Not all overheated political rhetoric is alike. Delusional right-wing crazy talk — the kind of ranting we’ve heard recently from washed-up rock star Ted Nugent and Tea Party-backed Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) — is a special kind of poison that cannot be safely ignored.
Let me be clear: I’m saying that the extreme language we hear from the far right is qualitatively different from the extreme language we hear from the far left — and far more damaging to the ties that bind us as a nation. Tut-tutting that both sides should tone it down is meaningless. For all intents and purposes, one side is the problem.
Believe me, I would prefer not to dignify the ravings of Nugent or West by commenting on them. Nugent seems to be motivated by paranoia; West, perhaps by cynical calculation. It would be satisfying to withhold the attention they seek, but this is not an option. The only effective way to deal with bullies is to confront them.
Nugent, who delivered his foaming-at-the-mouth peroration at a National Rifle Association convention, earned a visit from the Secret Service with his promise that “if Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.”
That might or might not constitute an actual threat to the president of the United States. More chilling, to me, was the way his audience of gun enthusiasts applauded in agreement as Nugent compared the Obama administration to a bunch of “coyotes in your living room” who deserve to be shot. Nugent ended by exhorting his listeners: “We are Braveheart. We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off in November. Am I — any questions?”
No, I think he made himself quite clear.
Violent metaphors aside, the nub of Nugent’s argument — and I use the word advisedly — was this: “If you can’t go home and get everybody in your lives to clean house in this vile, evil, America-hating administration, I don’t even know what you’re made of.”
Vile? Evil? America-hating? Nugent doesn’t just characterize those with different political views as misguided or wrong. He seeks to paint them as alien and anti-American — as enemies of this nation, rather than citizens with whom he disagrees. In a subsequent interview, Nugent called Nancy Pelosi a “sub-human scoundrel” and referred to liberals as cockroaches to “stomp” in November.
This is what distinguishes the flame-throwers of the far right from those of the far left. Nugent and his ilk seek to deny their political opponents the very right to believe in a different philosophy. Agree with me, he says, or be stomped.
It would be one thing if this sort of vicious intolerance came only from aging rockers whose brains may have been scrambled by all those high-decibel performances. But it comes, too, from an elected member of the House of Representatives.
At a town hall meeting last week in Palm City, Fla., West was asked how many Marxists there are in Congress. He replied, “I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party who are members of the Communist Party.” That is, of course, a bald-faced lie. There are no communists in Congress. What makes the lie even worse is West’s subsequent declaration that he stands by his words because he was referring to the 80-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, which West considers a branch of the Comintern.
“There is a very thin line between communism, progressivism, Marxism, socialism,” West claimed this week. “It’s about nationalizing production. It’s about creating and expanding the welfare state. It’s about this idea of social and economic justice. You hear that being played out now with fairness, fair share, economic equality.”
West can’t really believe this nonsense. What he’s trying to do is delegitimize the entire stream of progressive thought that has run wide and deep through American history since the nation’s founding. Disagree with his views, West insists, and you’re not just a political opponent, you’re a godless Marxist.
There is no symmetry here. The far left may hurl insults at the right but doesn’t scream “fascism” whenever a Republican proposes privatizing Medicare.
So this is what I want to know: Mitt Romney, do you agree with your prominent endorser Ted Nugent that the Obama administration is evil and hates America? House Speaker John Boehner, do you agree with your star freshman West that “78 to 81” of your colleagues are card-carrying communists?
DOES America need an Arab Spring? That was the question on my mind when I called Frank Fukuyama, the Stanford professor and author of “The End of History and the Last Man.” Fukuyama has been working on a two-volume opus called “The Origins of Political Order,” and I could detect from his recent writings that his research was leading him to ask a very radical question about America’s political order today, namely: has American gone from a democracy to a “vetocracy” — from a system designed to prevent anyone in government from amassing too much power to a system in which no one can aggregate enough power to make any important decisions at all?
“There is a crisis of authority, and we’re not prepared to think about it in these terms,” said Fukuyama. “When Americans think about the problem of government, it is always about constraining the government and limiting its scope.” That dates back to our founding political culture. The rule of law, regular democratic rotations in power and human rights protections were all put in place to create obstacles to overbearing, overly centralized government. “But we forget,” Fukuyama added, “that government was also created to act and make decisions.”
That is being lost at the federal level. A system with as many checks and balances built into it as ours assumes — indeed requires — a certain minimum level of cooperation on major issues between the two parties, despite ideological differences. Unfortunately, since the end of the cold war, which was a hugely powerful force compelling compromise between the parties, several factors are combining to paralyze our whole system.
For starters, we’ve added more checks and balances to make decision-making even more difficult — such as senatorial holds now being used to block any appointments by the executive branch or the Senate filibuster rule, effectively requiring a 60-vote majority to pass any major piece of legislation, rather than 51 votes. Also, our political divisions have become more venomous than ever. As Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator, once remarked to me: At the rate that polarization is proceeding, partisans will soon be demanding that consumer products reflect their politics: “We’re going to have Republican and Democrat toothpaste.”
In addition, the Internet, the blogosphere and C-Span’s coverage of the workings of the House and Senate have made every lawmaker more transparent — making back-room deals by lawmakers less possible and public posturing the 24/7 norm. And, finally, the huge expansion of the federal government, and the increasing importance of money in politics, have hugely expanded the number of special-interest lobbies and their ability to influence and clog decision-making.
Indeed, America today increasingly looks like the society that the political scientist Mancur Olson wrote about in his 1982 classic “The Rise and Decline of Nations.” He warned that when a country amasses too many highly focused special-interest lobbies — which have an inherent advantage over the broad majority, which is fixated on the well-being of the country as a whole — they can, like a multilimbed octopus, choke the life out of a political system, unless the majority truly mobilizes against them.
To put it another way, says Fukuyama, America’s collection of minority special-interest groups is now bigger, more mobilized and richer than ever, while all the mechanisms to enforce the will of the majority are weaker than ever. The effect of this is either legislative paralysis or suboptimal, Rube Goldberg-esque, patched-together-compromises, often made in response to crises with no due diligence. That is our vetocracy.
The Financial Times columnist Ed Luce, the author of the new book “Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent,” notes that if you believe the fantasy that America’s economic success derives from having had a government that stayed out of the way, then gridlock and vetocracy are just fine with you. But if you have a proper understanding of American history — so you know that government played a vital role in generating growth by maintaining the rule of law, promulgating regulations that incentivize risk-taking and prevent recklessness, educating the work force, building infrastructure and funding scientific research — then a vetocracy becomes a very dangerous thing.
It undermines the secret of our success: a balanced public-private partnership.
“If we are to get out of our present paralysis, we need not only strong leadership, but changes in institutional rules,” argues Fukuyama. These would include eliminating senatorial holds and the filibuster for routine legislation and having budgets drawn up by a much smaller supercommittee of legislators — like those that handle military base closings — with “heavy technocratic input from a nonpartisan agency like the Congressional Budget Office,” insulated from interest-group pressures and put before Congress in a single, unamendable, up-or-down vote.
I know what you’re thinking: “That will never happen.” And do you know what I’m thinking? “Then we will never be a great country again, no matter who is elected.” We can’t be great as long as we remain a vetocracy rather than a democracy. Our deformed political system — with a Congress that’s become a forum for legalized bribery — is now truly holding us back.
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