I’m Not Ready to Make Nice

A bunch of concerned people called the “No Labels” group got together last week to talk about being nice in Washington politics. But being civil and trying to work things out isn’t a movement. It’s a style. But what is really going on beneath the surface of his party of nice is just another attempt by the elites to herd independents, disenfranchised Democrats and Republicans into the “magic middle” as Thomas Frank would call it and hope no one notices that this middle is still firmly preaching the flim flam of free market capitalism. This group hug does not get to the heart of the problem of having a government totally captured by corrupt economic interests producing crony capitalism which is a nice way of saying that this country and Europe are being rub by the mob. And that problem needs passionate debate and laws and institutions that will correct the injustices, not a love fest.

Yes, there is definitely a problem with the labels that we use to describe our political system. Few of our political words mean what they used to mean. Republicans, Democrats, progressives, liberals, conservatives, reform, free market, security… We truly inhabit George Orwell’s “1984”. We are caught in the brambles of bullshit and the maze of mendacity with weasel words abounding. But re-branding or being above branding is still in the end just marketing and not a philosophy that would lead to solutions.

Which brings me to why I just might be a small “r” republican with a liberal disposition. I just finished reading former Harper’s editor Roger Hodge’s new book “The Mendacity of Hope” in which he goes back to the roots of our political system and compares it to the mendacious mess we’ve got now where all our freedoms are under attack by both political parties. Things were messy back when Madison and Hamilton were having at it in The Federalist Papers and wrangling out a constitution. But we got a document, though imperfect, that made a stab at establishing the first modern social democracy. Madison basically wrote our constitution and he based it on the paradox that if the people were to become the new rulers, they needed a set of good rules and institutions. They participated in government “by ruling and being ruled” simultaneously. It was the only way that they could be truly free and not subject to the whims of a monarch, a boss, or a group. So Madison used the idea of ordinary citizens actively participating in the governing of their lives by electing representatives who served their interests.  Hamilton, on the other hand, favored a strong central government that was ruled by a group of elites with their banks and military. He was all for demigods with auras around them.

Our republic was not formed by compromise behind closed doors as the president declared last week. Yes, there were tactical compromises in the constitution, but the big ideas and battles were hashed out in public and in the press not to mention rebellion and war.

“The basic premise of the republican form of government is our agreement to submit to law that we arrive at publicly, through a legitimate deliberative process.” (p. 210).

But Hodge points out that the recent health insurance bill was devised behind closed doors as was the financial bill and now this tax cuts for the super rich bill. So we no longer have a functioning republic. Madison had warned that this “noble” form of government could also too easily fall into a corrupt one that substituted

“the motive of private interest in place of public duty; converting its pecuniary dispensations into bounties to favorites, or bribes to opponents; …in a word, enlisting an army of interested partisans, whose tongues, whose pens, whose intrigues, and whose active combinations, by supplying the terror of the sword, may support a real domination of the few, under an apparent liberty of the many.” (p.16)

What we have now is what he warned against and its hardly the only time in our history where corruption ruled, but at least we had voices like Madison who loudly defended a noble idea with concrete ideas of how to implement it instead a bunch of scalawags who timidly rap “you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as they run for the nearest exit and into a lobbyist or consulting job. Instead of a disinterested group of big thinkers, we have in place in Washington people we wouldn’t be caught dead with in high school. Small people with little voices and a stultifying ability to bore the socks right off your feet.

But lest you think Hodge is calling for purists, he’s not stupid. He says,

“No, what is required is that Americans take a stand on behalf of their selfish material interests and against those of the monopolies and transnational corporations that have captured our institutions of government.”

He doesn’t think we the people have been sufficiently selfish. We have been conned into selflessly defending the rich 1%.  We’ve been defeated by the descendants of the “stockjobbers” of 1792; the finance masters of the universe.   We need a loud movement of self-interested people who are sick and tired of being dependent on the kindness of the oligarchs; dependent on the banksters to give us a loan; dependent on the CEOs to spend money on research and development and good wages here instead of abroad; dependent on our families to take care of us when we are old; dependent on our bosses to give us the weekend off. Real freedom is passing good laws that make us independent of the whims of bosses. Good law makes it impossible for a boss to fire you just cuz. Good law makes it possible to have a institution called Social Security so you are not dependent on the kids to take care of you. Good laws make sure monopolies can’t jack up your internet rates just cuz.

“True republicans have always been a minority among us, haunting the margins of the dominant parties, occasionally mounting sorties on Washington only to fail or in victory fall victim to corruption.” (Hodge p. 203).

The revulsion about being dependent on arbitrary laws is something we just might have in common with conservatives. Maybe it’s time that the left starts dressing up like Madison and Jefferson and have a raucous debate about whether or not we even want a republic based on some oddball idea of civic virtue.  No, I’m not ready to make nice and neither should any of us.



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