HUDSON: WARNING TO INCUMBENTS OF ALL POLITICAL PERSUASIONS
Are Tea Party tumbrels rolling for still others — and just whose friends are they?
There is nothing quite as annoying for a rabid partisan as an obviously bright adversary working in the enemy camp. A considerable slice of partisan doctrine consists of adherence to the premise that the intellectual abilities of one’s opponents are inherently suspect. That’s why Eric Cantor presented such a problem for Congressional Democrats. He coupled feral intensity with a shrewd recognition of precisely when Democrats were off balance. He made pushing them to the curb with split lips and a rip in their trousers look easy. (Of course, there was the small matter of his sneering arrogance.)
It never occurred to Democrats, myself included, that Republican voters might find Cantor’s muscular self-esteem just as annoying as we did. The tittering snickers of schadenfreude that could be heard just outside of camera range along both sides of the aisle reinforced the suspicion that perhaps God does pay attention to politics. Or, as many pundits noted, this couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. (It’s very hard to comprehend the pleas of the masses from behind the bulletproof windows of your limo.) It must have seemed inconceivable that the Majority Leader could be felled by a shirttail populist railing against Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce. Are the Tea Party tumbrels rolling for still others and just whose friends are they, really?
Before Democrats smugly assume that Cantor’s demise is an inexplicable gift from the heavens, they would be well advised to inquire whether the rumbles that disturb their sleep during the dark of night are approaching battering rams or merely summer thunder. Never in our history has so powerful a leader been dumped by his own party. Fractal geometry teaches us that when highly unusual events suddenly occur, systems are beginning to lose their equilibrium. Wave elections for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, followed by the Republican seizure of State Houses and Congress in 2010 signal a wildly gyrating electorate. There is a reason why the only group in America that believes Washington is working are those who work there. If you are a member of Congress, or a lobbyist, or a special interest pleader with a fat checkbook, it’s working just the way you prefer. (Too bad about the peons.)
This is not the first time in our history when Congressional control oscillated rapidly between the parties and presidents are remembered as grey and powerless men adrift on choppy seas. During the gilded age approaching the end of the 19th century, Democrat Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms in the White House. The political achievements of Republican presidents Harrison, Arthur and Hayes can be inscribed on a matchbook cover. Corruption was rampant and government faithfully advanced the interests of the nation’s robber barons. It took the assassination of William McKinley and the ascension of Theodore Roosevelt to reshape American life. There was a reason why Republican Party boss Mark Hanna, upon hearing of McKinley’s death, bemoaned “…that damned cowboy” headed for the White House. What would become the progressive movement had inadvertently escaped Pandora’s lockbox.
Roosevelt was added to the Republican ticket in 1900 because of his appeal as a Spanish-American war hero. The charge up San Juan Hill had earned him terrific name recognition. As Doris Kearns Goodwin points out in “The Bully Pulpit,” no one anticipated Teddy would parlay his unexpected presidency into a starring role as the nation’s “salesman-in-chief” on behalf of the common man. Whether such a paladin currently lurks in the halls of Congress appears doubtful, but out there among our governors, who knows. (Brian Schweitzer, anyone?)
We now find ourselves immersed in a second gilded age where Congress labors diligently to funnel national income to those least in need of their help. Despite the noisy chest pounding of partisan flacks, this pattern changes little whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. As John Nichols and Robert McChesney point out in their recent jeremiad, “Dollarocracy,” voters aren’t fooled. A Congress that defers to the wealthy and powerful while ignoring the welfare of average Americans is a hollow imitation of democracy. Likewise, a political class that operates on the principle that it knows best what will be good for Americans, whether that is unfettered free markets or cradle to grave social safety nets is likely headed for the dustbin of history.
The days when American voters were willing to leave governing to the politicians may be coming to an abrupt end. David Brat may prove to have more in common with Bernie Sanders than he ever had with Eric Cantor. And that seems like a good thing. Elected officials frequently claim they would like to see a more engaged public — one that will force them to do the right thing. Incumbents, get ready (and better that you stay in touch with the grassroots — they’re grumpy)!
Miller Hudson, a public affairs consultant with a large grasp of history, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.