Civil War Levels

Senator Tom Harkin has expressed his opinion that American politics has reached the level of divisiveness not seen since just before the Civil War. Here is an account of his words at National Journal.

As the clock ticks down toward a possible government shutdown, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, isn’t holding back.

On the Senate floor before 10 a.m. Friday, the senator gave a speech describing how American politics have reached the level at which “a small group of willful men and women who have a certain ideology”—read: the tea party and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas—have been able to take over the congressional budget debate in the last week. “Since they can’t get their way,” Harkin said, “they’re going to create this confusion and discourse and hope that the public will be so mixed up in who is to blame for this, that they’ll blame both sides.”

This isn’t just congressional business as usual, Harkin said. It’s much, much more dire:

It’s dangerous. It’s very dangerous. I believe, Mr. President, we are at one of the most dangerous points in our history right now. Every bit as dangerous as the break-up of the Union before the Civil War.

This isn’t the first time the senator has spoken out about the spiraling budget and the fight over Obamacare. Harkin suggested Thursday that Cruz looked “foolish” for his “little tirade” that lasted from Tuesday afternoon until Wednesday morning. Harkin called out Cruz as being part of “the most extreme tea-party wing” of his party, and for his “ideology-driven obstructionism.”

I think that Senator Harkin should go back a read a few books about the Civil War. Until we start seeing Senators actually physically attacking one another, we are not quite that far gone.

Congressman-Brooks-pummels-Senator-Sumner-300x196
Although fist fights in the Senate would make C-Span worth watching.

 

By the way, I should also say something about Senator Cruz’s reference to the Nazis.

Harkin isn’t the first to pull out a dramatic historical analogy on the Senate floor this week, either. During his 21-plus hour speech, Cruz hearkened back to Nazi Germany for a comparison to “pundits” who think Obamacare cannot be defeated:

If we go to the 1940s, Nazi Germany—look, we saw it in Britain. Neville Chamberlain told the British people: Accept the Nazis. Yes, they will dominate the continent of Europe, but that is not our problem. Let’s appease them. Why? Because it can’t be done. We cannot possibly stand against them.

In America there were voices who listened to that; I suspect the same pundits who said it couldn’t be done. If this had happened in the 1940s, we would have been listening to them. Even then they would have made television. They would have gotten beyond the carrier pigeons and letters and they would have been on TV saying: You cannot defeat the Germans.

Would it be too much to ask that we not compare any of our fellow Americans to the Nazis?

 

Rooting for a Shutdown

It is possible that we will be facing a government shutdown in the near future. Of course, the government won’t really be shut down. The essential functions of the federal government will continue to be funded. It will be interesting to see just what the government is doing that we won’t miss. It may even be that life will go on as normal, even with a partial government shut down.

In any case, Joshua Green at the Boston Globe is actually rooting for a government shutdown. He thinks that if may restore sanity to Washington. I doubt that anything could accomplish that aim. There are a couple of statements in his column that I have to take issue with.

Anyone paying attention to Washington this week has probably experienced a familiar sinking feeling: Congress is embroiled in another one of its periodic hostage-taking crises over a looming budget deadline that threatens to close the government, cost taxpayers billions, and possibly plunge the economy back into recession.

Hostage taking? Who is being held hostage? It seems to me that the government would run a lot more smoothly if politicians would stop referring to their colleagues who happen to oppose them as terrorists or hostage takers. When you start insulting people, it becomes very difficult to work together. Whatever happened to civility? Oh, I know. Civility only really meant, “sit down and shut up”.

What’s most maddening about these debates is that the 2012 election was supposed to have settled them. It appeared to do so in favor of the Democrats: Obama was reelected by 5 million votes and his party gained seats in the House and Senate. But most Republicans either ignore these results or believe that they no longer reflect national sentiment. “That was a year ago,” says Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, who wants to “defund” the Affordable Care Act. “I mean, c’mon!”

If the situation were reversed and we had a Republican president and the Democrats in Congress were opposing him, liberals would applaud the Democrats for standing up to the President’s evil agenda, while conservatives would be demanding the Democrats support the president because he won the election. The fact is that the Republicans are under no obligation to support the president’s agenda when if he had been re-elected in a landslide. At this moment, they are the opposition party. It is actually their job to oppose the president. In fact, the men who wrote the Constitution wanted something like gridlock. They didn’t want a majority to simply be able to roll over the minority nor did they want the government to be able to act recklessly.

Congress might start working again. The severity (and danger) of budget crises has steadily intensified as Congress has stopped working the way it is supposed to. It no longer operates as civic textbooks describe, where committees in both chambers study issues, pass bills, and then reconcile them in a formal negotiating conference. Instead, party leaders began resorting to last-minute, back-room deals. But Republicans, bitter about the deals they were getting, forced their leaders to stop. That led to the current system of negotiation-by-public-threat. A shutdown would be a bracing reminder to one party or the other (my money’s on the Republicans) of why the Gingrich approach failed so badly. When that lesson sinks in, the old, saner way of doing things will probably look much better.

The old, saner way of doing things is why we are in the mess we are in. The Democrats seem to think that they can just print more money and too many Republicans just don’t want to rock the boat. When a few Republican politicians actually begin to insist that the Republicans really try to keep their promises to balance the budget and decrease the size of government, they are labeled extremists and crazies and their leaders try to undercut them. It has come to the point that only drastic action, such as threatening to shut down the government is the only way to make the changes that we need. If everyone in both parties actually began to understand that we cannot keep going on the course we have been, then maybe all this drama will not be necessary and they can get to work.

 

The White Panther Party

White Panther Party
White Panther Party (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

A long time ago, while I was attending Indiana University, I happened to be wandering around the IU Main Library. I was supposed to be studying for a test, but I had better things to do. In one of the aisles, I came across a section filled with old newspapers and literature from various radical organizations from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. One group of papers that I found particularly interesting were the ones published by the White Panther Party.

 

The White Panther Party was founded in Ann Arbor Michigan in that tumultuous year 1968 by Lawrance Plamodon, Leni Sinclair, and John Sinclair. They were not, as you might expect from the name, a White supremacist organization. They were actually a radical leftwing group aligned with the Black Panther Party.  It is a little strange to think that a that a militant Black power organization had a White sister organization. It seems to me a little as if I learned that the Ku Klux Klan had opened a “Negro Auxillary”. They committed various crimes as part of the Revolution, got raided by the FBI, went to jail and were released, the usual round of activities of 60’s radicals. The group managed to survive into the 1980’s and relocated to California. Interestingly, in 1984 they initiated a recall election against then San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein because of her attempt to ban the possession of hand guns in the city.

 

Their newsletters were about what you might expect, rants against the Vietnam War, the capitalist system, racism, etc. There was a lot of anger expresses, but few actual solutions proposed except revolution. I suspect that many of the articles were written under the influence of various illicit substances. Here is their list of demands published in November 1968. Please excuse the language.

 

  1. Full endorsement and support of the Black Panther Party’s 10-point program and platform.
  2. Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.
  3. Free exchange of energy and materials—we demand the end of money!
  4. Free food, clothes, housing, dope, music, bodies, medical care—everything free for every body!
  5. Free access to information media—free the technology from the greed creeps!
  6. Free time & space for all humans—dissolve all unnatural boundaries!
  7. Free all schools and all structures from corporate rule—turn the buildings over to the people at once!
  8. Free all prisoners everywhere—they are our comrades!
  9. Free all soldiers at once—no more conscripted armies!
  10. Free the people from their phony “leaders”—everyone must be a leader—freedom means free every one! All Power to the People!

 

There is really not much to be said about this manifesto. I do wonder where they thought all that free food, clothing, dope, bodies, and medical care was going to come from, especially if money were abolished. Farming is hard work, even in our mechanized age. I don’t imagine there would be many farmers who after spending months in their fields growing crops, would simply hand over the harvest to the first hungry hippie who came along. Who would they expect to make the clothing, tools, medicines, etc for free? Who is going to build and maintain the schools and structures? How would they expect to have anything like a modern society if everyone is a leader who does anything and everyone spends their time on drugs and fornicating in the streets?

 

I get the unsettling feeling that the members of the White Panther Party simply had no idea where the food on their plates or the roof over their heads actually came from. Judging from their manifesto, they seemed to believe that everything just appeared by magic and was free for the taking. The only reason anyone had to pay for anything was because of the wicked capitalists and the greed creeps. In a way, the thinking of these people was something like the famous cargo cults that appeared in the South Pacific after World War II. Those people tried to build air fields out of bamboo to attract more “cargo”. They were entirely ignorant of the principles involved in creating modern technology. In like manner, the White Panther Party fantasied about a revolution and creating a Socialist or Anarchist utopia, but simply had no idea how a modern, or premodern economy actually functioned, as well as having a woefully mistaken understanding of basic human nature.

 

This would all be of academic or historical interest  if the ideas of groups like the White Panther Party had died with the organizations. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There are millions of people in this country and many others whose understanding of economics and human nature is no better than the White Panther Party’s. All too many of these people happen to be in positions of influence and too many bad policies are the result. If you look at many of the policy debates going on in Washington, it seems that one or both sides really believe in the same sort of cargo cult economics that the White Panthers did. At least no one ever seems to consider that any free gifts the government gives out must ultimately be paid for by somebody, either now or in the future when the bills come due.