My old friend and colleague Phil Trounstine greeted me with a question: “How long have you been following politics in this country? Sixty years?”
“More like 70,” I said. “I used to listen to political conventions on the radio when I was a kid.”
“Have you ever seen things as screwed up as they are now?”
I didn’t hesitate. “No, I haven’t.”
So, he said, write a piece for Calbuzz telling why you think that is.
I was hard to convince. It has been a long time since I wrote for a general audience. I’ve read hundreds of pieces about how screwed up our national government is now. What could I say that’s new or worth saying?
I said I would think about it and let him know. I thought about it, and here (to my own surprise) I am.
The first hurdle I had to get over was this: There have been a lot of governmental screw-ups in my lifetime. I grew up in a solid southern state when segregation was protected by a group of determined senators from one section of the country.
Still, the sweeping legislation of the New Deal and the legislative support for our efforts in World War II came from Congress during that period. Richard Nixon’s abuse of the Presidency occurred, but it produced a bipartisan response from Congress that helped us through a trying time. Bill Clinton was impeached by the House because he lied under oath about sexual misbehavior in the White House. Still, Clinton’s presidency saw good economic times and significant legislation, and he survives as a popular ex-president.
During all these crises – and others – there has been plenty of hard-to-defend partisanship from both Democrats and Republicans. There always has been and there always will be. So, why do I think now is different?
What’s happening now is different because the Republican Party is different. For a complex set of reasons, it is dysfunctional and obstructionist to the point of preventing effective government.
Consider what happened when Barack Obama became president. The Republican leader in the Senate said publicly his main goal was to prevent Obama from getting a second term. We now know that Republicans in the House of Representatives met privately to affirm the same goal. They then proceeded to follow through by doing everything they could to make Obama a failed president. Even after the president won re-election handily, they keep acting as if their goal hasn’t changed. I think that lifts partisanship to a new level, and I can’t remember a precedent for it.
This has been taking place at a time when most of us seem to have short attention spans, encouraged by the Internet and by the confusion of contemporary journalism. Twenty-four-hour news channels and an increasingly complex maze of online media grab a subject, turn it upside down, shake it to see what drops out – and then move on to something else.
This kind of information atmosphere is perfect for people who have a longer view, a firm set of right-wing goals, and a lot of money. People like, say, the Koch brothers. (This is especially true when one news channel, Fox News, is bound to support the effort.)
For a good many years now, determined conservative individuals and groups have invested money and time in moving government farther and farther to the right at both the national and state levels.
Look at the Federalist Society and its effect on the Supreme Court and other courts. Look at the several well-funded organizations that moved in to exploit the apparently spontaneous Tea Party movement. Look at the lock-step rightwing actions by Republican-controlled legislatures across the country. A relatively small number of wealthy conservatives are having an outsize influence on public policy.
In both houses of Congress and in legislatures throughout the country, for example, most Republican officeholders have tied their hands by signing a pledge never to vote for a tax increase, a pledge pushed by a man named Grover Norquist.
This is the same Grover Norquist who was an ally of the convicted wheeler-dealer lobbyist Jack Abramoff. I don’t understand how any legislator at any level can subordinate his judgment to that of Norquist and retain his self-respect.
Most of the same Republicans, and a few Democats, have pledged their votes on all gun issues to Wayne LaPierre, who runs the National Rifle Association. LaPierre is famous for opposing all sensible efforts to regulate gun ownership. He wants to arm teachers and promotes “stand your ground” laws, which encourage an armed response to any perceived threat.
I grew up in Arkansas, in hunting country. My father was a deer hunter, and I remember my brother getting a .22 rifle as a rite of passage. I have a son who owns guns. Guns are a part of our history and will certainly be a part of our future. But to hand over your judgment to a bully like LaPierre? I think that’s outrageous – and indefensible.
We desperately need far-sighted people in both parties to help us get out of the mess we are in. That has to include Republicans. Recently I have seen some positive signs in the Senate but none in the House, where a Tea Party-dominated Republican majority and an incompetent Speaker of the House stand in the way of any positive action, no matter how popular it is with the public. Time and public pressure – especially expressed at the ballot box — seem to be the only answers.
Will we ever break out of the current impasse? I’m confident that we will. I just hope it happens in my lifetime.
Larry Jinks of Los Gatos had a long, distinguished career as a reporter, editor, corporate news executive and publisher, mostly with the late Knight-Ridder Inc. He retired as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News in 1994 and subsequently served 16 years on the McClatchy Co. board of directors.