“You are American?”
“I think it must be a difficult time to be American.”
-William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003)
In 2000, Al Gore lost a Presidential election with more votes than George W. Bush, who won it.
In 2003, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives held a 15-minute vote open for three hours and twisted arms on the floor of the House until they got enough votes for a bill they wanted passed, and passed it.
In 2007, the GOP shattered the record for filibusters in a session of Congress, and smashed it with every subsequent session until they regained control of the Senate in 2014.
In 2016, the GOP refused to even hold a committee hearing – let alone a vote – for a Supreme Court vacancy that opened in February, and kept it vacant until after their candidate won an election (again, with fewer votes than his opponent).
Against all that, the Senate trying to push an Obamacare repeal bill that doesn’t exist and hasn’t been written yet – never mind things like committee votes or hearings or CBO scores or the actual text of a bill to read – can hardly be counted as surprising. The amazing bit was that they actually wanted to pass a bill that the House would then reject so they could go to committee and do…something. So the pitch was “we will vote for this bill only if we have assurance it will not become a law.” Asinine? Insane? Dumber than fucking dogshit? Keep going. The amazing thing was that the Senate’s biggest drama queen finally switched his vote, and that one of the po-faced reliably-caving-at-the-end Senators from Maine stood in the gap and said No at every turn.
The rules of the Senate and the composition of the Electoral College means the Republican Party can get its way without having the most votes in a way the Democrats simply can’t anymore. They could have, maybe, in 2009 – but they were still constrained by norms and traditional practice and “the way things are done.” The Republicans have the advantage of not caring about that in the least, which is of a piece with the way that party has worked for a quarter century. Twenty-five years of AM radio and cable news and being led around by the nose by carnival barkers and rodeo clowns and circus freaks. Twenty-five years of being told that it’s not enough to have your own opinions, you’re entitled to your own facts. And if they don’t square with reality? You’re entitled to your own reality. You can believe that 10% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid and that your Affordable Care Act insurance is more virtuous and entitled than the Obamacare those brown people have and that there’s some secret Democrat child sex ring spiriting kids to Mars as slaves.
It’s a tough time to be a small-d democrat in America. Much of our economy is in thrall to an authoritarian power – either as manufacturer or potential market. Twice in the last twenty years, a leader has been selected who received fewer votes from his countrymen than his principal opponent – and has then gone on to diminish the stature of the United States in the world abroad. The norms and practices of federal government have been broken almost past the point of repair. And looking around at one’s fellow Americans, a majority of the voting-age public is either supportive of outright fascism, willing to countenance it for political gain or sufficiently disinterested to participate.
On the face of it, American democracy is not having a great run. And yet, in many ways, America doesn’t practice it at all. The will of the majority has been continually thwarted these last twenty years, by obsolete institutions like the electoral college or misused institutional practices like the filibuster – and in some ways by the very design of the American system. Abroad, the Westminster parliamentarian model seems to have carried the day – most countries either have a multiparty system to drain the extremists away from the levers of power, or else have a center-seeking system that makes it difficult to swing too hard too fast one way or the other. America used to have that, until we sorted our way into having a parliamentary politics with a divided-powers system. Now we just have gridlock – and since gridlock suits one side just fine, that side gets what it wants by default.
Our system was not divinely ordained, not handed down from Olympus as some timeless model of perfection. It was conceived in iniquity and birthed in sin, reserving power to the male, the white and the landed. More than one person has pointed to the various amendments in the ensuing 240 years as proof that the American struggle is ultimately toward giving everyone the participatory power that the Founding Fathers reserved for their own kind. But it isn’t working any more.
We’re broken. We’re not going to be able to fix this, because the people who could have – the people who needed to stand up and say “look, I disagree with the Democrats but this is horse shit, there are no death panels, foreign aid is a rounding error compared to your Social Security, Sharia law is not a thing that is happening in this country, the President is an American citizen born in Hawaii and a practicing Christian” – those people sat on their hands and kept their mouths shut so they could reap the partisan advantage, and it got us to this point. Between the hilljack yokels, the ones who mined their ignorance for electoral profit, and the ones who can’t be arsed to take part, there aren’t enough people left to reliably redeem the country.
And here’s the kicker: what happens when the rednecks run into reality? The kind of reality that can’t be reconciled with the old “the universe is 4.5 billion years old six days a week and 6000 on Sundays”? The kind of reality you can’t wish away? The kind of reality that doesn’t care what Alex Jones told you because that cancer isn’t going to respond to peach pit extract and your insurance won’t cover you anymore? What happens once these Trump voters all realize they played themselves? Are they prepared to live with the consequences? And since the answer is almost certainly hell no, who are they going to take it out on? And how? And what are we prepared to do about it?