How Does This End?
How does this end?
That’s a strange question to be asking in the first article. One possible answer is “people won’t read your scribblings and you’ll slink away in disgrace, never to be heard from again.” Which is very plausible. We’ll have to see how that goes.
What I’m talking about is the political system of the United States of America in the 21st century. Much like Thanksgiving Day at my mother’s house, our government is dysfunctional, expensive, and makes you a little nauseous.
It will end, but it’s not going to end well.
(If you find reading exhausting, try the I’m Not Allowed to Watch the News podcast for this episode and lots more!)
I’m not allowed to watch the news anymore. There are lots of reasons, and I suspect that many of you have reasons of your own for not watching the news yourselves. But the primary reason in my case is that my wife doesn’t want me to. I’ve been an odd little nerd my whole life, and I’ve always had unpopular opinions. About history, government, gardening, pet care, child rearing, fiscal responsibility, America’s foreign policy, and what kind of accent you’re supposed to use when talking to your dogs. When the news is up there on the screen I tend to rant my questions out loud, howling to an empty sky.
It scares the dogs, and I never get a good answer anyway.
Congress can’t pass a meaningful law. The president can’t govern by executive order, even though he’d really like to. The national debt is skyrocketing. Prices are going up. Purchasing power is going down. Getting sick for too long means bankruptcy. Secure retirement is a pipe dream. The representatives that we send to make our laws are owned by somebody, and we’re always trying to figure out who it is.
Our elected officials belong either to a political party or to the people who finance political parties. Their allegiance and sense of obligation is not to the voters. It’s to the people who they believe can bring them votes, which means either those with lots of money or those with a large and faithful audience.
It means you have much less to say about your laws and how they get made and it’s only getting worse as time goes by. But you still get to pay for it.
So how does it end? If you’re a Republican, you think, “All we have to do is keep winning elections and passing laws and sooner or later the Democrats will just cease to exist as a political party.” If you’re a Democrat, you think, “There’s more of us than there are of them and if everybody shows up to vote on the same day the Republicans will be marginalized and sooner or later they will just cease to exist as a political party.”
Partisans truly are adorable optimists.
It’s not like there isn’t historical precedent. We don’t have Federalists now any more than we have Whigs or Bull Moose. American history is full of political organizations that sooner or later ceased to exist. That’s the dream. Just ask the American Vegetarian Party. They’re munching organic carrot sticks and waiting for the party of FDR and the party of Lincoln to collapse like a high-altitude birthday cake.
It’s not just Democrats and Republicans, even though it seems like it. There’s the Green Party and the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party and the American Solidarity Party, but somehow they rarely show up in the primaries, or the debates, or in many cases, the ballots on Election Day. They never win enough offices to implement their policies. Even their names sound like wishful thinking, like Abraham Lincoln’s National Union party and whatever Know-Nothings are.
The Democratic Party and the Republican Party have become institutionalized. There are laws on the books legitimizing their shenanigans. They choose who runs for office long before you ever show up to vote. Which means that they choose who gets elected. Which means whoever ultimately gets elected owes them big time.
By the time elections distill down to the voters, there are only two real choices. If you want to pick a winner, you have to choose either a Republican or a Democrat.
And if the person you live with lets YOU watch the news, you can see for yourself that the stakes have never been higher. You’re told that if you vote Democrat, ten minutes after inauguration all private property will be seized, all industries will be nationalized, and everyone in America will be required to renounce their religion in favor of godless atheism. You’re told that if you vote for a Republican, ten minutes after inauguration we’re going to be at war with somebody, big businesses will be as tax exempt as churches, and everyone in America will be required to convert to Christianity, and not the fun kind where you can drink as much as you want. The temperature of the earth will skyrocket. Babies will be slaughtered in utero. The CEO of your company will be granted the right of prima nocta. Your dog will die.
You’re told, over and over, that your entire way of life is at stake.
You can’t sit on the fence. Republican or Democrat. Salvation or doom. Pick one. Retain private property. Tax big business into bankruptcy. Become a Christian. Embrace atheism. Keep your boss out of your bedroom. Save your dog’s life. There are no independents anymore. This is the only way to save the nation. Pick one.
So you choose, and wait for the changes to come a-rollin’ in. This whole era of partisan gridlock was super-fun and not cheap if you’re a taxpayer, but it’s time to move past all that and get down to responsible government in the public interest.
As wishful thinking goes, that’s pretty adorable too.
No matter who you vote for, you find out pretty quick that they don’t work for you. There’s a story that sounds like an old wives’ tale but isn’t that says that members of Congress need to raise at least $10,000 a day during their terms in order to get re-elected. They do this by going to an office building in Washington away from the halls of power where they can sit down and call people and ask them for money.
Let’s pretend you’ve got a couple million dollars lying around that you don’t really need for anything. Your congressman or senator calls you up and says, “I would really enjoy a hundred thousand dollars or so to help me win my next election.”
This isn’t the March of Dimes or the Ronald McDonald House or Disabled American Veterans or the Humane Society where you know for a fact where your money is going and what it’s for. So you ask, as any reasonable person would, “What do I get in return?”
And if you’re a new congressman who’s just found their way to the executive restroom in the Capitol building and you like having a paid staff and travel perks and all the nifty things that come along with being a congressman, and you gave up your day job to run for office, your answer is likely, “What do you want?”
Much like my mother and her sister laughing their heads off and pointing at me after drinking a couple of bottles of wine on Thanksgiving Day, that’s not a conversation we want to hear.
Because I’m a history nerd, I am authorized to tell you that in the first century BC, the ancient Roman Republic was in trouble. It was doing pretty good on paper — it had mastered much of the world that mattered, its enemies were gone or forgotten, it could always get its hands on money when it needed some, and its name was revered and feared.
Way to go, ancient Roman Republic.
Peel back the layers, though, and there were some trouble spots. The richest men in the Republic were either members of the Senate or had bought enough senators to make sure they kept getting what they wanted, which usually meant lots of land and the slaves to work it. The poor, after being forced off their land or having had no shot at getting their own in the first place, crowded into the cities looking for work or hoping to get on the free grain dole. Soldiers served in hopes of plundering their enemies and retiring to the plot of land their generals kept promising them. Except their land had gone to some rich Senator while they were busy hauling an eighty-pound pack through the Syrian desert so they could sack that one city that had water. The only way they’d ever get to see their little patch of dirt is if they went to farm it as a slave after they mustered out of the legions.
And did I mention there were quite a lot of slaves? Here’s a funny story — a bill was proposed in the Roman Senate requiring all slaves to dress alike. Like a uniform. The bill was shot down because the Senate didn’t want the slaves to figure out how many of them there really were.
There weren’t a lot of happy people in the late Roman Republic, so it was pretty easy for a series of strongmen like Julius Caesar to come along and mobilize the disaffected. Which went the way you might expect — civil war, followed by dictatorship, followed by a monarchy, followed by inevitable decline and fall.
When I ask you how you see this ending, it’s a serious question.
So what do we do about it? Are there any real solutions available to pull America’s proverbial car out of the proverbial ditch that generations of venal politicians, disinterested or distracted voters, and quite possibly evil oligarchs have driven it into?
Would Congressional term limits help? How about eliminating primaries? What if we picked our Congressmen and Senators the way we pick our juries? How do we pay for healthcare? Can we do anything about the national debt? Do we speak softly and carry a big stick when it comes to our dealings with other countries? Are all politicians cowards?
I heard a phrase recently that hit the nail on the head for me. The “Exhausted Majority.” Like the “Silent Majority” of the Nixon era, it suggests that the bulk of the American people are staying quiet when it comes to politics, because they’re just sick and tired of the whole thing. People running for office and plotting electoral strategy hate silence. They really want to know which side you’re on.
But the Exhausted Majority is too tired for that. Worn out from trying to reconcile their sense of patriotism and duty to their country with the results they get for their votes and their tax money. They’re weary of watching elected officials acting like kindergartners at recess. They look around as they go to work and pay their bills and feed their pets and raise their kids and save for retirement and spend their money in the consumer market and see that America has quite a lot going for it. They love their country and want it to fulfill the great promise that they learned about in fifth grade, but all that power and potential gets lost somewhere between here and Washington.
They don’t talk about politics. They’re just trying to get through their day. They vote for one of the two choices served up in November even though they don’t really like either one. They may not even come out to vote when the time comes because they don’t think things will ever change.
But what if they did?
The more attention we pay to what’s going on in this country the more disillusioned we become. Grown adults in positions of power are saying things out loud that make us question their stability, their sense of reality, and their intelligence. We’ve lived our lives with the soothing illusion that the people in charge know what they’re doing and have a plan, but the more we see, the less we believe it. The media is turning our heads toward what they want us to be looking at and keeping our attention away from the things they don’t. Social media is like riding on a school bus where all you can hear are the loud kids in the back.
Political agendas are in the hands of those who seem to have no fear, no conscience, and no consequences. Everyone with a hand on the nation’s steering wheel is playing a short game in which only they are guaranteed to win, and the proverbial car keeps steering toward that proverbial ditch.
No matter how much tax money we send, no matter who we vote for, no matter how loudly we howl to the empty sky and scare the dogs, America’s problems never truly get solved.
How do I know? Because I’ll get to hear all about them again in the next election cycle. Abortion, climate change, guns, immigration, infrastructure, national defense, taxes, veterans.
I will be told that my entire way of life is at stake.
Just like last time.
I don’t enjoy admitting that my wife is right, but in this particular case, she may be on to something.
Maybe it’s time to stop watching the news.
We need new ideas in order to fix what’s broken. We know what we get if we just let things keep going on the way they always have. We know it for sure.
We know how it ends.