The Rebel Angels

Senator Mitch McConnell (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
In Paradise Lost, Satan (a.k.a. Lucifer) is the leader of the forces Milton describes as ‘rebel angels.’  Satan is the most glorious of angels, but he can’t stand the idea of serving God.  He chafes at the idea of obedience.  He actually persuades many other angels, who look up to him, to wage war against God, famously declaring ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.’  God puts up with Satan as long as he can but, finally angered, he quells the rebel angels by turning every last one of them into snakes.  Unfortunately, Satan, a sibilant snake, still has the gift of speech.  And, though much reduced in his status, cosmically speaking, he still has the capacity to make trouble for earthlings, which he does when he successfully tempts Eve to eat of the apple, destroying the good thing Adam and she have had going in the Garden of Eden.

Milton’s fable of the fall of Lucifer aptly encapsulates the dynamic playing out in the Senate.  The Senators, though immensely powerful, resent the President’s authority—in fact, they resent the President personally.  They simply loathe the President, and this loathing has eventually driven them to forget their duties, and their proper place in the scheme of things.  Discontent, they disdain the glories of their rightful position and their great capacity, as Senators, to effect what contributes to the betterment of our country.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, in particular, has warred against the Senate’s limited role in the selection of Supreme Court nominees.  He has militantly declared he will not do his duty, nor does he want other Republican Senators to do theirs.  He seeks to prevent the President from placing Merrick Garland on the high court, claiming that the next President will better represent ‘the people’s will.’  More recently, McConnell has disgraced himself by subjugating his own judgment on the matter to the judgment of two lobbying groups.  He falsely claims that history gives his acts legitimacy.  These are the marks of a man no longer content with dimensions of his own authority.

In truth, both the President and the Senate, as constituted, represent the people’s will.  The Senators are each delegated to express the will of their states, just as much as the President represents the people’s will nationally.  In straining to control all that happens in our political cosmology, the Senate’s ‘rebel angels’ are undermining their own prestige and the Senate’s once-illustrious reputation and authority.

Collectively, the Senate’s exercise of ‘advise and consent’ might confirm Judge Garland as a fit selection for the Supreme Court.  But wouldn’t that be a triumphant outcome, given that we live in a fallen world?  We are, as much as in Milton’s time or in Lucifer’s, ‘sufficient to stand and free to fall.’

Image:
1992 photograph of Senator Mitch McConnell by Laura Patterson,
from this source.

Should Republicans Dump the Tea Party?

Zachary Taylor uncomfortably balancing atop a scale filled with acrimonious legislators.
The answer is yes, unquestionably.

Dump the Tea Party, and the Republican Party may survive; the faction that is the Tea Party will die.

As it is, the Republican Party is imploding. Yes, on the surface, with Tea Partyiers included, the GOP looks like a majority party.  But what does it matter, when a party’s members cannot agree, when they cannot accomplish anything?

The paralysis gripping the House of Representatives tells the story.  Over the past few years, Tea Party intransigence has scuttled many constructive common-sense measures enjoying the assent of moderate lawmakers.  At the Tea Party’s insistence, the House has approved countless Tea Party-centered bills that then die because they are so far out of the established mainstream.  Americans want Obamacare; they want the federal government to continue to run; and, yes, Americans would rather have federal debt than to bring a protective Union to its knees.  Yet the Tea Party has striven again and again to demolish elements of federal governance that generations of responsible lawmakers and jurists have painstaking built up.

The speaker’s contest gearing up in the House showcases the dilemma of a party that cannot control or even influence its own destructive minority wing.

Yet some of the leading figures of this do-nothing faction are now gunning for the Presidency, figures like Mario Rubio and Ted Cruz, so naïve and uncooperative (and in the case of Cruz so despised by his Republican colleagues) that they are incapable of collaborative achievement.  Out of sync with everything but their own narcissism, these candidates would make poor presidents, since they haven’t a clue as to how to marshal party power.

Dumping the Tea Party would be painful for the GOP establishment but would leave the GOP free to forge legislation with centrists on the other side of the aisle.  In terms of presidential politics, a purge would reassure moderate voters, who might respond surprisingly positively to this disinterested gesture of patriotism and good will.

The Tea Party are anti-federalists whose views, goals, and tactics jeopardize the power and integrity of United States. Cut the Tea Party adrift, and be the Grand Old Party again.

Image: “Congressional Scales” (1850),
published by the firm of Nathaniel Currier, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Click here to go to the source.

The cartoon shows President Zachary Taylor uncomfortably balanced atop a scales filled with acrimonious legislators.  He holds two controversial pieces of legislation as weights.  Political opponents in the scales taunt one another, one declaring that ‘We can hold out as long as they can’; another that ‘My patience is as inexhaustible as the federal treasury.’

The GOP obstructionists

Who are the obstructionists intent on defunding Obamacare and delaying its implementation?

I appended to Monday’s post on Republican Fire-Eaters this list, compiled by fellow blogger Eric Prileson, giving the names and phone numbers of the 228 Republicans and 2 Democrats who passed a House spending bill to this effect on September 20.

The determination of the House to “hold up” the government until the Affordable Care Act is modified to its liking solidified when House Speaker Boehner and other G.O.P. moderates decided, once again, to cave in to the far-right members of their party.  The 80 radical Republicans leading the charge have been nicknamed the “suicide caucus”–an apt coinage highlighting their resemblance to a terrorist group.

As Thomas L Friedman and others have noted, this group is a minority with some striking geographical and sociological peculiarities.  I encourage you to read Ryan Lizza’s geographical analysis of the suicide caucus, recently published on the New Yorker website.  Accompanying it is a dandy map, based on data from The Cook Political Report, showing the “upcountry” character of the caucus’s constituency. Click on the map to go to its source.

congressdistricts_final-01.png

Lizza:

The geography of the suicide caucus shows . . . [that] half of these districts are concentrated in the South, and a quarter of them are in the Midwest, while there’s a smattering of thirteen in the rural West and four in rural Pennsylvania (outside the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) . . . . there are no members from New England, the megalopolis corridor from Washington to Boston, or [from] along the Pacific coastline.

These eighty members represent just eighteen per cent of the House and just a third of the two hundred and thirty-three House Republicans. They were elected with fourteen and a half million of the hundred and eighteen million votes cast in House elections last November, or twelve per cent of the total.

The districts represented are also whiter than the nation as a whole.

The South, where many of the obstructionists live, is home to some of the nation’s unhealthiest populations.  Most Southern states, under Republican control, have decided against implementing the ACA-funded expansion of Medicare that might have benefited their neediest citizens.  This interactive map, published in today’s New York Times, shows the millions of people who will be affected by their choice.

*     *     *

Minorities, if sufficiently intransigent, can cause great harm if the majority fails to neutralize or contain them, leading to a frightful dynamic that President Lincoln, long ago, most eloquently described.

Republican Fire-Eaters

Political cartoon from Puck, showing various political types, including the "fire-eater" (Courtesy Library of Congress)

In politics, as in the circus world, a fire-eater is a performer who will swallow fire to attract a crowd and earn a living.  This aptly describes the tawdry crowd of grand-standing Republicans threatening to shut down the federal government today.

Their behavior resembles nothing so strongly as that of radical pro-slavery men, who, before the Civil War, threatened angrily to secede from the Union whenever the federal government wasn’t going their way.  Antebellum fire-eaters pretended to be great patriots and high-minded constitutionalists while actually serving the retrograde interests of a minority.

So it is with today’s right-wing Republicans, whose aversion to President Obama and health-care reform is so intense as to drive them along a reckless and self-defeating course.  Ted Cruz is, if anything, more self-serving and sophomoric than leading pro-slavery apologists–men such as William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama or Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina–whose parochial defense of slave-holding and states’ rights marred careers as distinguished as any in their day.  In the end, these men could not love the United States more than they loved holding slaves, leading them to sacrifice true patriotism to an ignoble cause.

By now it has dawned on many Americans that those in Congress intent on derailing Obamacare at all costs are more like demagogues than patriots.  In their stubborn attempt to thwart the inclinations of a national majority, stand in the way of progress, and sabotage the federal government, Cruz and his ilk recall the secessionists whose noblest vision was to arouse local populations to follow them.  Intent on justifying their contempt of the federal government with high-toned ideas, the first fire-eaters used every conceivable means they could to oppose the federal government and the will of the majority, ultimately succeeding in persuading their fellow-citizens to withdraw from the Union and take up arms.

So it is with the current Republican spoilers, laboring unceasingly to deprive Americans of access to the new ACA-mandated health-insurance plans.  Don’t they realize that most Americans are tired of extremism, tired of factions intent only on undoing?  Republican fire-eaters would be better off quitting the circus and getting down to the sober, un-sensational business of governing.

Image: A 1900 political cartoon from Puck showing various American political types, including the fire-eater at right, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Want to tell the fire-eaters what you think of their actions?
FOR A HANDY LIST OF THEIR TELEPHONE NUMBERS, COMPILED BY FELLOW BLOGGER ERIC PRILESON,
CLICK HERE

Echoes of an Uncompromising Time

Lithographed "Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union, 1862 (Courtesy Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons)

The tantrums.  The bad manners.  The stubbornness.  The ruptures.  I read the news and think of the Civil War times.

Fortunately, no single issue divides us geographically, as slavery did then; otherwise, there are startling similarities between the politics of that time and what we have now.

The 1850s were a cataclysmic time, as events intensified the need to solve the ‘problem’ of slavery, an entrenched point of controversy which for decades had defied solution.  Since the time of the Founding, some 60 years before, statesmen on different sides of the issue had found ways to compromise so that the nation could keep functioning.

Compromise was ‘good’ in the sense that it averted political paralysis or the breakdown of the Union, but ‘bad’ in the sense that it was merely a ‘settlement’—an agreement that temporarily put the issue to rest, without resolving it once and for all.

Compromise kept the nation and its government going, however.  It allowed the two major political parties (Whigs and Democrats then) to enjoy a fine balance of power.  But the possibility that one party might gain ascendency over the other, and thus resolve The Issue in their favor, raised the stakes on every controversy.  Every political battle was fought as though it were the ultimate one.

Little did the parties know that, in the coming decade, their organizations would be shattered into pieces—one party split in two, the other dead.  A new party would be born.

Or did they know?  It seems they suspected.  Yet, rather than rearrange their parties around The Issue, they, too, like us, engaged in a politics of avoidance.  Politicians tried to suppress slavery.  They introduced the gag rule in the House.  They devised temporary fixes.  Above all, they hoped the uncomfortable problem would go away.  That it would be resolved sometime, in the future, by someone; but not by them.

The repeated return of The Issue gradually wore civility away.  Eventually, politicians on the two sides of the slavery issue stopped socializing.  Their insults grew more personal, causing violence and occasional invitations to duel.  Content with power, the parties were fearful of what an ultimate resolution of the Issue would mean.

People in the states grew restive, too.  Being more particularized, they were not content with some of the federal compromises.  There were the same charges then: that federal action was a threat to their way of life.

Slaveholders worried that they would be deprived of their property; they railed against a federal government that would drain their prosperity away.  Abolitionists in the North were also unhappy: they didn’t want to have to return fugitive slaves to the South, as federal law decreed.  So they began to work against the federal law, not only in the courts, but by subverting it too.

Opinions became polarized, varying sharply depending on what part of the country you were in.  Countrymen looked on their opponents as people with whom they had nothing in common.  States began crafting arguments to justify their leaving the Union, growing weary of the yoke of federal compliance, and certain life would be better if they could have their own way.

Never had there been such partisan strife.  It was a time when the weaknesses of our political system lay fully exposed; when our parties, our leaders, and our devotion to the Union failed us.  It was an uncompromising time that left us divided in two.

Image: N. Mendal Shafer,
“Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union,”
1862 lithograph, from this source.
A shout-out to the Wikimedian who prepped this image
and made it so easy to find—thank you.

RELATED:
Susan Barsy, Parties Made New: Our Critical Elections, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, A World Without Lincoln, Our Polity.
Paul Finkelman, Lincoln’s Letter to the Editor, New York Times.