Hate Talk

It has always been so: using emotive language to describe those people we detest reduces them to things. Such is the case with people we don’t happen to like — or want to kill in violent confrontations called “war.” Not long ago the Japanese were called “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” We devise hateful names to describe those we hate and want to kill in the name of God and all that is good. It seems to work: it reduces human beings, as noted, to things to be dispensed with.

We now find ourselves living in a society in which our feckless leader has labelled his enemies in order to generate hatred of those things or people he has determined are his enemies — and therefore the enemies of us all. Thus are the Democrats now called “the party of crime. . .  too extreme and dangerous to govern” as they are derided as enemies of the Republic for which we stand. And this is only one example of the way this man uses words (often incorrectly) to generate strong emotions in his followers. He loves to hold rallies, as did one of his predecessors who also generated hatred in his followers, in order to feel the glow of admiration and even worship — and convince himself that he is loved and admired. The Germans thought Hitler was the new Messiah; many Americans now think our president is the savior of this country. The parallel is at times quite striking — and alarming.

But, let us take the word “Democrat,” as an example. If we are to save this nation and make “America Great Again,” we need to recall that we have always been a two-party democracy. Granted, there were no formal parties at the outset, but there were those who favored a Republic (like Jefferson) and there were those Federalists who favored a watered-down monarchy (like Hamilton). Folks lined up on either side of what was then a budding two-party system. Eventually those parties took on the names “Republican” and “Democrat.” The former were the remnants of the Federalists preferred by Hamilton and the latter were those who favored a popular government, like Jefferson. In any case, the two parties were seen to be the way the country divided itself and politics became a game of balancing and compromising the differences in order to find a middle ground that all could live with. Compromise was the key word.

The game of politics can become ugly, as we all know. And the rules were frequently rewritten and often even forgotten. But the way it worked was for men and women of differing political views to come together and seek a middle ground. You scratch my back and I will scratch your back. That was then. This is now. Among certain folks in this country at present the word “Democrat,” like the words “socialist,” and “liberal” have become terms of derision, if not of genuine hatred. And the notion that one should compromise with the opposition strikes many as heresy. This is worrisome.

To ague that we are going to make America “Great” again by labelling those who oppose us with hateful names is absurd. To call the Democrats names is insidious and blind to history. And the tendency to point to that party (or any party for that matter) as the cause of all that is wrong is nothing less than an attempt to ignore wrongs that need to be corrected and to point elsewhere for those mistakes we all make. Whether we like them or not, those who disagree with us are the ones we have to live with and while we can agree to disagree we must draw the line at calling them names and dismissing them as enemies of the state, dirt to be swept away. That way lies totalitarianism and it is anathema to everything the Founders hoped would follow from establishing this Republic. Worse yet, it breeds hatred and contempt and when fostered by fear, as we know from the past, it can lead to tragedy on a grand scale.

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The Welfare State

When President Franklyn Roosevelt initiated steps to thwart the depression his country was deep in, he cautioned against the real possibility that citizens would become dependent on the hand-outs the Federal Government was taking steps to provide. As he said at the time:

“Continued dependence upon relief indicates a spiritual and moral degeneration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

The possibility that Roosevelt alluded to had been noted years before by such intellectual giants as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who both saw “socialism” as a step toward the destruction of human freedom. Indeed, Dostoevsky thought socialism was the bastard offspring of the Church which, by making moral decisions for mankind, had robbed them of their humanity. If the Church or the State take care of people they will stop taking care of themselves. And taking care of themselves involves a struggle and, at times, suffering; these are the things that make us fully human. It is a dilemma: on the one hand there are folks who desperately need help and all who are able have a duty to care for them. On the other hand, this care can become a habit and rob those folks of the very freedom that makes them human.

Robert Kennedy in a speech in 1966 echoed Roosevelt’s warning, adding that “higher welfare payments . . .often lead to lifelong dependency.” The problem is how to find a balance between meeting genuine human needs and creating a situation in which those who receive assistance become dependent on it and find themselves unable to take care of themselves. The obvious solution takes the form of assistance with strings tied to it, assistance that demands that those who receive it do so for a limited amount of time and then fend for themselves, frequently referred to as “workfare.” Presumably this is what welfare reform is all about.

It’s not a Republican/Democrat sort of problem either, though there are Democrats who support all forms of welfare and there are Republicans who oppose all forms of welfare, which they see as hand-outs to lazy ne’er-do-wells. In a country that ponders the possibility of spending billions of dollars building walls to keep “terrorists” out and spends more billions to build planes and ships that can travel the world with nuclear weapons tucked away in their bellies, the notion that spending millions to help those in needs wastes our hard-earned money is truly ironic. And the notion that those in need are lazy is incredibly insensitive and wrong-headed. It is not the fact that millions are being spent on those in need that bothers so many people, however, it is the fact that they see those millions as being better spent on building higher walls. Or they point to anecdotes about abuse of the system, those who take without needing. In a word, we have a serious problem with perception and a loss of a sense of balance between what is being done and what should be done. And this in a nation that prides itself on its Judeo-Christian heritage!

Clearly, a wealthy nation such as the United States can afford to take care of those in need — whose numbers grow daily. The money that is spent elsewhere could be reshuffled easily to cover all costs. But the real problem is that those who receive this aid, regardless of how much money it turns out to be, must be enabled to take care of themselves. Many who receive welfare admit this and insist that their own self-respect depends on their eventually earning a living, taking care of themselves and their families– even if the income they earn turns out to be less than the money they are receiving on welfare!  The notion that these people are all lazy ne’er-do-wells is twisted and distorted — and self-serving. These are folks like you and like me who have come on hard times. The issue is not whether we spend some of our tax dollars to take care of those who desperately need it; the question is how we do this while still making possible the retention of self-respect and a degree of human freedom that they require to go on with their lives and become healthy, productive citizens.

Gridlock

It is common knowledge that the Republicans in the Senate have vowed not to allow President Obama’s nominee for the vacancy in the Supreme Court ever see the light of day. It is also common knowledge that those same Republicans are deep into the pocket of the NRA and recently voted as a group not to pass any laws restricting the use of AK-15s and other weapons of mass destruction. They have bought into the dream of the gun manufacturers, who support the NRA, that every man, woman, and child in this country should be armed against….every other man, woman, and child.

Furthermore, it is widely known that the core of the Republicans in Congress met soon after Barack Obama’s election and vowed not to pass on any legislation the man favored, to adopt what has been called a “scorched-earth” policy of no compromise. But, as has recently been pointed out, this policy goes back further than Obama and those who chalk it up to the determination of a group of racists not to cooperate with a black president may have to rethink their position. It appears it is not racism; it is simply twisted political thinking. As a recent article points out:

The link between the design failures of the presidential system itself and these failures is clear enough. The worse things go for the president, the better the chances for the opposition party to regain power. Cooperating would merely give the president bipartisan cover, making him more popular and benefiting his party as well. Republican leaders have openly acknowledged these incentives. In the Obama era, this has forced the Republican leadership to mount a scorched-earth opposition, demonizing the president as an alien socialist who threatens America’s way of life.
This Republican belief that compromise always helps the White House, at least when it comes to electoral politics, goes back further than the Obama years. It started in force with Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and the Republican reaction to Bill Clinton’s election in 1993, and what they did in the year that followed was a model for how Republicans acted in 2009. The GOP’s midterm victories in 1994, 2010 and 2014 seemed to validate it.

What this means is that the commonsense notion that politics is all about compromise, reaching the decision that works best for everyone — even though it may not be the decision that each individual wants — has been displaced in our era by a group of small-minded men and women whose only goal is to oppose the opposition, to see to it that their party is strengthened and the opposition party rendered weak and helpless. The central notion of the “Common Good” that goes back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas, has been preempted in our era by “what’s good for the party is good for me.” The idea is that the political party that one belongs to demands complete loyalty because it is that party — and the money that goes into that party’s coffers — that will determine whether or not I keep my high-paying job. And please note: this is not about party loyalty. It’s about self-interest.

If the Supreme Court must limp along with only eight members for a while, or if more and more people must be killed by weapons designed for modern warfare (and not for killing deer) so be it. What matters now is ME. If I am an elected official my only goal is to remain in office and do whatever it takes to remain there. What is good for my constituency matters not a whit. What matters is what is good for me and for my ability to remain in public office.

The two main players in this sick drama are, of course, the PACs and the lack of term limits in public office. The entire situation could be remedied if the Congress were to address these two issues. But they will not because those two factors are what keep them in office. And professional politicians, which is what we are surrounded by today, know what side their bread is buttered on — if they know nothing else.

Noam Chomsky’s Prediction

I have decided to borrow the following article from a site called “Salon” despite the fact that Chomsky worries about the rise of an “honest” charismatic character and what we have is a dishonest charismatic character in Donald Trump (who, admittedly appears to be honest to the blind mice who follow him). But the prediction is remarkable and worth pondering. Can anyone still have doubts about this nation being a de facto oligarchy?

In an interview with Chris Hedges in 2010, Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and dissident intellectual, remarked that he has “never seen anything like this.”
By this, he meant the state of American society, relative to the time in which he was raised — the Depression years — and to the tumultuous state of Europe during that same period.
“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky said. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”
For decades, Chomsky has warned of the right turn of the Democratic Party, which has, in an effort to win elections, adopted large swaths of the Republican platform and abandoned the form of liberalism that gave us the New Deal and, later, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
“Trump has been viewed with bewilderment by politicians who have divorced themselves from the needs of the people and who have sold them false goods to get ahead. But Trump, as Chomsky’s prescient interview demonstrates, was inevitable.”
This new approach was canonized by Bill Clinton, who triumphantly declared that the “era of big government is over.”
With this declaration, Clinton ushered in a new era of the Democratic Party (the so-called New Democrats), which left behind the working class and cultivated amiable relationships with corporate executives and Wall Street financiers; many of them would eventually occupy key positions in Clinton’s government, and many of them emerged once more during the presidency of Barack Obama.
The philosophical bent of the New Democrats was best summarized by Charles Peters in “A Neoliberal Manifesto,” in which he defines neoliberalism as an ideology perfect for those who “no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business.” Democrats, since Peters penned his manifesto, have far exceeded the bounds of this seemingly neutral stance.
Bill Clinton, for his part, destroyed welfare, deregulated Wall Street, worsened the growing mass incarceration crisis, and signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement, a sweeping deal that harmed millions of workers, in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere.
Today, President Obama, in partnership with congressional Republicans, is lobbying aggressively for the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been deemed by critics “NAFTA on steroids.” The agreement, if made the law of the land, will encompass 40% of global GDP and will grant massive companies unprecedented power.
Despite President Obama’s promises of transparency, the public has been forced to rely on leaked information to glean any specifics about the deal — and, based on the information we have, the agreement is a disaster for workers and the environment and, unsurprisingly, a boon for multinational corporations.
Democrats, in short, have left the working class in the dust, often using “the excuse,” as a recent New York Times editorial put it, “that they need big-money backers to succeed.”
Republicans, meanwhile, as Chomsky has observed, are “dedicated with utter servility” to the interests of the wealthy, and their party, with its longing for war and denial of climate science, “is a danger to the human species.”
So we are faced with a political system largely devoted to the needs of organized wealth, which leaves working people anxious, worried about the future, and, as we have seen, very angry. In essence, political elites — on both sides — have created a vacuum into which a charismatic and loudmouthed demagogue can emerge.
As Chomsky noted in his interview with Hedges, “The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen. Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response.”

Making America Great Again

The Trumpet blows loud and almost always off-key. But what he tells us is that his business acumen will once again make America great. In saying this I am put in mind of a recent article in Yahoo Finance  titled “Why Donald Trump is a Lousy Executive” that points out the probable lack of success of a presidential Donald The Trumpet — based on his obvious personality disorders:

Awful executives also tend to think that they have all the answers — to all the questions. CEO Wolfgang Schmitt drove Rubbermaid into a ditch during the 1990s. A former colleague remembered that under Schmitt, “the joke went, ‘Wolf knows everything about everything.’” Not surprisingly, know-it-all executives suffer because they fail to consider other points of view that might have merit. In fact, no one is always right, yet lousy executives act as if they are. In this regard, Trump’s impression of his own judgment and intelligence is telling. As he tweeted in May 2013: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” In September 2015, he made a similar statement on “The Tonight Show,” telling host Jimmy Fallon, “I think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.” [Italics added]

In any event, his claim to restore America to its former greatness rests on the assumption that America is not great any more and that given his presidency he will have the power to effect radical change. He will do this apparently by turning over rocks that reveal bigotry, misogyny, racism, hatred, and intolerance; this will restore those years of greatness. But, we might ask, when were those years?

Perhaps he means the nation just after the adoption of the Constitution. But we had no army or navy and were terribly vulnerable to attacks by France, Spain, or Britain — which we discovered when we went up against the British in the war of 1812 , a time when president Thomas Jefferson reluctantly realized that we did need a navy and an army if we were to become a world power. But there wasn’t much of a nation at that time and there certainly wasn’t wide-spread prosperity (which, I suspect, is what the Trumpet means by “great”).

Could he be talking about the 1920’s when the Hoover campaign promised a “chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard”? But this was a time when, despite the general prosperity of the country at large, there was also wide-spread suffering and unemployment among farmers, laborers, and minorities. Indeed, there were those who saw a depression alongside the highest standard of living the world had ever known.

Or, will the Trumpet make America great again by returning it to the days of Eisenhower, a post-war economy that gave us widespread materialism and the promise of never having to put off until tomorrow what we can own today — thanks to the charge card? This was an era of moderate wealth within the middle class. Recently the gap has grown between the wealthy and the very poor and the middle class has all but disappeared, so it is hard to see how prosperity in the country at large can be restored when it is the middle class that must have the buying power necessary to turn the tide. I don’t recall the Trumpet pledging to restore the middle classes to their former strength by such things as, say, raising the minimum wage. But, then, I don’t listen to him any more; he might have made such a pledge. He would if he thought it would advance his personal agenda.

Perhaps the Trumpet means to return to the high level of prosperity during the Bill Clinton years when  unemployment dropped by 3.9%, the labor force grew by 2.8 million folks who had previously been unemployed under the Reagan Administration during which the 1% began to dodge the tax man and the rest of us waited for the money to “trickle down.” Or, when, under Clinton, the G.D.P. growth was at 3.8%, inflation was stable, and median wages grew from $661.00 a week to $700.00 a week. But, the Trumpet can’t be referring to those years, because they were years under a Democratic president and the Republican camp refuses to admit that Clinton restored an economy that had been crippled by his predecessor.

So, in the end, it is not clear what era the Trumpet is referring to. Which was the age we shall return to in achieving our greatness once again? He is certainly correct in saying that the tarnish has worn off the eagle, given the present state of the nation in the eyes of the rest of the world. But it is not clear how this man proposes to restore a greatness that is hard to define, much less quantify — especially since his preeminence in the political race has already driven much of the world community even farther away from America. He is long on generalities and half-truths — not to mention blatant falsehoods. So it is hard to see what he has in mind and how he thinks he can pull it off, given that he will not be a dictator, but simply the executor of the will of a corrupt and, I dare say uncooperative, Congress.

But none of the Trumpet faithful seems to be interested in these considerations. It’s not clear what they ARE interested in. Or what they hear when he speaks. Or what is going on between their ears, if anything.

 

 

Declaring War?

You have probably noted the latest outburst from the cluster of clowns running for the Republican presidential nomination insisting that we declare war on IS. This in response to the shootings in San Bernardino by two people who were apparently supported by money from an unknown source, presumably IS — and in response to President Obama’s perceived soft response to those killings. Folks like Jeb Bush insist that IS has already declared war on the United States. Another idiot suggested that we are already involved in World War Three. Whether these things true or not matters little. What matters is that saying such things will bring the votes to Jeb Bush or one of his ilk when November rolls around.

There are so many things wrong with this knee-jerk response one scarcely knows where to start. For one thing, it is clear that as long as the American people are kept fearful and full of hatred they will be more likely to vote for a “strong” candidate as their leader next November. So the tactic is to keep the flames burning as fiercely as possible. Convince the voters that the Democrats, who seek to maintain some semblance of sanity in what appears to have been an insane act by two people in California, are too soft to lead the country in time of “crisis.” This is standard practice, politics as usual. The end justifies the means and grabbing the office of President of the United States is the prize.

But any talk of a declaration of war against a terrorist group that is apparently growing exponentially will assuredly simply give impetus to that group to continue to grow even more rapidly. We should have learned by now that such a war cannot be won. Hate-mongering might make some people feel better, but it is precisely the sort of thing groups like IS will use to convince like-minded people in the Middle East that they must take up arms against those insane Americans across the Atlantic. It pours gasoline on the flames — as does absurd talk about refusing admission to this country by anyone who happens to be a Muslim.

I applaud Obama, as I have said previously, for trying to sooth jangled nerves. Hillary Clinton has also attempted to restore some sort of reasonable balance to the discussion, to keep things in perspective. As F.D.R. said long ago we have nothing to fear but fear itself. But fear is the order of the day and those who would declare wholesale war on terrorist groups have their heads in the sand and are concerned only about gaining political office and not in the least about doing the right thing — or even the sane thing, which is to keep our cool and deal with these problems as they arise in a way that assures everyone that this sort of aberrant behavior will not be tolerated.

If we assume that Jeb Bush is correct and that IS has indeed declared war on this country (which is debatable), then as a nation we need to pull together, not in several different directions. A frantic, passionate response to the actions of zealots can only lead to chaos and if these men running for President were truly patriots concerned about the safety and security of their country they would not attack the sitting President of this country and stir up fear and hatred among its citizens in times of crisis. What is required are cool heads and reasonable suggestions. But, then, these men have their eye on the prize and winning that prize is the only thing that matters. Cool and reasonable are not their strong suit.

Nixonesque?

The HuffPost story begins as follows:

The Obama administration woke up on Tuesday to another morning of scorching criticism about the Justice Department’s decision to secretly obtain months of Associated Press phone records.

The DOJ tracked the incoming and outgoing calls on more than 20 AP phone lines, as well as the home, office and cell phone lines for six individual journalists involved in writing a national security-related story about Yemen that the Obama administration did not want them to write.

While many of us who supported this president are dismayed by this story and its ramifications — given its open attack on the first amendment — there are those who will insist that the president is in no way connected with this sort of suppression. How could he be? He’s a liberal democrat, after all, and Democrats are champions of a free press. But the story goes on to point out that

[Buzzfeed editor Ben] Smith wrote that the nuclear nature of the probe could, in part, be traced back to Obama, who has made it a policy to aggressively go after leaks in a fashion not seen in any of his predecessors. Though the White House said it had nothing to do with the probe and referred reporters to the Justice Department, Smith wrote that it was not hard to see Obama’s hand in some way: Elements of this approach, Obama’s friends and foes agree, come from the top. Obama is personally obsessed with leaks, to the extent that his second chief of staff, Bill Daley, took as one of his central mandates a major and ill-fated plumbing expedition. Attorney General Eric Holder, who pressed the leak policy, is a trusted Obama insider.

This obsession with leaks and attempts to suppress the news is disquieting indeed. I must admit I found Obama’s first term as president unsettling, given his urge to make everyone happy and reach compromises that violated fundamental principles he embraced during his campaign. But I figured that when he gets a second term and doesn’t have to run again he will come out strong on the principles one identifies with liberal thinkers and politicians who aren’t simply holding a finger up to see which way the wind is blowing. But there he is with his finger up — and it appears to be his middle one and it is pointed at us!  The man doesn’t seem to know what a principle is and he is acting very much like a paranoid Richard Nixon or George W. Bush, saying one thing while he does another. Shades of Watergate and the invasion of Iraq clouded in lies in the name of “freedom.”

It was terribly disappointing, for example, to see that even though 91% of the people in this country wanted some sort of background checks on gun sales the man couldn’t wheedle the Senate into a vote to support gun control. Is he really that clueless, not to mention inept? He seems to be sleeping with corporations like Monsanto who are determined to ignore ethics completely in the name of higher profits. Moreover, he promised to close Guantanamo where prisoners at this writing are still on a hunger strike to draw attention to their inhumane plight. And while the drone attacks started under Bush, they have escalated under Obama to an alarming extent — and he refuses to “come clean” and appear before committees to explain what he is up to. His tendency toward secrecy and his inclination to resort of prevarication when confronted smacks of the very thing we all hoped we were getting way from with this president who promised to be open and honest. He does, indeed, appear to be a Republican in Democratic clothing, fearful of “the enemy” and devoted to increasing corporate profits. It’s one thing to be a closet Republican with his hand in corporate pockets (there are a number of them in Congress), but it is quite another to pretend that he is anything but. It’s the duplicity coupled with the growing lack of trust that causes the greatest concern. Just who is this man?

Leaders Who Follow

An interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times recently made the case for more aggressive leadership in Congress. It concluded with the following paragraph:

Politicians play in a rugged arena and are understandably obsessed about losing power. But that power needs to be used for something other than perpetual re-election. The next two years will challenge lawmakers of both parties to demonstrate that they came to Washington for a purpose.

The article generally faults a number of Senators for failure of nerve and the Democrats generally for their lack of cohesion, sense of purpose, and their timidity. They are in a position of power and influence after the recent election yet they hesitate to take charge and lead the country. Instead they wait to see which way the wind is blowing and adjust their sails accordingly.

This is a most interesting point. I have referred in previous blogs to Joseph Schumpeter’s claims in the 1940s that the only real job professional politicians have any more is to get re-elected. This is certainly one of the author’s points above when he refers to “perpetual reelection.” But his point that those in Congress need to step up to the plate and take a healthy cut — to assume the mantle of leadership and show a bit of courage — is well taken. Even in a political climate where those with large purses call the shots, there is room for an occasional Congressman to play a leadership role, though I recognize that it takes courage. Rather than simply holding up a wet finger to see which way the political wind blows, or transferring allegiance to the lobbyists who wait in the outer office to take them to dinner and fatten their campaign war chests, one wonders whether a courageous man or woman might not appear on the horizon who is willing to take a risk in order to do the right thing. Imagine the groundswell of popular support for such a person!

The article focuses attention on several possible candidates, among whom one of the more interesting is the Senator from West Virginia who won re-election by a large margin and is in a position to take a decisive stand on the issue of gun control. Instead, we are told:

. . . senators have an obligation to lead public opinion, not to follow it blindly. Hunters in red states know full well that a semiautomatic weapon bristling with military features is unnecessary to bring down a deer or a duck. If Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who just won re-election comfortably, were to make that case, he might change a few minds, given his unquestionable support for Second Amendment rights.

If Mr. Manchin explained that such a ban was anything but a “gun grab,” people would pay attention. Instead, though he supports background checks, he will not endorse anything further.

Whether Joe Manchin hears the call to leadership remains to be seen. One does begin to doubt. The siren call of reelection seems so much more alluring where a high-paying job is assured and little is demanded but continued efforts to please those who slip them money under the table. It is sad to admit that Schumpeter may well be right: the only thing on the minds of a majority of those in Washington is hanging on to the soft job that offers them a public spotlight when they want it and job security as long as they don’t rock the boat.

No Surprise Here

It appears as though Congress is getting cold feet on the gun control issue. Pro-gun advocates in Washington were positively gloating on the talk shows on Sunday as they predicted that the Congress will come up empty on the issue of stricter gun laws– with the possible exception of more thorough background checks on prospective buyers of guns in the future. Even the relatively innocuous issue of high-capacity cartridge magazines seems doomed to be bypassed. As a recent Yahoo News story relates

Nearly a month after the massacre of 27 people in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers on Capitol Hill are dialing back expectations on what Congress can – or should – do on its own to curb gun violence.

After initial expressions of outrage, lawmakers and the White House are getting down to counting votes on what can actually be achieved on Capitol Hill, where limits on gun rights have has been a taboo for more than a decade.

What has happened is that the memories of the terrible events in Newtown, Connecticut have faded and the muscle of the NRA, which brags 100,000 brand spanking new members, has grown. Consequently the Congress has decided in its wisdom that, barring an executive order (which seems doubtful), things had better stay pretty much as they are. Even Vice President Joe Biden’s recent recommendations to lawmakers which are said to leave out of consideration the dreaded assault weapons will be weakened even further. And this despite the fact that the President recently proclaimed that no weapons should be left out of consideration.

The real problem here, of course, is that Congress really doesn’t worry about doing the right thing any more — if they ever did. They worry about re-election and they recall the gun legislation of 1994 after which the Democrats who supported that legislation were voted out of office as the Republicans assumed the majority; later Al Gore was defeated in his attempt to win the White House — with many thanks to the power of the NRA that went after the dirty Democrats for having the audacity to vote for stricter gun laws. This Congress has apparently decided — if the votes have been counted correctly — not to make the same mistake twice.

As the economist Joseph Schumpeter noted long ago, what it really comes down to is that we are dealing with professional politicians whose only concern is with winning votes and staying in office. They aren’t any good at doing much else and they know they have a good thing going in a job that requires no positive results. It’s all about self-interest: the hell with the “common good”; it’s a dated notion anyway. I am sure I am not the only one who has received phone calls requesting money for a Senator who will run again in two years. Two Years, for goodness sake!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not in a position to question the courage of members of this Congress. I am scared to death of one gun, much less 5 million of them — which the NRA boasts is its membership. In any event, the Congress will make the prudent choice and veer away from the moral high ground once again as the memories of the dead children in Sandy Hook School fade and the fat-cats who manufacture guns and support the NRA sit and gloat while their membership grows, their profits rise, and fearful people buy more of their weapons while they continue to threaten recalcitrant politicians with removal from office. It’s called “real-life politics, circa 2013” and it stinks.

res publica and Republicans

Years ago, before the Flood, I reviewed a book written by the Ripon Society. It led me to do some research about that group since the book was well written and struck a comfortable balance between political conservatism and “bleeding heart” liberalism. I confess I find the political middle ground more firm than the ground at either extreme. At the time I wrote the review the society embraced moderate Republicanism. I discovered some interesting things about the group, including the fact that it was the first major Republican organization to support passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, it called for the normalization of relations with China, and the abolition of the military draft.

That was then. That was when the Republican party traced its heritage back to Thomas Jefferson who traced his roots back to Cicero and the republican ideal of the “public thing,” the res publica. The founders all had read their Cicero in Latin, of course, and they tended to idealize the Roman Republic of Cicero’s days when individuals were admonished to put the common good ahead of their own in the name of “public virtue.” It was the ideal Augustine had in mind when he established his monastery which became the model for similar Christian communities throughout Europe: committed to the common good, seeking to control man’s natural wish to put self ahead of the good of all.

But, as I say, that was then: the days of Jefferson, and later Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Today the Republican party is the party of Michele Bachman, Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party, the spiritually certain, Fox News, and the corporations that want to squash the common good in the name of increased profits. And the Ripon Society seems to be leaning precariously to the right these days. It is difficult to see any connection whatever between today’s grasping and greedy Republican party that would trash social and environmental programs in the name of saving a few tax dollars and the Roman ideal. The idea of the common good has disappeared behind a stinking cloud of greed and self-interest, the very thing Cicero tried so hard to prevent. And yet these people claim to be “Republicans.”

The Republican party is not alone in its preoccupation with greed and self-interest, of course. Both parties are in the pockets of the corporations and tend to ignore the commonwealth as they push their own agendas — whatever those might be. But on balance, the Democratic party tends to care about people above profits — as a general rule — even as it seeks to solve all problems by throwing money at them. So for all its shortcomings, the Democratic party does seem more concerned about the common good, more concerned about the welfare of others and the survival of the planet. However, the more adept members of this party become at playing the political game (and they seem to be learning quickly) the farther they will remove themselves from Cicero’s ideal of the res publica, the public thing, the commonwealth. If that ideal is to mean anything again it will require a third party that remains disconnected from corporate wealth and special interests. Don’t hold your breath.