A Short Political Essay, with Mudslinging

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

After last week’s government shutdown, a couple of my friends Facebooked that we obviously needed a new Congress. True representatives of the People would never hold national security hostage to pathetic partisan grandstanding. Brave soldiers manning the wall were going unpaid!

In a way my friends are right. A normal parliament finds ways to pass laws that do not depend on playing political Chicken over the country’s operating budget. So throw the bums out. Isn’t that one of the bedrock principles of democracy–if you don’t like your government, elect a new one?

Except it won’t work that way. Even if we vote in a new govenment, it will act just like the old one, falling into the same old gridlock. Why is this?

Rather than threading my way through the issues and processes that really underpin this problem, today I’ve decided to blame it on particular people. This is for two reasons. One, it is fun. Who does not enjoy using oversimplifications to slander people they dislike? Am I going to let some cud-chewing political “expert” tell me the things that outrage me have complex, “structural” origins? Not today.

Second, you, gentle reader, might take more away from my by-name slagging of prehensile creeps than you would from a placid analysis of abstract issues, no matter how insightful. People actually form their political perceptions based on cant, identity, emotions and intuitions rather than knowledge of facts or rational calculation of expected payoff. When you go to the polls, or put pen to paper to argue politics, you are not the objective oberver or rational actor you think you are; you are your mood, disposition, and skin color. If you don’t believe me, read this study, or this one, or this one. In fact, just take a week off to read, and see if you ever feel like voting again.

But back to my topic. The idea is, I get a good hate on and you come away with a clear idea of what I think is really wrong with the government.

I blame three people for what’s wrong. What these villains have wrought will guarantee continued government gridlock even if we elect fresh faces this fall. Who are these Enemies of the People? Oh, let me tell you.

It all starts with Newt Gingrich. Up until this serial philanderer¹ and crackpot historian from Georgia started jockeying for Speaker of the House in 1989, Congressmen had always (tacitly) observed Clausewitz’s old distinction between politics and war. War meant fighting to the death; politics, although a competition with serious stakes, did not. You still had to get along with your adversary. Gingrich disliked this idea of comity among rivals and set out to wreck it. Rather than going after the Democrats on the issues, Gingrich sought to debase their character, poisoning the very well of the party’s policy ideas.

Newt_Gingrich
(Image: signature-reads.com)

Although Gingrich lacked a fancy social sciences degree, he uncovered a facet of human stupidity, now robustly confirmed by cognitive psychologists, that unlocked immense political power in his favor: if you consistently describe your adversary using single, focus-grouped negative buzzwords (and your own in positive ones), you need never use actual sentences to win your constituents’ support for complex issues. They will simply fall into line, as slavishly as Teheran’s denizens do every Friday, chanting “Death to America” on queue. And if you spend enough money weaponizing this tactic lifted straight from 1984, you can win most of the elections, most of the time.²

Congress has never been the same since the Gingrich revolution. Congressmen and -women are now locked in permanent war, a combat funded by wealthy interests, designed by lobbyists, and waged constantly in the media. In setting this complex of machinery in motion, Gingrich switched on a George Jetson-like electioneering treadmill that politicians can never get off. They will die if they do. The treadmill never slows down and never stops spinning off clever strategies for dumbing down the electorate and amping up tribal hatreds. So thanks for that, Newt. You’re a fucking asshole.

Then, there’s Gerald Cassidy. Wait, Gerald Who? Cassidy is the most successful lobbyist in American history, worth $100 million when he retired in the late-2000s. He took the lobbying game to a whole new level, and, like Gingrich, he unloosed forces that have permanently damaged our government’s ability to deliver democracy.

Lobbying didn’t start out all that bad. The germ of the idea is that the people have the right to petition the government. The Constitution says we do. But what we lack is access to goverment officials and knowledge of how they make things happen. This is where the lobbyist comes in. He (it’s almost always a he) usually comes from Congress or an industry that has learned how to cozy up to the government to get its way on issues that matter to it.

In 1975 Cassidy had gotten good at helping left-leaning interest groups compel the government to enforce fair labor standards. He was a young idealist. But after he started getting paid well, he began to realize that what he was selling–access and influence–were politically neutral commodities. He got very good selling these things, and he worked both sides of the aisle. As long as the cash was rolling in, he really didn’t care what kind of political outcomes he was fostering.

Cassidy’s “greatest” accomplishment was his innovation of the earmarking process, by which line-item appropriations could be attached to bills about entirely different things. Congressmen had always done some form of slicing and dicing elements of bills to win rivals’ votes to their cause, but Cassidy blew the lid off this practice. In 1977 he helped Tufts University win a $27 million research center, utterly untransparently and without competition. When the dust settled and Cassidy and Congress realized they would not be called to the principal’s office for what they had just done, it was off to the races. A sort of Oklahoma land rush, but on earmarks ensued. It changed the way laws got made. Rather than engage in substantive debate on, say an air pollution bill, Congressmen would simply trade votes on line-item expenditures attached to the bill instead. You vote for my pork, and I’ll vote for yours. Who cares what else is in the bill!

But, outrageous as they are, earmarks didn’t do the real damage to democracy. That has been done by all the campaigning services that spun off Cassidy’s original work as a lobbyist. After Gingrich declared war in Congress in 1994 with his “Contract with America,” Cassidy and other lobbyists immediately started weaponizing all the things politicians would need to survive the arms race of the permanent campaign. Thus were born, among other things, political action committees, the shell companies that convert interest groups’ money into votes and reduce political campaigns to the mass manipulation of prejudice and ignorance.

Lots of fat cats pay lobbyists lots of money to keep you, gentle reader, ignorant and angry, but of course they are making much, much more money by the manipulation of the legislative process made possible by your ignorance and anger (or, let’s face it: plain old apathy). Cassidy didn’t set out to wreck democracy in this way, but he did see the damage start to occur as his business began ballooning, and he simply didn’t give a shit. So, for that, you, too, Gerald Cassidy, are a fucking asshole.³

Finally, there’s Billy Graham. Yes, that’s right, Billy Graham. So far we have been able to cast my Enemies of the people as distant elites, villains who maneuvered their way into power and then lorded it over the undeserving common folk. But unfortunately, my morality tale of democracy gone off the rails has a twist. It unveils a shadowy an enemy within, and it is us.

Gingrich and Cassidy would never have scaled such heights of evil ingenuity had we not conspired in their cause. Yes, the things they did took place inside the halls of power, sanctuaries where plumbers, typists or farmers could never hope to enter. But nonetheless, We the People have an obligation to be vigilant and to call bullshit at the first outward sign of government mischief, before it is institutionalized. The villains who worked with Gingrich and Cassidy and their ilk to poison democracy needed us to be dimwitted and docile, and we obliged them. More than anyone else, it was Billy Graham who enabled America’s mass yokelism by putting a positive valence on ignorance, obedience and magical thinking.

Before Graham began his barnstorming evangelical rallies of the 1950s, there had been  certain sanctions on being forthrightly stupid in public. The Scopes Trial of 1925 emblemized how things worked. Opinion leaders marked off the boundaries of what could be confessed without drawing censurious laughter and what couldn’t. If you believed, say, that the world would end in your lifetime with the advent of a seven-headed seamonster, you would need to file that one away. We have day jobs to do, and we can’t focus if we think our colleague is basing any of his public decisions on such extravagant private fantasies.

Today, though, we are taught that literalist religious nonsense has a proper role in public policy. This did not happen by accident. Starting with the Eisenhower Administration in 1952, Graham assiduously applied to multiple presidential press secretaries to win his way into the White House and create the position of religious valet to the Commander-in-Chief. Although Ike was sympathetic to Graham, he kept the gangly North Carolinian at arm’s length. It was not until the presidency of that well-known Quaker holy man Richard Nixon that Graham won his way through and became a fixture of national politics in America, kneeling in prayer with the president and chummily insulting Jews.4

Is it any wonder that our heads of state eventually ordained Graham and took him into their counsel? They would have been fools to turn him away, for Graham delivered up a pearl of great price. In addition to empowering rank stupidity and blind obedience among the masses, Graham midwived an unprecedented person in American politics–the single issue voter.

Think about this: if you are a politician and you advocate for position of the single-issue voter, you win his or her support for absolutely anything else you wish to append to your platform. Anything. This is what nerds call a killer app. It does exactly what you want it to, and it kills competitors–in this case, things like nuance, debate and argument–with ruthless efficiency.  And if an opposing politician wins partisans to an equal and opposite single issue, voila, you have permanent polarization of the electorate. No voter will ever move off their position, and the politicians get to keep adding whatever planks to their platforms they wish. Pretty, isn’t it?

So for persuading the masses and elites alike that it is virtuous to be dumb, but especially for enabling single-issue voting, you, too, Billy Graham, are a fucking asshole.

 

  1. Ordinarily a politician’s domestic life doesn’t bear much on my estimation of his value. Gingrich, though, did things that challenged my coldblooded ability to compartmentalize. In 1980, he notified his first wife of his intent to divorce her as she lay battling cancer in the hospital. Although certain “aspects” of this story have been distorted over the years to be even less flattering to Gingrich, the fact itself is not in question. The moral callousness of such an act surely approaches what any reasonable person would call sociopathic. In 2000, when Gingrich divorced his second, younger wife, it was so he could sanctify an affair he’d been having with a (still younger) junior staffer for seven years. Now the affair itself is run-of-the-mill stuff for Congressmen, and I risk violating my own principle of being blase about politicians and sex, but I must point out that for years Gingirch had been promoting himself as a family values politician and a vanguard warrior for the Bible Belt’s growing faction in America’s culture wars. If this level of hypocrisy doesn’t support my argument that voters will shamelessly slag their own principles for the sake of tribal loyalty, nothing does. Among his other sins, Gingrich enabled massive voter hypocrisy.
  2. For a summary of Gingrich’s innovations, see the chapter about him in George Packer’s excellent 2013 book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.
  3. You can read about Cassidy in Robert Kaiser, So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, from which I take my facts.
  4. Graham’s machinations were also helpful to big business, a discussion I had to leave out here. See Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, for the facts I cite about Graham.

 

Advertisements

A Certain Power

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

As a child I was a profligate liar. I lied to exaggerate my accomplishments at school, to decorate my past, and in many cases to try to get out of trouble. It was probably in the course of that last effort that I finally figured out lying was more trouble than it was worth. To be honest I don’t remember when I finally broke the lying habit, but I do recall I was old enough to feel shame. I should have known better.

Anyone who has ever lived with a long-term lie knows the relief of putting an end to it. The lie in question doesn’t have to be a whopper; it could be the smallest of omissions or distortions, kept up for the sake of comity or covenience. But the fresh start of breaking with falsehood and living up to the truth is a healthy, cathartic experience. It can hardly be a coincidence that one of the most enduring books in Western civilization is St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in the fifth century, still in print today.

George Orwell captured the tonic power of truth-telling in a single phrase. In one of his essays (possibly “Why I Write”), he was inventorying his talents when he mentioned that his main gift was not so much a skill or technique as it was a certain power for facing unpleasant facts. The more you read Orwell the more clearly you see the quality that most of his “unpleasant facts” had in common–they were lies the English people told themelves about how good and great they were.

In America, it is Martin Luther King Jr. who plays the unwelcome but deeply necessary role of puncturing our most cherished myths. Without King, our whole national story remains a lie. The Founders declared with a great flourish that all men were created equal, even as the slaves they owned worked under the whip and built the mercantile power on which our country as founded. Certainly men with eyes as clear as Thomas Jefferson’s could see the depth of this lie. It took a lot of effort to keep it covered up for so long.

I don’t have time or space to trace the lie and all its variants down through the course of American history. We all know it well enough to acknowledge its presence. Besides, I want to keep my point short, and it is this: for exposing this lie, Martin Luther King is an American hero on par with the founders of our republic. He saved the national project. Without him, we would still be telling ourselves that our experiment in political freedom had succeeded. We would still think slavery was a mere aberration, and its consequences would eventually blow over if we just let time and forgetting do their work.

MLK

I grew up in places where people saw King as “belonging” to the civil right movement. He was made out to be a special-purpose activist, someone who helped right wrongs that existed somewhere else but not here. Since then, I’ve come to see King as he truly is: a leader and prophet for all Americans. In fact he is possibly the greatest American of all.

Anyone can create national myths and purvey national values, but it takes a true hero to hold the nation to account for them. If, some 50 or 100 years from now, Americans look back and perceive that we have crossed over into the promised land of political equality, I am convinced it will be King who deserves the credit for it. His power for facing unpleasant facts means we don’t have to live a lie anymore, and we don’t have to be ashamed of ourselves. We can still reach the promised land, but only if we admit we are not there yet.