politics

Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:

"Are you Americans totally round the bend? You shut down the government over an argument about a law, and you may go into debt default and throw the world economy into the crapper?" Those opening questions in your letter deserve a thoughtful reply. Short answer to them both: Yes.

Longer answer: Even in the best of times, American politics rarely makes rational sense. But right now is almost the worst of times. From Europe it may appear that you are witnessing recess at a school for naughty, malicious children. While that's true, we need to enlarge the frame of that portrait to get closer to the whole picture and to assign proper blame rather than just accept the mainstream media's false meme that "both sides are equally responsible" for the governmental shutdown and debt crisis.  


Enlarging the frame means really enlarging it in order to see what is essentially being ignored these days:

While the politicians are engaged in their narrow-vision bumbling about, virtually nothing truly significant is being done to deal with global climate change and its massively destructive weather-change component. This is a much more dangerous development in human history than most other issues and it deserves a massive, worldwide mitigation program -- which it's not getting.  

The increasingly catastrophic meltdown taking place at the crippled Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan is barely mentioned these days (too scary?). The radioactive fallout since the 2011 disaster is moving outward by sea and air currents -- and with even larger doses expected to reach America's West Coast in 2014. Where are the air and sea and fisheries monitors? Who's in charge?

In addition, beginning next month, 400 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel rods in Fukushima's third-floor cooling pools will be removed and shipped to a safer location. (And just where might that be?). This kind of delicate operation has never been attempted on this scale in human history. Nobody knows what will happen if or when one or more of the rods breaks while being moved. More likely, it will be "when," given the abysmal safety record of the Japanese utility in charge. The rods contain deadly plutonium; if an explosion were to occur, the resulting radiation could be relatively contained or it could be a thorough-going catastrophe, with global ramifications. Where is the international monitoring? Where is the U.S. in all this?

Given the increasingly jobless recovery worldwide, and given the enormous gap between those who have and those who would like to have, we can expect more explosive social, class-based confrontations. This is a highly combustible mix, as "austerity" becomes the rule for the poor and middle class, while the rarefied upper classes are facilitated in growing wealthier.

Yes, of course, there are countervailing positive things happening all over the world, including breakthroughs in medicine and science and technology that could lead to more happiness on a massive scale. But I'm afraid that the gloom-and-doom developments appear to be unstoppable at this stage of our limited human evolution. Intelligence is in short supply, with wisdom regarded as a frivolous eccentricity. In the baldest analysis: humanity may be well and truly f------- and there seems no way out.


Maybe that's why political leaders, Americans and others, avoid these seemingly intractable problems and prefer to stumble and bumble in the minutiae of narrow-focus political life.

Rather than devote much time here to the daily political twists and turns of who's-on-top, I suggest that what might help you Europeans understand how Americans got to this dangerous political place is a bit of historical context:

Our democratic republic works, on those occasions when it does, on a tacit belief that one key role of government is to pass laws to try to improve the lot of all concerned: rich, poor, middle, various affinity and ethnic groups, etc. etc. The Republican Party, for decades, has asserted its core belief in the proposition that (as Ronald Reagan put it) "…Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." That was a great punch line, but history shows that when Republicans are in power, they tend to govern more or less as usual and at times (see the CheneyBush years) even greatly expand the size and role of the federal government.  


But in recent years, with the election of dozens in the mad-dog Tea Party faction, who are rightwing ideological zealots terrorizing their Republican Party hosts into joining them in the realm of "the stupid," the rules have changed. The focus has become less on helping everyone ("capitalism with a human face") and more on greed and selfishness: "I've got mine, Jack; you're on your own." The energized, if politically insane, Teahadist tail now wags the Republican dog. In a move to weaken the Democrats in Congress, the GOP leadership (and the wealthy, manipulative Koch Brothers) helped create this scary Tea Party monster and now don't know how to rein it in as it turns on them.

These self-described Tea Party patriots didn't come to Washington to govern; they came to destroy traditional small-d democratic government and anything even slightly to the left of 1890s laissez faire capitalism; i.e., no rules or regulations on business, low to non-existent taxes, no safety net for the less fortunate, no supervision of the polluters, no strong unions, etc., giving virtually all power over to the wealthy. In short, dog-eat-dog capitalism at its extreme.

Some traditional conservatives in the GOP (somewhat more pragmatic types who sometimes are labeled "moderate" right-wingers) think their party has gone too far into this extreme philosophy, but by and large they bow to the Teahadists. And these Tea Party types, anywhere from 40 to 80 members of Congress, can't be disciplined by the GOP leadership. They don't have to worry a fig about whether they can hang onto their congressional seats, because the Republicans in the various state houses gerrymandered their districts (by re-drawing the boundaries) into Republican safe zones for re-election. How do the Tea extremists frighten more moderate Republicans? By threatening to "primary" those who are not judged pure enough in their hard-right zealotry; to "primary" is to run somebody to the right of the current Republican candidate and get their energized Tea Party electoral base to the polls to elect the new extremist.

For the Teahadists -- largely the old right-wing Birchers, Southern Klan members, militia nuts and others who emerged from the shadows under their new name in the 2010-2012 elections -- chaos and anarchy and a non-functioning government are the goals to work for. They are ecstatic that they've been able to have thrown a monkey-wrench into the gears and ground the big, bad government machine to a halt.

And there's such a deficiency in intelligent, courageous leadership elsewhere in the Republican Establishment that it's likely none of this warped power-structure will change anytime soon.  


Where did all this start? One could go back to the aftermath of the Civil War, when an entire section of the country -- the Southern Confederacy, whose economic/social/political system rested on the institution of slavery -- felt victimized and humiliated. Their resentment simmered for decades and decades beneath the surface; it would re-appear in Jim Crow social customs and in laws designed to dilute the economic, social and voting power of the African-American population. And the Old South states continue to be the poorest, least-educated, most fundamentalist, ideologically blinkered part of the union in terms of fairness for minorities, women, immigrants, homosexuals. More and more, pro-slavery Confederate flags are flown at GOP rallies, and discredited Confederate concepts -- such as state "nullification" of federal law, secession from the United States, calls for impeachment of the first African-American President -- are discussed as if they were possible solutions to what ails them.

But, much of that post-Civil War behavior appeared as covert discrimination, disguised in legal jargon. To see how the U.S. moved from that more subtle discrimination and backwardness to today's loud, unsubtle politics of hate and destruction and voluntary ignorance, one can point to some more recent examples:

During the Cold War, the bogeyman label was "communist." Even though there were relatively few actual party members capable of doing any damage, the McCarthyite witch-hunt began to root out "com-symps" ("communist sympathizers") domestically and to go to war abroad whenever something called "worldwide communism" reared its head. The U.S. taking over France's imperial, anti-communist role in Southeast Asia made its invasion of Vietnam almost inevitable. If you didn't support this authoritarian lurch to the right, you were regarded in authoritarian Republican circles as a "pinko" and/or "traitor."  

Around this same time, the Republican Party's presidential nominee in 1964, Barry Goldwater, uttered the magic words to the party's radicals and militias: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." In short, one of the two major political parties in the United States was on record as providing moral cover for those willing to take extreme actions to get their party's way, and moderation was regarded as wimpy surrender.  

Fast forward to the mid-1980s and early-1990s, when Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the new radical Speaker of the House, carried the extremist banner into Congress and proudly closed down the government by not funding the appropriations to keep things running. The GOP got a political black eye in that shutdown and lost the next election, but they refused to learn the lesson of their embarrassing overreach. The Republicans continue to pretend to be a viable national party, but the demographics have shifted and most Americans simply aren't interested in buying what they are selling.

Because of the gerrymandering and illegal disenfranchising of tens of thousands of voters, it's possible for the Republicans to maintain their hold on the House of Representatives for a long time. But the GOP simply can't take back the presidency at least as long as they continue to insult and demean minorities, women, young people, gays, etc.

And, if the Republicans can't capture the White House, nobody else can be allowed to be effective in the presidency. Thus the impeachment of President Clinton, the attempt to destroy President Obama, the thoroughgoing obstructionism of all halfway-liberal policies. The goal has been to bog down the Democrats in constant regressive fights -- made-up scandals, serial disruptions of government every few months, impeachment threats (and, in Clinton's case, actually putting him on trial), so that nothing major can get done under a Democratic administration.

Unless there are major shifts in the body politic, this is a recipe for ongoing nasty gridlock and recklessness, with none of the big issues and problems (global warming, radiation cataclysms, immigration reform, economic failures, jobs creation, etc.) having a chance for solution.  


Well, my dear friends, that's one man's somewhat depressive take on our current crazyhouse of politics in the U.S. As you may have noticed, it bears an amazing resemblance to similar political confrontations over the past 50 years or so. Does anything ever change?

Assuming our politicians can fashion a short-term, medium-term and long-term way out of the current morass -- and I don't see that on any horizon -- is there any guarantee that anything will have been learned in the process, so that more time and attention can be devoted to the larger issues that require urgent solutions?

I don't think so, but I would be happy to be proven wrong. Give my regards to your delightful kids, you two. See you in Paris or Berlin in the Spring.



Read entire article at The Crisis Papers