I’m caught in the grip of the city, madness*
Ezra Klein is worried that our dysfunctional debate over health care reform is symptomatic of broader problems with our democracy:
What we’re seeing here is not merely distrust in the House health-care reform bill. It’s distrust in the political system. A healthy relationship does not require an explicit detailing of the “institutional checks” that will prevent one partner from beating or killing the other. In a healthy relationship, such madness is simply unthinkable. If it was not unthinkable, then no number of institutional checks could repair that relationship. Similarly, the relationship between the protesters and the government is not healthy. The protesters believe the government capable of madness. There is no evidence for that claim, which means that there is no answer for it, either. That claim is not about what is in this bill, or what government has done in Medicare and Medicaid and the VA. It is about what a certain slice of Americans think their government — and by extension, their fellow citizens — capable of.
And Will Wilkinson thinks that Ezra is being deeply – dangerously – naive:
It requires an amazing kind of selective amnesia to think that there is “no evidence’ that the U.S. government is “capable of madness.” The government of the United States invaded Iraq and its agents have killed many tens of thousands people on the basis of the fact that some Saudis trained in Afganistan flew planes into the World Trade Center, plus some lies. Torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, etc. I call that madness. Of course, Ezra means the other parts of government concerned with domestic affairs. But not the parts that break into peoples’ houses and destroy their lives for selling contraband herbs, or that subject us constantly to mendacious propaganda about drugs. Our government — and by extension our fellow citizens — is capable of terrible things and proves it every single day. Is it really possible to love government so much, to invest so much hope in its benevolent efficacy, that we grow blind to its evident capacity for evil?
I’m inclined to side with Will here; as he notes, it doesn’t take much more than a quick glance at the past eight years (or the whole of American history, really) to understand that our government, like any other, has immense capacity for evil. That said, I don’t want to completely dismiss Ezra. Yes, he’s wrong about the government’s capacity for “madness” but I’m not sure that that actually invalidates his argument. After all, even by fairly lenient standards, these protesters aren’t very informed: they don’t have a terribly sophisticated knowledge of American political history, and they almost certainly aren’t aware of the “madness” of the past few years. In fact, if they are aware of the previous administration’s transgressions, I’d be surprised if they were actually bothered by any of them. In all likelihood, these are the people who were stoked about invading Iraq, and cheered on the administration after Abu Ghraib.
This is all to say that Ezra is, in some sense, completely right. For the protesters and the teabaggers, there is absolutely nothing in their political ideology which would lead them to believe that the government was capable of madness. Yes, you could say that these are “small government” conservatives with an inherent distrust of authority, but again, most of these folks sat through – and probably applauded – the massive Bush-era expansions in the size and scope of government. My guess is that these are folks who have completely lost their faith and trust in the ability of government to represent them in their interest. But, insofar that they lack trust, I don’t think it’s because they are hyper-aware of the government’s various misdoings and moral failings. Instead, they no longer believe that America has the moral bearings to choose an adequate leader. To them, Obama is utterly foreign and it defies belief that a majority of Americans could have elected him. That they did not only signals that the system is broken, but that they are at its absolute mercy.
It’s that, I think, which is the source of the fear, the rancor and the sheer, unvarnished hatred.
*I’ve been looking for a way to use this song as a post title for weeks.