Sunday, August 23, 2015

Decorum, Collegiality, Compromise, And Simple Human Dignity

I teach a university class called “American Legal Institutions,” and somewhere in the first lecture I talk about compromise.  I tell my students that democracy is all about preventing abuse of power and learning to work together.  Democracy is impossible without compromise, the working together part.  The checks and balances that are built into the American constitution are there to force the different branches of government to talk together and work together.  That’s the dream anyway.

The reality?  The constitution is a wonderful thing, in its way, but American politics has always been messy and contentious.  There were duels at the beginning, for crying out loud.  Burr shot Hamilton dead.  Mockery, furious anger, and nasty personal attacks have long been commonplace.  Hell, we even had a Civil War!  Vicious partisanship was the norm, near coups d’état periodically threatened, and more recently McCarthyism nearly ripped apart the social fabric itself.  So in reality there have always been shenanigans of all kinds going on in American politics.  It is some kind of minor miracle that somehow they have managed to work together and make compromises when it was time to get important legislation passed.

The Fifties and Sixties were certainly not ideal times.  There were big problems, domestic and international, that needed to be addressed.  There were many mistakes made, money was wasted, and people got killed.  Our politicians got us into a major war unnecessarily, one that went on for ten years and got a million-plus people killed (counting the opponents, which is only fair).  But somehow the congress and various presidents managed to pass Medicare and the Civil Rights Act, among other things.  Compromise was still possible.  Congress, especially the Senate, was still a collegial body.  Sure, they were rough on each other at election time, but when it was time to go to work, there was some sense of decorum.  Those guys attended parties together, had dinner together, got drunk together.  There were friendships.  Wow.

That all seems like a lost dream to us now.  At some point between the resignation of Dick Nixon and our new political age a winner-take-all mentality took over American politics.  The Reagan Republican party recognized that while they were able to win in presidential elections, they remained the minority in congress.  This was partly because people are cautious, and voters believe, like the writers of the constitution, that it is better to spread power around as much as possible.  Another reason was that senators and congressmen tended to get re-elected, and the Democratic majority had seniority.  So the Reagan clique wondered what to do about that.  The solution that they came up with was to claim that “government is the problem.”  Running against Washington became a thing.  “Kick them out!”  If a few Republican stalwarts got zotzed in the process, well, let’s hope that a new Republican wins the primary or something.  Most of the long-servers were Democrats, so the strategy would work to the Republicans’ favor.  This was, in retrospect, a real “what can go wrong?” moment.  We have seen, over the last thirty-five years, that this slogan masquerading as a strategy is still plaguing us, and the mischief has only gotten worse.

“Winner take all.”  What could be more antithetical to true Democracy?  One of our political parties is hopelessly lost in this point of view.  We want to win, they say, and then we want to move heaven and earth to insure that we stay in power indefinitely.  And if we lose, we will never, ever, work with you on anything that is not 100% our idea to begin with, and we will do everything in our power to insure that you never succeed at anything, and that you fail as frequently and as embarrassingly as possible for the entire time that you are in office.  (And when we win, even by one percent, we will accept that as a mandate to do whatever we want.) 

You can’t work with people and compromise with people that you have so thoroughly demonized.  Why, it would be tantamount to treason!  At least in the eyes of your voting base.

Witness the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton.  An almost unmitigated success, by all counts, and remembered fondly by every American who is not an extreme partisan of a certain stripe.  He did it largely on his own too.  Was there any decorum in the way that Clinton was treated?  Was there any, well, you won fair and square but now let’s see what we can accomplish together?  No there was not.  He and his wife were tarred with the worst brushes available, investigated by a partisan hack of a special prosecutor and accused of everything up to and including murder. 

Move forward to the presidency of George W. Bush.  Elected in the most dubious such contest in a long time, W. began to embarrass himself immediately after the election.  “It’s your money!”  (Squandering a much needed budget surplus and replacing it with growing deficits.)  Does anyone recall that incident half-way into the first year when an American submarine sunk a Japanese research ship?  By ramming?  Lost lives a’plenty?  Bush’s apology amounted to shucks, this shit happens.  I’ll bet that a lot of the Japanese still remember it.  Anyone remember the huge tax cuts that went to people that already had more money than they knew what to do with?  And then all of the stupid swaggering after the World Trade Center incident.  “Bring ‘em on!”  And the stupid war mongering.  And the stupidity that let Mr. Osama get away.  And the lying, and the bombing, and the invading.  It just went on and on, and it all ended terribly.   The deficits, the national debt . . . we’ll be paying for it for the next hundred years, and with nothing to show for it.  Well, except the people who became billionaires.  

And when anyone would raise a hand and cry out to God to make the stupidity stop they were accused of “Bush derangement syndrome,” like it was a mental disease to hate Bush when he was actually such a great guy. 

And on the decorum front, what kind of politician was W?  Did he play fair?  Was he collegial?  You can ask John Kerry.

Mr. Kerry is no favorite of mine, I have complained about him herein, frequently and bitterly.  I suppose he can’t help it that he is such a poor, wooden thing.  He must have more to recommend him than meets the eye.  I can’t see it, myself.  But I digress.  The issue before us is:  how was he treated in the 2004 election, when he was the Democratic nominee?  Horribly, as it turns out.  I don’t like the man, but I very much respect the fact that he joined the Navy Reserve in 1966, when it was not a pleasant prospect, requested posting to Vietnam, and served on those absurdly dangerous riverine craft with zero armor and lots of machine guns.  In the course of a tour abbreviated by wounds, he was awarded a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts.  When he got out, he had the good conscience and considerable courage to become a leading light in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which gets him a lot of respect from me.  Look up “Swift Boat Affair” to see how this all was played by the Bush crowd.  Hint:  They made Kerry look like a fool, a fop, a dilettante and a coward. 
Reminiscent of how Nixon treated McGovern.  There are no shortage of examples.

Were the Democrats fair with W. Bush?  All you hear these days is, “they’re all the same.”  To prove the lie in that statement, compare the treatment of Democrats by Republicans, and Republicans by Democrats, when running for president over the last four decades.  Kerry, for instance, took the high road.  Imagine W. Bush being characterized with the same vicious glee that the Republicans use on their opponents.  W. Bush gave people a lot to work with, too, if they chose to take the low road.  Things came out, but it was in the newspapers, and not from Gore or Kerry.  Remember newspapers?  About Bush there were cocaine stories, AWOL incidents, drunk driving convictions, years of really annoying public alcoholism, repeated failures in business, serious allegations of insider trading . . . somehow Bush was blessed with opponents who would not stoop to using these things against him.  Bush himself had no such qualms.

And then came the black president!  Did anyone think that it couldn’t have gotten worse?  Well, it did!  Lots worse!  Another Democrat who will be remembered fondly as a hardworking, intelligent man who got very good results in spite of the fact that he got zero cooperation from congressional Republicans, and precious little from congressional Democrats too. 

Obama said, early on, “my father was a black man from Kenya, and my mother a white woman from Kansas.  I’m married to a black American woman who carries the blood of both slaves and slave owners.” And he went on to say, approximately, that there was no other country in the world where that could happen.  Mr. Obama came to the presidency ready to make a sincere effort to make the best of it.  He obviously has a big heart and a forgiving nature.  (Or at least he knows that it is in his own best interest to always give the impression that he does, and he can carry off the dodge, which is just about the same thing.) 

So what kind of reception did this talented, sincere man get in Washington?  I’ve been over this ground, so I’ll be brief.  Decorum?  Zero.  Collegiality?  Zero.  Compromise?  Zero.  Common human decency?  Ask his “Wookie Wife” what she thinks.  How they can bear up so gracefully, I don’t know.  Unless it’s just the fact that lifetimes of harsh experience inure American blacks to this kind of thing. 

Now we have this 2016 presidential race to deal with.  It all wears me out, I’ll admit it.  Presidential elections bring out the worst in me.  The worst fears, the hardest feelings, the least flattering emotions, frightening eruptions of bad language.  A Facebook Friend recently called me on it.  I was starting to post too much political stuff.  “Come on, Fred,” he wrote, “everybody on Facebook has made up their minds already.”  Of course, he’s right.  He finished with, “you’re better than that.”  I thought that last was a swell thing to say, if perhaps a stretch, and I decided to take his advice.  Here on the blog though, it’s a different story.  I’ll be keeping the politics in the picture; I’ll just try to avoid beating dead horses. 

This shit is nuts, isn’t it?  We frequently see the Republican contenders referred to as the “Republican Clown Car.”  That, my friends is partly a gross understatement, and partly a slander on actual clowns.   And the voters that they are trying to impress are obviously just as ridiculous, based on who is leading in the polls.  And he’s leading by a lot, too!  Yeah, him!  Imagine how the other Republican wannabes feel getting their asses kicked by him?  (So far.)  What are there now, twenty-two or so guys and girls running for the Republican nomination?  Mostly white men (the “Wolf”), with a couple of Cubans to impress Mexican voters (oh, that will work), and a black American and at least one woman (the “Sheep’s Clothing”).  Anybody find one of them that you would trust to walk your dog?  (“Why pick up poop when I can sell this mutt to a laboratory for a cool thirty bucks!”) 

Keep your prescriptions filled, people.  Yes, this shit is nuts.  They’ve already started in on Hillary, the “presumed Democratic nominee.”  We won’t be returning to decorum, collegiality, compromise or simple human decency any time soon. 

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