Category Archives: Mainstream media

Why Clinton’s more dangerous than Trump

When I tell my friends I wouldn’t vote for Hillary in a million years, they warn me that Donald Trump’s worse, and suggest I vote for the “lesser evil.” First, I stopped doing that years ago on the grounds that I’m not responsible for our atrocious good cop/bad cop electoral system. Second, I live in a state that hasn’t gone Republican in many years, and votes for president are counted by state. Third, as John Pilger wrote yesterday on newmatilda.com, Hillary could be way worse than Trump. And she’s a known quantity – she will do the things listed below. The reason Trump’s scary is that he’s an unknown quantity.

Read the following, and see what you think.

John Pilger: Why Hillary Clinton Is More Dangerous Than Donald Trump

I’ve been filming in the Marshall Islands, and whenever I tell people where I’ve been, they ask where it is. If I offer a clue by referring to “Bikini,” they ask if I mean the swimsuit. Few are aware that the bikini swimsuit was named to celebrate the nuclear explosions that destroyed Bikini Island. Sixty-six nuclear devices were exploded by the United States in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958 – the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for twelve years.

Bikini is silent today – mutated and contaminated. Palm trees grow in a strange grid formation, nothing moves, and there are no birds. The headstones in the old cemetery are alive with radiation. My shoes registered “unsafe” on a Geiger counter.

Standing on the beach, I watched the emerald green of the Pacific fall away into a vast black hole. This was the crater left by the hydrogen bomb they called “Bravo.” The explosion poisoned people and their environment for hundreds of miles, perhaps forever.

On my return journey, I stopped at Honolulu airport and noticed an American magazine called Women’s Health. On the cover was a smiling woman in a bikini, and the headline: “You, too, can have a bikini body.” A few days earlier, in the Marshall Islands, I’d interviewed women who had very different “bikini bodies;” each had suffered life-threatening cancers. And unlike the smiling woman in the magazine, all of them were impoverished: the victims and guinea pigs of a rapacious superpower more dangerous today than ever.

I relate this experience as a warning and to interrupt a distraction that has consumed so many of us. The founder of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, described this phenomenon as “the manipulation of the habits and opinions” of democratic societies. He called it an “invisible government.”

How many people are aware that a world war has begun? At present, it is a war of propaganda, of lies and distraction, but this can change instantaneously with the first mistaken order, the first missile.

In 2009, President Obama stood before an adoring crowd in Prague, pledging to make “the world free from nuclear weapons.” People cheered and cried, and a torrent of platitudes flowed from the media. He was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

It was all fake. He was lying. The Obama administration has built more nuclear weapons, more nuclear warheads, more nuclear delivery systems, and more nuclear factories. Nuclear warhead spending alone has risen higher under Obama than under any American president. The cost over thirty years is more than $1 trillion.

A mini nuclear bomb, the B61 Model 12, is planned. General James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of it, “Going smaller [makes using this nuclear] weapon more thinkable.”

In the last 18 months, the greatest build-up of military forces since World War II – led by the United States – is taking place along Russia’s western frontier. Not since Hitler invaded the Soviet Union have foreign troops presented such a demonstrable threat to Russia.

Ukraine – once part of the Soviet Union – has become a CIA theme park. Having orchestrated a coup in Kiev, Washington effectively controls a regime that’s next door and hostile to Russia: a regime literally rotten with Nazis. Prominent parliamentary figures in Ukraine are the political descendants of the notorious OUN and UPA fascists. They openly praise Hitler and call for the persecution and expulsion of the Russian-speaking minority. This is seldom news in the West, or it’s inverted to suppress the truth. In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – next door to Russia – the US is deploying combat troops, tanks, and heavy weapons, an extreme provocation of the world’s second nuclear power.

What makes the prospect of nuclear war even more dangerous is a parallel campaign against China. Seldom a day passes when China isn’t elevated to the status of a “threat.” According to Admiral Harry Harris, the US Pacific commander, China is “building a great wall of sand in the South China Sea.” What he’s referring to is China building airstrips in the Spratly Islands, also claimed by the Philippines ever since Washington pressured and bribed the government in Manila and the Pentagon launched a propaganda campaign called “freedom of navigation.” This means freedom for American warships to patrol and dominate the coastal waters of China. Try to imagine the American reaction if Chinese warships did the same off the coast of California.

In my film “The War You Don’t See,” I interviewed journalists in America and Britain like Dan Rather. All of them said that had journalists and broadcasters done their job and questioned the propaganda that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction; and had the lies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair not been amplified and echoed by journalists, the 2003 invasion of Iraq might not have happened, and hundreds of thousands of men, women and children would be alive today.

The propaganda laying the ground for a war against Russia and/or China is no different in principle. To my knowledge, no journalist in the Western “mainstream” asks why China is building airstrips in the South China Sea. The answer ought to be glaringly obvious. The United States is encircling China with a network of bases, with ballistic missiles, battle groups, and nuclear bombers. This lethal arc extends from Australia to the Marianas, Marshalls, and Guam, to the Philippines, Thailand, Okinawa, Korea, and across Eurasia to Afghanistan and India. America is tightening a noose around the neck of China. This isn’t news. Silence by media, war by media.

In 2015, in high secrecy, the US and Australia staged the biggest single air-sea military exercise in recent history, Talisman Sabre. Its aim was to rehearse an Air-Sea Battle Plan, blocking sea lanes to cut off China’s access to oil, gas and other vital raw materials from the Middle East and Africa.

In the circus known as the American presidential campaign, Donald Trump is being presented as a lunatic, a fascist. He’s certainly odious; but he’s also a media hate figure, which should arouse our skepticism. Trump’s views on migration are grotesque, but no more grotesque than those of David Cameron. It isn’t Trump who’s the Great Deporter from the United States, but the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama.

According to one liberal commentator, Trump’s “unleashing the dark forces of violence” in the United States. Unleashing them? This is the country where toddlers shoot their mothers and the police wage a murderous war against black Americans. This is the country that’s attacked and sought to overthrow more than 50 governments, many of them democracies, and bombed from Asia to the Middle East, causing the deaths and dispossession of millions of people. No other country has such a record of violence. And most of America’s wars – almost all of them against defenseless countries – have been launched by liberal Democratic presidents: Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama.

In 1947, a series of National Security Council directives described the paramount aim of American foreign policy as “a world substantially made over in [America’s] own image.” The ideology was messianic Americanism. We were all Americans, or else. Heretics would be converted, subverted, bribed, smeared, or crushed.

Donald Trump’s a symptom of this, but he’s also a maverick. He calls the invasion of Iraq a crime, and doesn’t want to go to war with Russia or China. The danger to the rest of us isn’t Trump, but Hillary Clinton. She’s no maverick – she embodies the resilience and violence of a system whose vaunted “exceptionalism” is totalitarian with an occasional liberal face. As presidential election day draws near, she’ll be hailed as the first female president, regardless of her crimes and lies, just as Barack Obama was lauded as the first black president and liberals swallowed his nonsense about “hope.”

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton threatened to “totally obliterate” Iran with nuclear weapons. As Secretary of State under Obama, she participated in the overthrow of the democratic government of Honduras. Her contribution to the destruction of Libya in 2011 was almost gleeful. When the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was publicly sodomized with a knife – a murder made possible by American logistics – Clinton gloated over his death: “We came, we saw, he died.” One of Clinton’s closest allies is Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, who’s attacked young women for not supporting “Hillary.” This is the same Madeleine Albright who infamously celebrated on TV the death of half a million Iraqi children as “worth it.”

Among Clinton’s biggest backers are the Israel lobby and the arms companies that fuel the violence in the Middle East. She and her husband have received a fortune from Wall Street. And yet, she’s about to be ordained the women’s candidate, opponent of Trump, the official demon. Her supporters include distinguished feminists like Gloria Steinem.

A generation ago, a post-modern cult now known as “identity politics” stopped many intelligent, liberal-minded people from examining the causes and individuals they supported. Self-absorption, a kind of “me-ism”, became the new zeitgeist in privileged western societies, signaling the demise of great collective movements against war, social injustice, inequality, racism, and sexism.

Today, the long sleep may be over. The young are stirring again. The thousands in Britain who supported Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader are part of this awakening, as are those rallying to support Bernie Sanders.

What’s happened to the great tradition of popular direct action, unfettered to parties? Where’s the courage, imagination and commitment required to begin the long journey to a better, just and peaceful world? Where are the dissidents in art, film, the theater, literature? Where are those who will shatter the silence? Or do we wait until the first nuclear missile is fired?

 

Another reason why we need real democracy

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything has already convinced many of us that the capitalist system, which undermines democracy by concentrating power in the hands of the 1%, is incapable of dealing effectively with climate change – or any other serious problem. The latest book by Robert McChesney and John Nichols, People Get Ready: The Fight Against A Jobless Economy and A Citizenless Democracy, adds another threat to that list. Apparently, automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics are about to come into their own in such a big way that, unless we can change the way political and economic decisions are made in this country, only half of us will be employed by mid-century.

As the authors say, “Many Americans have experienced an economic nightmare, in which millions of hardworking men and women have been cast into a financial abyss, struggling with joblessness, home foreclosures, and personal bankruptcy.” And this economic and political inequality pre-dated the 2008 ‘Great Recession,’ creating different life expectancies for the poorest and least-educated and eroding our much vaunted equality before the law. As the authors say, “The principle that all are equal before the law – with no one above it or below it – has become a sick joke in a society where unarmed African-American men and women are shot down by police officers while the billionaire bankers who crashed the global economy, and fund both political parties, have gone scot-free and even been financially rewarded despite their illegal behavior. This is the circumstance in which the United States finds itself as a digital revolution every bit as sweeping as the industrial revolution takes hold.

Some technology experts expect a loss of 70% of existing jobs in the next three decades, with little hope that many new jobs will emerge to replace what’s lost. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Randall Collins expects an unemployment rate in the neighborhood of 50%. At the very least what’s about to transpire is going to put severe downward pressure on wages and working conditions, which already are deplorable. Most of the world’s population is becoming disposable and irrelevant from the standpoint of capital.

The great issue of the coming generation must be expanding democratic values and principles – building out the democratic infrastructure, if you will – into economic institutions and practices. At the same time, we can expect movements born of immense anger and frustration on the political right (the connection between mass unemployment and fascism is almost universally accepted – it was only with the skyrocketing unemployment of the early 1930s that the Nazi Party in Germany moved from the margins to power).” The authors go on to explain that, under fascism, big business partnered with government to create full employment based on gearing up for war (sound familiar?). Discipline in the factories and political stability were maintained by a political dictatorship, which used tactics ranging from the suppression of trade unions to the concentration camp.

American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood how this worked, saying in 1938 that “The liberty of a democracy isn’t safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, group, or any other private power.”

Getting back to artificial intelligence, the authors quote a New York Times article indicating that it “has become vastly more sophisticated in a short time, with machines now able to learn, not just follow programmed instructions, and to respond to human language and movement.” They add that “computers can now access an unimaginably large body of stored information and process it almost instantaneously. Even highly trained analysts and other so-called knowledge workers are seeing their work circumscribed by decision-support systems that turn the making of judgments into a data-processing routine. Much of this ‘big data’ is accumulated in the ‘cloud,’ a group of enormous server farms controlled by a handful of massive corporations like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. Cloud computing is also ideal for harnessing freelance workers to replace higher-paid labor, and for the ‘Internet of Things,’ a term for the billions of human-made devices connected to each other on a universal computing infrastructure. Each of these devices has its own Internet address, and will communicate with other devices more than with people. ‘Engineers expect so many of these connected devices,’ Philip Howard writes in his book Pax Technica, ‘that they’ve reconfigured the addressing system to allow for 2 to the 128th power addresses – enough for each atom on the face of the earth to have 100 addresses.’

Much of the economy will run through the Internet of Things. Cisco Systems forecasts that by 2022 it will generate $14.4 trillion in cost savings and revenue. A large share of these savings will come by eliminating jobs. In conjunction with all this, an open source Robot Operating System (ROS) ‘is rapidly becoming the standard software platform for robotics development,’ according to Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots. ‘The history of computing shows pretty clearly that once a standard operating system, together with inexpensive and easy-to-use programming tools, becomes available, an explosion of application software is likely to follow.’ What does this mean? ‘It’s a good bet,” Ford says, that ‘we’re, in all likelihood at the leading edge of an explosive wave of innovation that will ultimately produce robots geared to nearly every conceivable commercial, industrial, and consumer task.’ Robots will be not only in factories, they’ll be everywhere. Then there’s 3D printing, which Jeremy Rifkin describes as the ‘manufacturing’ model that accompanies an Internet of Things economy. In earlier stages of automation, Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, explains, firms automated physical work but required humans to be the control system. Now the control system can be automated.

The four most common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk – jobs are highly susceptible to automation. Ford sees 50% of fast-food jobs disappearing, and argues it is likely there will be ‘explosive growth of the fully automated self-service retail sector – in other words, intelligent vending machines and kiosks.’ The two sectors of the economy harboring the most professionals, health care and education, are also under increasing pressure to cut costs, and expert machines are poised to take over. The last remaining labor-intensive areas in agriculture – primarily picking – are susceptible to automation as well.

In China robot installations have been increasing at a 25% annual rate since 2005. It still has only thirty robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees compared to South Korea (437), Japan (323), Germany (282), and the United States (152), however, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Consider the example of Foxconn, the largest maker of electronic components in the world and the largest exporter in China. Foxconn is single-handedly responsible for manufacturing nearly half of the consumer technology in the world, and much, if not most, of what Americans own in terms of smartphones and tablet computers. It has annual revenues of $135 billion and is the third-largest employer in the world, with 1.2 million workers. Foxconn grabbed its market share by providing a low-paid and heavily exploited workforce for Western firms. Soon after its Apple factories received worldwide attention following a string of suicides by workers in 2010, the company began an aggressive program to replace many, or most, of its workers with a robots. Foxconn CEO Terry Gou said in 2015 that he expects robots and automation to be doing 70% of the company’s assembly-line work by 2018.

A few low-tech industries, like garment manufacturing, have been moving from China to places that still have even lower wages, like Bangladesh, but many industries, particularly electronics, are still moving factories to China. That’s because so many of the parts suppliers are now in China that it’s often more costly to do assembly elsewhere. So although building robots to replace workers isn’t cheap, a growing number of companies are finding it less costly than either paying ever-higher wages in China or moving to another country.

The profit system pushes firms to automate as much as possible, and to de-skill remaining jobs as well. But when all firms automate and de-skill, there’s substantially less demand for their products, and the economy stagnates. In our view, for this reason and because of the immense suffering thus produced, the capitalist economic needs to be fundamentally reformed, if not replaced. The number of true believers who think leaving firms and wealthy investors alone to do as they wish will solve all problems is shrinking, and is, after all, a faith-based position. There are also some with a similar faith that technology is innately progressive and powerful enough to solve capitalism’s problems. But researching this book, what’s been striking to us is that many, perhaps most, of the people who have studied these matters recognize that the system, left alone, won’t right itself. Structural changes are needed, and government will have to play the central role in determining and instituting them. The solutions to the employment and economic crises in the United States are political. How will these technologies be deployed, and how will the wealth they generate be distributed?”

The authors review our country’s recent history, and come up with some interesting facts. For example, “since Dwight Eisenhower was president, the top federal income tax rate has collapsed from 91% to 39.6%,” with, as we know, most corporations and rich individuals paying even less than that thanks to ‘loopholes.’

“Progressive tax policy was part of the democratic infrastructure.”

Global trade agreements like NAFTA and the proposed TPP are similarly undemocratic and harmful to workers and the environment, preventing states and localities from passing corrective legislation. They don’t even benefit the national economy in terms of trade deficits – they’re for the benefit of large multinational corporations. The authors describe how Barack Obama spoke out against these kinds of “back-room deals” as a candidate, then reversed himself “within days of assembling the delegates he needed,” and as president “signed sweeping free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama,” and is now pushing for “the biggest trade agreements since NAFTA: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Asian countries and a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe.

Nothing says ‘shut up and give up’ quite so effectively as a candidate who tells the people he’ll champion their interests on a complex issue that matters greatly to them and then, upon his nomination and election, betrays them. It bakes in cynicism about politics and about what’s possible in a democracy, signaling that fundamental issues are off the table. Meanwhile, the elites need only convince a handful of policymakers who are, for reasons of campaign finance, eternally beholden to them.

The news media also play a crucial role in keeping democracy citizenless. Mainstream journalism, even at its best, generally takes its cues for what the range of legitimate debate is on an issue by what political and economic elites say about it, rarely providing critical analysis. Political journalism, with a few fine exceptions, is mostly pointless gossip and nutritionless assessments of spin and polls. During political campaigns, it hits rock bottom, playing along with the fiction that elections represent the will of the people, and that those elected will protect the interests of the voters.

Understandably, voter participation in the United States is declining to record-low levels. Despite all that was at stake in the 2014 midterm elections in the United States – control of the US Senate and a majority of governorships and state legislative seats – only a third of those eligible voted. Non-voters were, on balance, younger and poorer, meaning that a small, older and relatively affluent minority picked the winners and defined the governance of the most powerful country in the world for the next two years. All of this is well understood in Republican circles, where repressing the voter turnout, especially among younger, poorer, and non-white citizens, has become job one for state governments over the past six years. In the 2014 election the Republicans won a whopping 59-seat advantage over the Democrats in the 435-member House of Representatives. Thanks to gerrymandered district lines, drawn largely by Republicans who won control of statehouses in the low-voter-turnout off-year elections of 2010, the Republicans were able to win 57% of the House seats with only 51% of the total votes for the 435 House races. The 2014 Republican House candidates nationwide – winners and losers – received the votes of only 16% of the voting-age citizens of the United States, less than 1 in 6 Americans. Things were around the same in the Senate, where all the Republican candidates for the hundred Senate seats received votes from just under 21% of the voting-age population, or one in five Americans. Matters were only marginally better for the Democrats the last time they controlled both the House and the Senate, following the 2008 election. The party’s candidates received the votes of 26 and 28% of the voting-age population, respectively, or just more than one in four.

Groups that monitor voter turnout, such as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, regularly rank the United States near rock bottom on global turnout measures. Voter turnout in the United States is less than half that of other countries with established electoral systems. The 2013 German elections drew a turnout of 72%. In France, turnout in the 2012 presidential election topped 80%. In Sweden, turnout for the 2014 parliamentary elections was 86%. The United States is barely on the democratic grid when it comes to representative democracy. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks it 120th in the world for turnout by eligible voters. Turnout used to be higher – often above 70% in presidential and midterm elections during the 19th century and close to 65% among eligible voters as recently as 1960. But the research of the United States Election Project reveals a marked decline since the 1970s. Americans tend to vote more during periods of crisis and when they believe their vote might make their lives better. For example, FDR won the presidency in 1936 not by convincing Republicans to switch teams, but because in the crisis of the Depression millions of Americans came to the polls for the first time to vote for him. This means that if the promise of American democracy is ever going to realized, it will not be because the dwindling number of mostly older, whiter, and richer voters start to cast ballots for different candidates and parties – it’ll be because of a surge of new voters. That means guaranteeing the right to vote for all voting-age Americans, making it the aggressive policy of the government to do all it can to encourage people to vote, and to ensure that elections decide essential issues that are now held off the table. No change for the better will come within the narrow confines of the low-information, low-engagement, low-turnout politics we have now.”

Turning to our hallowed Constitution, the authors quote political scientist Robert Dahl, who wrote that a constitution must “‘maintain political institutions that foster political equality among citizens and all the necessary rights, liberties, and opportunities essential to the existence of political equality and democratic governance.’ Constitutions aren’t the only place these matters are determined, but they’re central to the process. The framers of our Constitution flunked Dahl’s test miserably. First, African Americans and Native Americans were written out of the picture as potential citizens. In fact, Gerald Horne and other historians make a convincing argument that it was fear of the burgeoning British anti-slavery movement that motivated slaveholders and merchants dependent on slavery to throw in with the American revolution.

Even when looking strictly at the white male population as the relevant group of prospective citizens, as the framers did, the Constitution is a dubious product for democracy. Its intent wasn’t to promote democracy, which the founders feared as ‘mob rule;’ it was to prevent it. The government was originated and organized upon the initiative and primarily in the interest of the mercantile and wealthy classes, even though the revolution had been fought by the poor and those of limited means, inspired by the radical democratic words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense. The federal Constitution was in significant part a reaction to uprisings (like Shay’s Rebellion) by this class, as well as by the more democratic state constitutions. The most radical, Pennsylvania’s, was written in the summer and fall of 1776 by a group that included Paine and Benjamin Franklin. Much of the momentum for it came from rural farmers, the poor, artisans, and the mid-level merchants of Philadelphia, who by 1775 had become, as William Hogeland puts it, ‘a powerful street constituency in favor of American independence as a way to promote economic equality.’ The Pennsylvania constitution allowed for universal male suffrage and the election of a powerful unicameral legislature for one-year terms. The judiciary and executive branches were weak, and no bill could become law after being passed until it had been in print for a year so citizens could respond to it. It also called for the state to promote public education and the establishment of universities. The first assemblies elected under this constitution ‘began passing laws to regulate wealth and foster economic development for ordinary people.’ Laws were passed to restrict monopolies, equalize taxes, and abolish slavery.”

As the authors point out, the US Constitution was also written way before the development of modern capitalism. It was also “drafted during an era in which the notions that the endless increase of one’s wealth and property is good both for society and a person’s inherent right – central, even necessary, postulates of a modern capitalist society – were considered dubious or even dangerous. As Franklin put it in 1783: ‘All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.’ As corporations began to proliferate in the first few decades of the 19th century, the framers, not to mention many others, while recognizing corporations’ economic advantages, were immediately and deeply concerned about the ability and commercial incentive of corporations to corrupt and destroy the political system. In 1816 Jefferson wrote: ‘I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws.’”

The founders also had a much more proactive concept of the first amendment right to freedom of speech and a free press than we do now. “For Jefferson, just having the right to speak without government censorship is a necessary but insufficient condition for a free press, and therefore democracy, which also demands that there be a literate public, a viable press system, and that people have easy access to this press. Jefferson and Madison argued for such a free press as a check on militarism, secrecy, corruption, inequality, and empire. Near the end of his life, Madison observed, ‘A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.’ There was no sense in this period (and for a long time thereafter) that as long as the government didn’t censor newspapers, private citizens or businesses would have sufficient incentive to produce a satisfactory press. Indeed, the Constitution’s creation of the Post Office was above all else a commitment to seeing that newspapers were distributed effectively and inexpensively. For the first century of American history most newspapers were distributed by the mails, almost for free. It was a conscious subsidy by the federal government to make it economically viable for many more newspapers to exist than would otherwise be the case. Throughout much of the 19th century, newspapers constituted more than 90% of the Post Office’s weighted traffic, yet provided only about 10% of its revenues.

This recognition of the constitutional commitment to a free press declined by the end of the 19th century: newspaper publishing became extremely lucrative and the subsidies disappeared or came to play a smaller role. But today, with the emergence of the Internet, the commercial journalism model based upon advertising providing the lion’s share of the revenues is disintegrating. There are far fewer paid reporters and editors on a per capita basis in both old and new media than there were 25 years ago, and much important news goes unreported. It’s Jefferson’s and Madison’s worst nightmare, and since there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest a commercial solution to the problem, it’s time for Americans to embrace their full constitutional rights and demand policies and subsidies to create a viable, competitive, independent, and uncensored news media. As the framers understood, nothing remotely close to a democratic society can exist unless this happens.

The Constitution has been amended only sixteen times in the past 220 years; two of those were the prohibition amendments that cancelled each other out, and six other amendments were largely noncontroversial bookkeeping measures. Not only is it out of date, constitutional scholar Daniel Lazare writes, but ‘by imposing an unchangeable political structure on generations that have never had an opportunity to vote on the system as a whole, it amounts to a dictatorship of the past over the present.’ Because it’s ‘virtually impossible to alter the political structure in any fundamental way,’ Lazare adds, Americans have ‘one of the most unresponsive political systems this side of the former Soviet Union.’ Jefferson would have agreed. ‘Each generation is as independent as the one preceding. It has then a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness,’ he wrote in 1816. He called on the Constitution to be amended so that there would be a new constitutional convention every ‘nineteen or twenty years,’ such that every generation would have the opportunity to create its own politics and governance. Again, the states provide a rich alternative approach in American history; unlike the federal Constitution, popular involvement in state constitutions is encouraged. This began back in the 1770s and 1780s, when states were routinely meeting to draft and redraft constitutions, and has continued to this day. By 2005 the fifty states had held a combined 233 constitutional conventions, adopted 146 different constitutions, and ratified over 6,000 amendments to their existing constitutions. In general, what one finds when examining state constitutions is that Americans have used their constitutions to demand protective and interventionist government, beginning in the mid-19th century.”

The authors remind us of another important part of American history, noting that when “FDR unveiled the Four Freedoms in his January 1941 State of the Union Address to Congress, he offered up four universal principles for a free and democratic world, which he hoped would define the war against the Axis powers: ‘In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world.’

Three years later, in his 1944 State of the Union Address, with victory in the war all but certain, FDR introduced the idea of an economic bill of rights, or what has been called the Second Bill of Rights. ‘It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy expanded – these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. We have accepted a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are: the right to a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; the right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; and the right to a good education. All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and wellbeing.’

In effect, FDR is saying that unemployment and poverty should be unconstitutional, a massive amount of democratic infrastructure must be created, and monopolistic big business is now officially a dubious force. Instead of seeking constitutional amendments, he asked Congress to ‘explore the means for implementing this economic bill of rights.’ So close was Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican candidate for president, to FDR, including on the component parts of the Economic Bill of Rights, that the two of them broached the idea of forming a new political party to unite all the liberals in the nation, and leave the Southern segregationists and big business ‘reactionaries’ to have their own party. Alas, Willkie died suddenly in October 1944 at age fifty-two, and FDR died six months later. With FDR in poor health and then gone, the Second Bill of Rights never got anywhere in Congress. Vice President Henry Wallace never wavered, however; he argued in 1944 that to defeat fascism in the postwar era, the great benefits of the ‘immense and growing volume of scientific research, mechanical invention and management technique’ needed not only to be promoted, but the benefits shared across society. The last hurrah for the issues in the Second Bill of Rights came in 1948. Wallace bid for the presidency on the ticket of a new Progressive Party, opposing President Harry Truman and more cautious Democrats on a third-party platform that not only embraced the economic bill of rights but included the Four Freedoms’ call for demilitarization and an end to Jim Crow. Polls showed Wallace to be competitive early on, but his numbers declined with relentless redbaiting attacks. By the end of the 1940s the country experienced a massive red scare that ended labor’s surge, and established a continual warfare economy. By 1949, if not earlier, to advocate loudly what the president had proposed in January 1944 might be enough to cost a person her job. The weltanschauung had turned on a dime. Still, most of the existing New Deal reforms and much of the democratic infrastructure were too popular to be rolled back, and they provided the foundation for the next democratic surge in the 1960s.

The influence of the Second Bill of Rights played a major role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, finalized in 1948 under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and publicly endorsed by American officials at the time. The great political scientist Robert Dahl once asked this rhetorical question: ‘If our constitution is as good as most Americans seem to think it is, why haven’t other democratic countries copied it?’ Well, we now know they have copied it and been inspired by it – only it was the one generated in the 1940s that was never quite made part of the federal Constitution.”

Skipping ahead to 1972, the authors write that “the Democratic Party nominated George McGovern as its presidential candidate after a successful grassroots insurgency campaign. McGovern, who’d supported Henry Wallace’s campaign for president in 1948, was probably the most left-wing major party presidential candidate in US history. ‘Our traditions, our history, our Constitution, our lives, all say that America belongs to its people. But the people no longer believe it,’ the platform began. ‘They feel that the government is run for the privileged few rather than for the many – and they’re right.’ It went on to call for ‘a guaranteed job for all Americans, with government providing employment if necessary at a living wage; huge expansion of public spending projects to rebuild cities, create mass transportation networks, address pollution, and build housing for the poor; progressive tax reform to generate equitable distribution of income and wealth; stepped-up antitrust action to break-up “shared monopolies” like those found with the massive corporations that dominated the automobile, steel, and tire industries; establishing a national economic commission to examine the role of large multinational corporations in the economy to see if federal chartering of corporations is necessary to reduce their influence; policies to directly attack the concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands; extension of trade union rights to workers in the nonprofit and public sector; establishing universal comprehensive health insurance controlled, financed, and administered by the federal government so all Americans are covered at all times; supporting equalization of spending among school districts to end the disparity between the caliber of public education based upon family income; recognizing human rights of prisoners and fundamentally restructuring prisons to make them effective rehabilitation facilities; reestablishing the congressional role in military affairs, reducing military spending, and ending secrecy, except where absolutely necessary; a total overhaul of the campaign-finance system with clear limits on donations to prevent candidates from being “dependent on large contributors who seek preferential treatment,” and an increase in public funding of elections; and universal voter registration by postcard, abolition of the Electoral College, and a run-off election for president if no candidate gets at least 40% of the vote.’

In short, the 1972 Democratic Party platform effectively called for the fulfillment of FDR’s and Henry Wallace’s anti-fascist democratic vision, along with addressing issues that had emerged since then. The Republicans positioned themselves to the right of the Democrats, but their platform was nothing like what would become de rigueur for the GOP by the 1980s. The basic contours of the welfare state were supported, and when Nixon won his landslide victory over McGovern it wasn’t a referendum on New Deal policies like Social Security, the right to form trade unions, or the more recent turns to environmental and consumer regulation. In fact, the Nixon administration (1969–1974) is noted for its passage of trailblazing environmental and consumer legislation, far more sweeping than anything that would follow. More than a few commentators have observed that on balance Nixon’s administration was well to the left of the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It wasn’t that Richard Nixon was a closet lefty; it was the nature of the times.

What drove both parties leftward were the social movements of the period, particularly the civil rights, student, antiwar, and black power movements, joined later by the women’s and environmental movements. Organized labor still aggressively supported liberal candidates for office, and some elements of it were strong proponents of civil rights, but it tended to be uncomfortable with criticism of the military-industrial complex and the war in Vietnam, and had little sympathy for the student left, black militants, or the ‘hippie’ counterculture. It was cool toward the 1972 McGovern campaign, despite that campaign’s having what was possibly the most pro-labor platform for a major party in US presidential election history.

Between 1969 and 1971 a spate of articles appeared in the business press and trade publications addressing the diminished prestige of business and the apparent embrace of socialist ideas by what seemed like a large segment of the population, especially young people. The most influential communication of this period, by a wide margin, was the Lewis Powell Memorandum of August 1971. It was a confidential memo, prepared for the US Chamber of Commerce and only distributed to a few score corporate executives and wealthy investors. ‘What we are dealing with is quite new in the history of America,’ Powell wrote. ‘The assault on the enterprise system, broadly based and consistently pursued, is gaining momentum and converts. Business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late.’ Powell called for a huge increase in the cash commitment of business, its trade associations, and the wealthy to changing the culture and making the media, universities, and schools more sympathetic to business and free enterprise. He also called for business to dramatically increase spending in the ‘political arena,’ through increased lobbying and attention to campaigns such that politicians from both parties are beholden to business interests.

In the early 1960s, corporate lobbyists were few and far between, but in the early 1970s businesses and trade associations increased their Washington lobbying efforts dramatically, and coordinated their activities. Where better to find insider lobbyists than from former members of Congress? In the early 1970s, 3% of retiring or exiting members became lobbyists; by 2012 the figure was more like 50%, with lobbyists often earning seven-figure incomes after their stint in ‘public service.’ And, thanks to a process initiated on the Supreme Court by Justice Lewis Powell in the late 1970s, beginning in 2010 the US Supreme Court overturned a century of legislation and jurisprudence and allowed, in effect, unlimited and unaccountable corporate and individual donations to political campaigns. With this newly shaped and decidedly less-democratic infrastructure, business domination and control of governance was all but guaranteed.

The Watergate scandal and an economic recession gave the Democrats overwhelming control of the Congress after the 1974 elections. The progressive wing of the Democratic party went on the offensive and in the middle of the 1970s advocated strongly for guaranteed full employment, tax reform to make the system more progressive, excess-profits taxes on large corporations, Ralph Nader’s proposal for a cabinet-level Department of Consumer Protection, same-day voter registration to encourage and increase turnout, labor-law reform to benefit unions, and national health insurance (Medicare for all), among other things. A few years later, the package of progressive legislation that had seemed likely to pass the day Jimmy Carter was inaugurated in January 1977 went down to ringing defeat within two years thanks to business lobbies. Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential race to mark the ascension of this ‘neoliberal’ approach, though only a few short years earlier the prospect that someone with Reagan’s views might win a national election would have been seen as preposterous.

The Republican Party has moved steadily to the right since the 1970s, purging its entire liberal and moderate wings, and the Democratic Party has moved right as well. The Democratic Leadership Council founded by people like Bill Clinton made the party far more pro-business, pushing for deregulation, lower taxes on business and the rich, cutbacks in social services, and secretive trade deals that benefiting only large corporations and investors. Structural constraints on the political process and the lack of sufficient democratic infrastructure have prevented the development of viable third, fourth, and fifth parties with meaningful alternatives. In the past, when the United States has had great periods of conservatism where elite interests dominated, such as the original planter/merchant aristocracy, Southern slavery, the Gilded Age, and the 1920s, they were followed by reform periods dedicated to lessening inequality and corruption. By historical standards, the United States is long past due, by a good two decades, for such a reform moment. In our view, the evidence points to the deterioration of the democratic infrastructure as perhaps the key factor in delaying or preventing a new era of reform; people have little way to effectively participate in the governing process and they respond (or opt out of responding) accordingly. Until that changes, the paradox will only continue and deepen, despite a universal sense that the United States has entered into a period of crisis.

Still, there are signs that the roots of a new activism on behalf of economic democracy are growing underneath the corporate media radar. There was no movement for a $15-an-hour minimum wage when we were touring in 2010, and only the barest hints of one in 2013. Now that movement is everywhere. Movements like this aren’t as powerful as they will be, and they aren’t yet linked together. But the remarkable response to the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders suggests that the prospect for a transformational moment is real. The country has a more militant labor movement than at any time since the early 1970s, possibly even the ‘30s. Despite the lack of labor reporting by most major media, there are still almost 15 million union members in the United States. They’re under brutal assault by corporate-funded Republican governors and legislators – and, notably, a number of Democratic mayors – who seek to shut down the steadiest defenders of public services and public education in our politics. Yet, in states such as Missouri and West Virginia, workers have blocked anti-labor right-to-work laws. And in cities like Los Angeles and New York, and unexpected regions such as the Rio Grande Valley, unions are actually expanding their membership, especially among low-wage workers.

The country is also seeing the renewal of historic ideals of public and cooperative enterprise. New movements are taking on what Gar Alperovitz, the cofounder of the Democracy Collaborative, refers to as the ‘huge and agonizing long-term task’ of developing and popularizing alternative models for ownership and job creation, transforming the system over time, beginning in local communities where the pain is greatest.’ Along with renewing old ideals of worker ownership and consumer involvement, there are proposals to democratize finance, with public banking at the state and local levels (along the lines of the century-old and highly successful State Bank of North Dakota), and a coalition of unions and consumer groups is working to renew postal banking as a vehicle to strengthen the US Postal Service and provide necessary and responsible financial services to low-income and rural communities.

Along with the climate change and Black Lives Matter movements, the country also has the most vibrant crusade for constitutional reform in a century. More than 600 American communities have formally demanded congressional action to begin the process of undoing the Supreme Court’s Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United, and McCutcheon decisions. They seek nothing less than a constitutional amendment that will renew the fundamental American premises that money is not speech, that corporations are not people, and that citizens and their elected representatives have a right to shape campaign finance laws to ensure that votes matter more than dollars. Sixteen states have formally requested action to amend the constitution. Millions of Americans have voted in referendums, signed petitions, and appeared before legislatures, city councils, and town boards to demand an electoral politics defined by ideas rather than the money power of self-interested billionaires and pay-to-play corporations.

The number of Americans actively involved in the work of addressing the economic and social and political challenges of this moment is enough to form a critical mass, but the various movements aren’t yet communicating with each other, and there’s still a tendency on the part of advocates to imagine that ‘their’ issue must be dealt with first. If history is any indicator, however, the defining and uniting issue will be economic.

Most writers assume capitalism is the basis for democracy and freedom, and that whatever happens in the future, the necessity of preserving current capitalism (or some sped-up version of it) all but trumps other concerns. Even the truest believers in capitalism, if they are honest with themselves, have to recognize, however, that this is a political gambit, a means for taking the biggest issues off the table. When we can’t have a wide-ranging debate about economics, concentrated economic power translates into power, period.

The one solution that has currency, and that’s promoted by scholars who have done much to identify the concerns outlined in this book (Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Martin Ford, among them) is the notion of a guaranteed annual income. The idea is that everyone gets a sufficient income, usually between ten and twenty thousand dollars annually, so that no one starves to death or goes homeless in an era where jobs become far more scarce. The sales pitch to the affluent sector of the population that will pay higher taxes to bankroll the program is twofold: (1) these tens of millions of unemployed people will spend this money on goods and services, so it will end up back in your pockets and make the economy stronger, and (2) unless the wealthy buy off the majority of the population, there will be extraordinary social turbulence that could make the 1930s look like a day at the beach.”

In addition, the authors believe that “certain functions should be removed from the market altogether. Make broadband Internet, healthcare, education, and extensive public transportation access free and ubiquitous, for example. Our economy would need to be radically transformed – off the drug of militarism, and having ended crony-capitalism policymaking, in order to provide all the elements of the economic bill of rights, and the transformation would need to be ongoing. Today’s circumstances also require that a few new protections be added to FDR’s list. For instance, the ancient sanction against corruption must be updated to guard against the privatization and outsourcing of public education and public responsibilities. It’s imperative to remove profiteering from the provision of public goods: education, municipal services, public safety, and the defense of the land from foreign threats. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that, as taxpayers and citizens, we can’t afford a prison-industrial complex,” especially one that doesn’t rehabilitate prisoners. “Likewise, having an ecology that can sustain human life isn’t some premium channel a society can select in addition to the democratic basic package. It’s the very foundation for human existence for all societies and must be regarded as such.

A full democratic infrastructure provides more than the right to vote; it provides economic and social security, a free flow of information, and absolute protection against discrimination and corruption so that every citizen – not just those who are wealthy – has the freedom to engage fully in the politics and governance of the nation. None of this presupposes a particular type of economy, yet all of it presupposes that every American will have the right to participate fully and meaningfully in determining what type of economy best serves her, and best frames the future. When a crisis causes a jolt, as will surely be the case with the technological and social transformations that are now unfolding, citizens must retain the power to put economic options on the table, and to embrace the best of those options.

The Constitution should also be clarified so that it sustains rather than throttles democracy. Do away with the Electoral College. Ban the practice of gerrymandering. Close the loophole that allows governors to appoint cronies to vacant Senate seats. Ask why America maintains a House of Lords–like Senate where, today, the vote of a member elected by 121,000 Wyomingites can cancel out the vote of a member elected by 7.8 million Californians. Consider electing members of the House to four-year terms that parallel those of the president, so that the popular will of 131 million voters in a presidential election can’t be stymied by 90 million voters in the next mid-term election. Object to any calculus that prevents a majority–African American District of Columbia and a majority–Hispanic Puerto Rico from becoming states. Reexamine barriers to popular participation, including those of poverty, ignorance, and incapacity.

Citizens also need to be in charge of the funding of a more democratic media system, beginning with supercharged funding of public broadcasting, robust support for community media, and substantial public investments in journalism as a public good.” The authors propose that “every American adult get a $200 voucher to donate to the nonprofit news media of her choice. Imagine if a public television station in a metropolitan area of a million people ill-served by existing media – which is to say any and every metropolitan area – managed to get 50,000 viewers to donate half of their Citizen News Voucher to help with the development of a newsroom to cover state and local elections and government. Imagine if most of those 50,000 viewers donated the other half of their Citizen News Vouchers, in combination with similar numbers of viewers from twenty more metropolitan areas, to develop an evening radio and cable news program along the lines of Amy Goodman’s ‘Democracy Now.’ The program would have close to $100 million to hire journalists to cover national and international issues. Let’s put it all online, with podcasts, apps, and alerts so that each of these initiatives is available to everyone, as news happens. A condition for getting the vouchers would be that everything produced be put online immediately for free, entering the public domain where anyone can use it as needed. Old media and new media would work together to produce journalism that matters, not relying on advertising, subscriptions, or the vagaries of the market. The people who need the information would be paying journalists to go out, get it, and deliver it to them.”

As it goes about the process of breaking up undemocratic corporate monopolies, a democratically elected government could also take over, own, and manage “industries in which it’s impossible to maintain effectively competitive conditions,” including banks ‘too big to fail.’

“We would link the elements of the democratic infrastructure already described to the development of what the United States has never really had: a national industrial policy focusing on creating and retaining meaningful and well-compensated work in all sectors of the economy; guarding against the development of monopolies that reduce competition and innovation, and that threaten small business; supporting research and development, especially in areas where investment is necessary but not necessarily profitable in the short term; working with private and public employers and communities to establish a proper balance between work and leisure; maintaining the planning, funding, and support networks needed to guarantee healthcare, disability, and retirement security for all, as well as the education, training, and transportation services that are required by 21st-century workers; encouraging economic development in industrial sectors and geographical areas that may not be immediately profitable, but have great social value; ensuring that workers have a voice in their workplaces and, through their unions; recognizing the value of public utilities and public services to the whole of the economy and society, and encouraging public ownership and cooperative development; guaranteeing that the benefits of technological advances are shared by all, and that changes in the workplace are made to ease economic and social burdens rather than merely to boost profits; requiring that trade policies benefit workers and the environment in the United States and the countries with which it trades; maintaining a steady commitment to environmental protection and climate justice; addressing the unique challenges faced by rural and urban Americans, and by people of color and immigrants who have suffered from historical discrimination and contemporary inequity; and establishing a national land-use policy that supports sustainable agriculture and the development of livable communities rather than sprawl and factory farming. The process would constantly evolve in a transparent and inclusive manner, with democratic oversight and governance. Another way of saying this is that economic planning needs to be democratized, popularized, and made accountable, and this democratic planning must be done locally, regionally, and nationally.

Imagine if Americans recognized that what’s terrifying isn’t automation technology, or the fact that everything’s going to change. What’s terrifying is that they have no say about the scope and character and direction of the change. What’s terrifying is that they can’t put proposals for a new economy on the table and make them the law of the land and the framework for our future. What’s terrifying is that the essential economic [and other] issues of the time aren’t the essential political issues of the time. Imagine if the people recognized that they must have a say or they’ll have nothing at all. And imagine if they were hooped together, finally and fully, across what were once considered lines of division. Imagine if the people were ready to demand a new Constitution, a new politics, and a new economy. Imagine if the people were ready, finally, to demand democracy – and all of the freedom, fairness, and human potential that extends from the moment when the profiteers and the pretenders are pushed aside and we, the people, forge our future.”

 

Are we mature enough to deal with the challenges that face us?

Collectively, right now, probably not. See my first real post on the “Read the Writing on the Wall” blog, in which I take you through a recent article on “The Death of Adulthood” (if it ever really existed) in American culture, and what real maturity might look like (from The Great Turning by David Korten). Writing on the Wall is at http://www.writingonthewalldotme.wordpress.com.

A New Cold War?

The Obama administration is continuing or expanding all of the elements of US foreign policy for which George W. Bush was so reviled – like killing foreigners and Americans extra-judicially with drones. It’s withdrawn combat troops from Iraq and is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, having failed to achieve its hazy objectives in both countries and created untold damage, including well over 200,000 military and civilian deaths and many more wounded. As someone who just turned 70, I’m reminded of the equally unjustified and even more destructive war of my youth – Vietnam, which resulted in 3.8 million deaths, according to Wikipedia. All of these wars were fought or are being fought for the interests of a small economic elite, and our government continues to try to control events around the world in the interest of this elite and to preserve its macho “prestige,” at the cost of millions of US tax dollars, untold innocent lives, and the stability and safety of the citizens in multiple countries.

The most glaring non-military examples right now are happening in Venezuela and Ukraine. The US government is still trying to reverse the results of the Chavez social revolution, which benefits the majority of Venezuelans and in which they participate at a grassroots level. It’s currently seeking to destabilize or overthrow Hugo Chavez’s successor, democratically-elected President Nicolás Maduro. The Obama regime is also trying for regime change in Ukraine, encouraging mostly right-wing and fascist armed protestors fighting it out in the streets with Ukrainian police, a struggle that’s already resulted in hundreds of deaths.

It’s very difficult to get the truth about these events – you won’t find it even on NPR. You have to know, as I learned in the Vietnam era, that our government consistently lies about its foreign policy, and go to alternative news sources when important news breaks. I first started hearing the truth about Ukraine yesterday on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now,” and I’ve now found more online.

Franklin C. Spinney, a former military analyst, writes on Counterpunch that “in the late 1980s, the leaders of the West promised Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that they would not expand eastward if the Soviet Union pulled out of Eastern Europe and ended the Cold War. That promise was not kept. A triumphal West stuck it to the Soviet Union’s greatly weakened Russian successor by incorporating the former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO and the EU. Their next move tried to incorporate the Caucasus country of Georgia – a country more a part of Central Asia than of Europe – into the West’s sphere of influence.” The moved failed when the Russians, who intervened militarily.

“Events in the Ukraine suggest that may have been a temporary speed bump on the pathway to rolling back Russia’s geography to the years of Ivan the Terrible. Ukraine is descending into chaos, and the West is fanning the fires of chaos and fueling revanchist fascism, perhaps with a near-term aim of partitioning the Ukraine along its historic Orthodox-Catholic fault line. Putin’s possible reaction may be portrayed as a reason to restart the Cold War with Russia.

Combine these efforts in the Ukraine with the ongoing push to start a Cold War with China (Obama’s Pacific pivot and the Navy-AF budget plan for the so-called Air-Sea Battle) and ever-rising defense budgets may be again in the offing.”

“Democracy Now” and the World Socialist website (wsws.org) both report that the Obama administration has been pressuring the European Union to lean on the Ukraine government. As Stefan Steinberg wrote in a front-page article today on wsws.org, “At an emergency meeting in Brussels yesterday, European foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on Ukraine, including visa bans, asset freezes, and restrictions on exports. Washington has already imposed travel bans on 20 leading Ukrainian politicians. Earlier on Thursday, the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland traveled to Kiev for talks with the government and opposition aimed at forcing President Yanukovych to stand down.”

Yanukovych has been trying to negotiate a truce with anti-government demonstrators, but “the fascist Right Sector organization, which, together with the ultra-right, anti-Semitic Svoboda party, is playing the leading role in the street battles, issued a statement Wednesday night declaring that it had not signed on to the truce and that there was ‘nothing to negotiate.’ According to media reports, the outbreak of violent confrontations on Thursday began early in the morning when protesters armed with axes, knives, truncheons, and corrugated iron shields. Videos of the fighting show protesters armed with rifles firing at police lines.” Obama appealed yesterday to the “mostly peaceful” demonstrators to “stay peaceful,” and said the Ukraine government should disarm. One can only wonder how he would feel if armed protestors fired on DC police and the leader of another government gave the same advice to him.

Steinberg writes that “Yanukovych, who inflamed the ire of the US, Germany, and the EU by backing away from a proposed deal with the EU last November and deciding instead to maintain close ties with Moscow, represents different factions of Ukrainian oligarchs from those oriented to the West, who are backing the opposition. Rightist and nationalist forces have also gone onto the offensive in a number of cities in the west of the country. On Wednesday, central administration buildings were stormed and occupied by protesters in Khmelnytskyi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Uzhhorod and Ternopil. In Lviv, the largest city in the west, protesters seized the prosecutor’s office and ransacked police stations. They then declared the city’s political autonomy from the central administration in Kiev. Supporters of the autonomy movement set up barricades at the borders with Poland, preventing traffic crossing into the region.

With tensions flaring up on the Ukraine-Polish border, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told Polish TV he had instructed hospitals to prepare for Ukrainian refugees.

Tusk said Hungary and Slovakia were making similar preparations, adding, ‘What is happening today is not war, but the situation could spiral out of control at any moment… We are ready for the worst case scenarios.’

The provocations of ultra-right groups have met with deafening silence from Western politicians and media, which uniformly ascribe responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine to the Yanukovych regime and Russia. The White House and the EU bureaucracy in Brussels are willing to allow these forces to destabilize the country while they lead the campaign to force the Yanukovych government out of power. The US and the EU powers are striving to impose a client regime in Ukraine pledged to carry out austerity policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund and take a much more confrontational stance toward Russia.

The Obama administration’s aggressive policy in Central Europe is a continuation of that of the Bush administration, which sought to undermine the influence of Russia over former Soviet republics and former Eastern Bloc allies in Europe, as well as former Soviet Republics in Asia. The real content behind Obama’s bluster about democratic aspirations was most vividly exposed by the recent comments of Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. In a leaked telephone conversation with the US ambassador to Ukraine, Nuland, wife of the neo-conservative cold warrior Robert Kagan, put forward her preferred scenario for a future Ukrainian government, dismissing the opinion of European leaders with the comment, ‘Fuck the EU.’ Nuland had previously underlined the geostrategic importance of Ukraine to the US when she told an international business conference that the US had invested $5 billion in NGOs and other organizations opposed to the Yanukovych regime. [The same strategy is being followed in Venezuela.]

In Libya and Syria, the Obama administration and its European allies were prepared to utilize the most reactionary political forces to achieve regime-change. Now in Ukraine they are provoking the break-up of the country and its descent into civil war.”

I’ll be researching then history of Ukraine, which I’m sure will shed more light on the situation there, so stay tuned (and skeptical)!

Our dysfunctional political system

As an anarchist, I don’t believe in representative government as most of us understand the term, or even in the validity of a “state.” I don’t vote in most elections because of these beliefs (sometimes I vote for third-party candidates for federal offices; other times I vote on state ballot measures or in local elections). Still, living in the messy, un-ideal present, I took an interest in the recent shutdown of the federal government because it affected the lives of many Americans adversely, and might have had an adverse effect on me had it continued. Most important, it’s not over — the whole thing will start up again in January.

Two recent articles in “Rolling Stone” magazine explained what’s behind these crises so well that I thought I’d share my slightly edited versions of them with you. The first, “A House Divided,” is by Princeton University professor of history Sean Wilentz. The second, “The Suicide Machine” is by political writer and commentator Tim Dickinson. Together they make for some lengthy and concentrated reading that in my opinion is well worth your while.

A House Divided: Right-wing Extremism and the Lessons of History by Sean Wilentz, Rolling Stone, 10-10-13

This latest episode in the endless Republican reality show is not chiefly about the incompetence and incessant squabbling of ideologues and petty politicians. Nor is it the outcome of the intense partisan polarization that has Washington in gridlock, as if Democrats and Republicans are equally at fault. Least of all is it about rescuing the economy from the Democrats’ profligate deficit spending, as Republicans claim – not with the deficit shrinking to its lowest level since the financial disaster of 2008 and the economic outlook improving. This crisis is about the radicalization of the Republican Party, its stunning lack of leadership, and its disregard for the Constitution.

The Republicans have now joined a relatively small number of major American political parties that became the captive of a narrow ideology and either jettisoned or silenced more moderate elements. The Democratic Party suffered this fate in the 1840s and 1850s, when Southern slaveholders took command of the party’s levers of power. So, temporarily, did the Republicans in 1964, when Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign claimed the party for extremists on the right.

As with earlier declines into dogmatic politics, the Republicans descended gradually, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s departure from the White House in 1989. Reagan had governed shrewdly. While getting his way on what he thought was important, including dramatically lowering tax rates and combating the Soviet Union, he knew how to compromise. He also knew how to exploit the culture wars, paying lip service to causes like the “pro-life” movement without risking political capital on them. Reagan kept his supporters in line even as he raised taxes no fewer than 11 times, raised government spending by 57% in current dollars, and nearly tripled the national debt. Yet while Reagan’s success continued to shape national politics for decades after he left office, he alone proved capable of holding together the conservative coalition that had swept him to power.

With no clear-cut successor on the right, the GOP turned to a scion of the old GOP establishment, George Herbert Walker Bush. Deepening divisions between center-right Republicans like Bush and a new crop of Republican right-wing firebrands like Newt Gingrich contributed heavily to Bush’s ouster in 1992. Bill Clinton’s innovative center-left politics revived the Democrats, and he won re-election in 1996, but his coalition didn’t hold. With George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, engineered by a one-vote majority of the conservative Supreme Court, the post-Reagan GOP reached a new and more radical phase.

After an unsteady start, the new Bush administration won enormous popular support following 9-11. In time, his popularity diminished, but it proved strong enough to narrowly secure his re-election in 2004. Despite the thinness of the president’s margin of victory, Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove spoke of a “permanent Republican majority” that would last for a generation or more. Four years later, the administration was in its death spiral. The economy was on the brink of collapse in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis traceable to the lack of oversight and regulation of an out-of-control financial sector. Anger over the Iraq war, the government’s passive early response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and more, had caused the president’s public-approval ratings to plunge. Two years earlier, the Democrats had regained a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in more than a decade, giving them virtual control of both houses of Congress.

The anti-Bush backlash wasn’t confined to Democrats and independents. Bush had stirred resentment on the right during his first term with his unfunded Medicare prescription-drug reforms, which many hardline conservative Republicans viewed as a big-government betrayal. Early in his second term, Bush tried and failed to advance the privatization of Social Security, which might have gained some credibility among the hardliners. Then he enraged much of the Republican base with his efforts to liberalize immigration policy. But it was his drastic interventions in the wake of the financial crisis to bail out the floundering banks that most offended the right wing of his party. Protests about it on the right (there were left protests, too) sparked the Tea Party phenomenon.

Battered and discouraged, the GOP nominated Senator John McCain, the last major national Republican whose career stretched back to the glory years of Ronald Reagan, for president, even though his reputation for irascible independence made right-wing Republicans squeamish. In desperation for party unity, McCain chose the inexperienced and ignorant, but unassailably far-right Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate, momentarily exciting the party base but, in the long run, damaging his hopes with the rest of the electorate. Senator Barack Obama won handily, the greatest Democratic presidential victory in nearly half a century.

The Tea Party uprising helped the Republicans regain the House in 2010, in the wake of Obama’s legislative victories in enacting a large, if insufficient, economic stimulus package and a diluted but historic national health care law. Yet the Republicans’ apparent rebound was actually dismaying to party politicos who had historic connections to the party’s more traditional and less dogmatic conservatism. In last year’s presidential election, it took Karl Rove and his favored candidate, Mitt Romney, until late in the primary season to fend off a bewildering gaggle of conservative hardliners. To secure the nomination, Romney had to adopt positions popular inside Tea Party circles but fatal in the general election, including naming Ayn Rand-admiring congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate.

For their part, the Democrats – and, in particular, the Obama White House – actively resisted understanding how much the rightward push had radicalized the Republican Party, especially its caucus in the House of Representatives. Disappointing his ardent left supporters from the 2008 campaign, Obama, acting as if he believed his own campaign rhetoric about a new post-partisan spirit, failed to do so. Not a single House Republican and only three in the Senate voted in favor of the administration’s stimulus package in 2009. When, after almost a year of bargaining and stalling, Congress finally passed a watered-down version of the president’s health care reform bill early in 2010, not a single Republican in either house of Congress voted aye.

These outcomes should have been obvious to anyone with a glimmer of understanding of what the Republican Party had become. The Republican right mounted vicious personal attacks against Obama – not only on his health care plan, but on whether he was really an American. This character assassination, along with high unemployment and the continued sluggishness of the economy, fueled the Republicans’ recapture of the House in 2010. The new Congress brought to the fore a fresh crop of leaders, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan. Dubbing themselves the Young Guns, they made no pretense of their discomfort with the new speaker of the House, John Boehner.

From the start, it was clear that the younger leaders would try to make the federal debt limit the focus of controversy, though Boehner demurred. “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults,” he lectured the incoming Republican freshmen about the impending debt-limit debate. “Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations.” But the Young Guns, Cantor in particular, would have no truck with such timidity. Neither would the freshmen elected with Tea Party support, most of them well to the right of the Young Guns. Throughout, the upstarts made it clear that if their demands weren’t met, they wouldn’t hesitate to force the nation, disastrously, to default on its debts.

The Republicans either believe, or would have you believe, that the debt ceiling limits the size of the national debt and thus limits government spending. Raising it, Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina has remarked, is just another way of saying, “Well, you’ve got a little bit more credit – keep spending.” The words “debt ceiling” or “debt limit” certainly sound as if that’s what’s involved. But these assertions are false.

The debt ceiling dates back to America’s entry into World War I. Contrary to a widespread misimpression, it came into existence not as a constraint on congressional spending, but in order to make government fiscal procedures less cumbersome amid the pressures of mobilizing for war. It had – and has – nothing to do with authorizing spending; Congress does that as part of the normal legislative process. Nor does the ceiling have anything to do with annual deficit levels, which explains why even today, with the deficit shrinking, Congress still needs to raise it. The ceiling is just an artificial cap, determined by Congress, on the amount the government can borrow to cover obligations already made.

Through the era of World War II, the limit looked to some like it might act as a check on government borrowing. But over the decades that followed, as the size of the nation’s economy – and with it the national debt – grew exponentially, the debt limit became a vestige of a bygone era. By 1974, when Congress passed a new law compelling it to approve a budget and thus set borrowing levels annually, it was truly obsolete.

The implication by the Republicans that raising the ceiling will enable the government to spend the nation into bankruptcy is utterly phony, a pseudo-crisis rooted in no real problem, a fraud manufactured and stage-managed by the GOP to frighten the public and score political points. Indeed, it’s the Republican radicals, not the Democrats, who are threatening to throw the government into bankruptcy unless they get their way over other issues, above all defunding (basically repealing) Obamacare.

You don’t have to be Paul Krugman to understand all of this. Since the 1950s, economists have called the debt ceiling an experiment that failed long ago. Addressing Congress in 2003 as the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan disparaged the debt ceiling as “either redundant or inconsistent with the paths of revenues and outlays you specify when you legislate a budget.” Eight years later, as the House Republicans threatened, Greenspan called the debt-limit problem “unnecessary” and said flat-out that the debt ceiling “serves no useful purpose.”

For decades Congress has raised the debt limit as a mere formality – every year from 1941 to 1945 to accommodate the accumulating costs of World War II, and 78 times since 1960 under various administrations. Occasionally members of both parties have voted against raising the ceiling as a symbolic gesture to focus attention on various issues.

If the debt limit isn’t raised when necessary, the federal government would immediately default on some of its obligations. That, in turn, would disrupt its ability to pay its creditors, from bondholders and defense contractors to recipients of Social Security and Medicare. A default that lasted for just a single day – and perhaps even the threat of such a default – would have dire effects, causing every credit agency to downgrade the nation’s credit rating while presenting to the rest of the world the bizarre spectacle of the richest and most powerful nation on Earth willfully damaging both its economy and its international credibility. A default that lasted more than a few days could trigger a catastrophic global financial crisis. Until now, no member of Congress, from either party, has seriously entertained wreaking such havoc.

Early in 2011, in keeping with Cantor’s plans, the Republicans threatened a government shutdown and in a last-minute deal with the White House forced cuts in discretionary spending that amounted to $79 billion more than the White House had wanted. Gearing up for his re-election campaign, Obama tried to put a good face on the outcome, but the Republicans, particularly the Young Guns and the more volatile Tea Partiers, were only getting started.

That summer, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used fiscal gimmicks to delay the necessity of raising the debt limit while Obama and Boehner held secret negotiations that they hoped would produce a “Grand Bargain.” The deal, which included cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits, would have reduce projected deficits by $4 trillion over the coming decade, but Cantor publicly undermined the talks, and on July 9th, Boehner backed out. Negotiations resumed a few days later, with the speaker extracting concessions from Obama that would have damaged the president badly with the Democratic base. But Boehner, pressed again by Cantor, who was in turn being pressured by Tea Party members like Jim Jordan of Ohio, shied away again, blaming Obama.

On August 3rd, the government was scheduled to default unless Congress raised the debt limit. Legal experts as well as Democratic leaders implored the president to head off a Republican-manufactured disaster by invoking or at least citing Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States,” including payments for government pensions, “shall not be questioned.” The explicit purpose behind the amendment, framed and ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War, was to prevent Southern rebel sympathizers returning to Congress from using the public debt to extract political concessions – precisely what the leaders of the current Southern-based Republican Party were now doing. But the president’s lawyers weren’t persuaded that that was a winning argument, and Obama pursued a last-minute compromise.

In the nick of time, on August 2nd, Obama signed the Budget Control Act, which he, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had worked out with Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky days earlier. This was the disastrous sequestration bill, which mandated that on January 2, 2013, unless Congress approved the recommendations of a bipartisan “supercommittee” on cutting billions from the budget over the ensuing decade, massive across-the-board cuts in mandatory as well as discretionary spending, including for defense, would take effect.

The sequester plan did nothing to relieve mounting anxieties in the bond markets. On August 5th, three days after Obama signed the bill, Standard & Poor’s, having issued warnings for months, announced that it was stripping the United States of its AAA credit rating. “The fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the administration recently agreed to,” S&P’s announcement read, “falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.” But even that ominous embarrassment didn’t move the Republicans, who refused to bend their solemn oath never to raise taxes and thereby killed any chance for a broader agreement. On January 2nd, the sequester bill’s doomsday, the president had to sign emergency legislation to keep the country from falling off what had become known as “the fiscal cliff.” But that only delayed the sequestration and did nothing to prevent future debt-ceiling crises down the road.

Sometime in the midst of these battles, Obama seems to have begun to grasp what he was up against in the Republican Party. Instead of repeating the old paeans to post-partisanship during his re-election campaign in 2012, he forcefully defended positive government and drew a clear line between his progressive political philosophy and that of his plutocratic opponent, who, at a secretly videotaped fundraiser of Republican donors, riffed on how 47% of the American people were parasites on government welfare. Republicans were dumbfounded when Obama won re-election by 5 million votes and by a landslide in the Electoral College, while the Democrats dominated the overall vote in both the House and Senate elections. In fact, the Democrats won 1.4 million votes more than the Republicans did in House elections nationally. Republicans retained the House only as a result of having gerrymandered congressional districts in the states they’d won in the 2010 midterms. The voters had clearly repudiated the anti-government, pro-big-business politics that have driven the GOP for decades, and Republican vulnerability with key constituencies became clear over a host of issues, from women’s reproductive rights to immigration reform.

For a brief time, Republican officials acted chastened. The Republican National Committee called upon the party to change its public image as the callous party of the rich and improve its links to blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Such sober second thoughts, though, never made a dent in the minds of congressional Republicans who, in 2013, have doubled down on their strategy of undermining the executive branch in any way they can. In the Senate, where Republicans remain in the minority, they’ve launched more filibusters than ever before in history, blocking Obama’s appointments to virtually every position, from federal judges to Elizabeth Warren as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Now, having been completely overrun by a radical faction within their ranks, they’re practicing a variation of the subversive politics of nullification first elaborated in the 1820s by John C. Calhoun, the Southern slaveholding arch-reactionary. Controlling just one half of one of the three branches of government – and having won that control only because of rigged, gerrymandered districting – they’re out to nullify laws they don’t like, in part by blocking otherwise uncontroversial appointments of the officials required to execute them. The law they hate the most is the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare. The conservative-dominated Supreme Court, to their disbelief and horror, failed to declare the law unconstitutional in 2012, so the Republicans are hellbent on nullifying it by any means necessary, including paralyzing the government and, if need be, destroying the nation’s financial credibility and throwing the economy into a catastrophic collapse.

How has a faction consisting of no more than four dozen House members come to exercise so much destructive power? The continuing abandonment of professional responsibilities by the nation’s mainstream news sources – including most of the metropolitan daily newspapers and the television outlets, network and cable – has had a great deal to do with it. At some point over the past 40 years, the bedrock principle of journalistic objectivity became twisted into the craven idea of false equivalency, whereby blatant falsehoods get reported simply as one side of an argument and receive equal weight with the argument of the other side. There’s no shortage of explanations for the press’s abdication: intimidation at the rise of Fox News and other propaganda operations; a deep confusion about the difference between objectivity and counterfeit neutrality; and the poisonous effects of the postmodern axiom that truth, especially in politics, is a relative thing. Whatever the explanation, today’s journalism has trashed the tradition of fearless, factual reporting pioneered by Walter Lippmann, Edward R. Murrow, and Anthony Lewis.

A press devoted to searching for and reporting the truth, wherever it might lead, would have kept the public better informed of the basic details of the government shutdown and debt-ceiling showdowns. It also would have reported the hard truths of the Tea Party “insurgency,” including how it was largely created and has since been bankrolled by oil-and-gas moguls like David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, and by a panoply of richly endowed right-wing pressure groups like Dick Armey’s Freedom Works and Jim DeMint’s Heritage Foundation. It also would have reported on the basic reason for the hard right’s growing domination of the Republican Party, which has been the decay of the party at every level, including what passes for its party leadership. No figure exemplifies the problem better than the GOP’s highest-ranking official, Speaker John Boehner, whose background and politics have largely escaped scrutiny.

Boehner owes his position to little more than stolid longevity. A self-made, chain-smoking, run-of-the-mill Ohio Republican, he arrived in Congress in 1991 and rolled with the rising conservative tide. Three years later, after the Republicans won their first majority in the House in four decades, he rose as far as the lower end of the House leadership, mainly because he was pliable and came from an important swing state. His chief assignment was to raise funds, and he was delegated to serve as a party emissary to the K Street lobbyists. His most publicized moment came in 1996, when he was exposed distributing checks from the tobacco lobby to fellow Republicans on the floor of the House. Two years after that, in the internal bloodbath that cost Newt Gingrich his job as speaker, Boehner, too, was deposed from his leadership position.

With a lock on his congressional district, Boehner returned to the House and even managed to sit as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee from 2001 to 2006 – not an especially powerful or prestigious assignment. How, then, did such a lackluster figure come to be named speaker of the House? Only because the more prominent and able veterans were guillotined, one after another, and his was the only head left intact.

First, Gingrich was booted from the House – his fellow Republicans removed him from his speakership in 1998 after a disastrous midterm election cycle. Then, in 2005, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the malicious power behind the inert Speaker Dennis Hastert, was indicted on felony charges (later dropped) involving corporate campaign contributions and resigned his post in disgrace. In a surprise win over another unexceptional wheeler-dealer, Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, Boehner took over as majority leader, partly because he was so unthreatening. Finally, in the Democratic sweep of 2006, Hastert lost his leadership role in the party. Boehner became minority leader, which put him in line to become speaker when the Republicans regained the House in 2010.

Boehner is a remainderman, the last figure from the Gingrich revolution left standing. In the absence of anyone with flair or talent, he rose to the heights with no virtue greater than his ability to hang around. Now, as speaker, he finds himself thrust into the middle of a momentous political crisis.

The speakership, historically, has offered an excellent opportunity for creative lawmakers to shape the politics of their times. Between 1811 and 1825, Henry Clay, the greatest speaker of all, transformed what had been essentially a rule-enforcer’s job into a position second in importance only to the president, concentrating power in his hands by appointing his allies to the most important committees. Having put political pressure on pacific President James Madison, Clay helped lead the nation through the War of 1812 and then through the early implementation of a sweeping national economic plan, which he devised and called the American System. He also brokered the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that calmed sectional furor over slavery for more than 30 years.

Several powerful men have followed in Clay’s footsteps. “Uncle” Joe Cannon sternly ruled the Republican-dominated House for eight momentous years between 1903 and 1911, greatly augmenting the power of his “Old Guard” Republican faction and stifling legislation proposed by Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressives. Sam Rayburn, the Democrat of Texas, held the job for 20 years with two brief interruptions under presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. With a firm but generous hand, he worked effectively with conservatives as well as liberals. Most recently the affable old-time Massachusetts liberal Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill held the House Democrats together during the lean years of the 1980s and struck up a strong and productive relationship with Ronald Reagan.

As a matter of history, Boehner is the most pathetic figure ever to serve as speaker of the House. Questioned last month about why he let right-wing members of his caucus overrule his own crucial – and publicly announced – decision to keep Obamacare out of the budget negotiations, Boehner could only reply that there were many points of view inside the Republican caucus and that “the key to any leadership job is to listen.” Henry Clay, who could not only listen but also speak eloquently, would scoff at Boehner’s definition of leadership.

If Boehner is the saddest speaker of the House in American history, the current Congress is also among the lowest of the low, comparable to the 46th Congress in the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction. The Democrats were the Southern conservative party at that time, but otherwise, the similarities between now and then are striking. So are the lessons that an old and mostly forgotten history can teach the present about how the executive branch should deal with a tightly organized extremist faction in Congress.

A financial panic in 1873 had led to an earthquake in the midterm elections the following year, costing the Republicans control of the House for the first time since the Civil War. Lacking an effective leadership, the Democrats had few ideas about how to combat the country’s economic difficulties – their entire agenda amounted to rousing their white Southern base’s resentment against the Republicans’ efforts to protect black voting rights.

In the so-called Compromise of 1877, Republicans won a disputed presidential election by agreeing to remove all but a token number of federal troops sent to guarantee civil rights – but even that mostly symbolic presence, along with the presence and power of U.S. marshals, continued to infuriate Southern Democrats. In the spring of 1879, with the Democrats still controlling the House, Congress passed routine appropriations bills to fund the army and the rest of the federal government for the coming fiscal year, beginning July 1st. Seeing their opportunity, Southern Democrats attached riders to the bills that forbade the use of troops and U.S. marshals to keep order at Southern polls. The sitting Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes, didn’t care much about protecting black voters in the South, but he and his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill recognized the Democrats’ blackmail for what it was, an attack on the fundamental American system of checks and balances. Five times the Democrats passed offensive bills, and five times Hayes rejected them, using the full powers of his office and denouncing the doctrine behind the Democratic threats – a doctrine, he said, that would “make a radical, dangerous and unconstitutional change in the character of our institutions.” After a legislative impasse of more than three months, when public opinion moved sharply against them, the Democrats backed down.

According to the usual workings of the American political system, success demands building diverse coalitions that contain swings too far to the right or the left. But historically this hasn’t always been the case – not in the movement for Southern secession that provoked the Civil War, not in the paranoid politics of Senator Joseph McCarthy early in the Cold War, not the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign that openly courted extremism and took over the Republican Party, and not in the George Wallace campaigns against civil rights.

The current Republican Party is the latest angry exception to the rules of normal consensus-building politics, and it’s unlikely that the GOP will function as a normal political party again anytime soon. The GOP’s long rightward march – deeply rooted in the revolt against the New Deal headed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and accelerated by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s – has devoured the party’s once strong “moderate” and even “liberal” wings. All that remains as a tempering force are Republicans so conservative that they can’t really be called tempering, and so inept and on the defensive that they can’t be called a force. If John Boehner is the last man standing against extremism in the party, there’s really nothing to bar the door.

Many experienced Republican politicos know their party’s at risk of dying. With the systematic removal of moderates from its ranks, the party’s become based, more than ever, in the Deep South and Mountain states – the least-dynamic regions in the country. Its base is also aging, with the shift of young voters toward the Democrats since Reagan. In 2012, Republicans ran worst among those national constituencies that are growing the fastest – from Latinos to youth – and in democratic politics, demography is pretty much destiny. One reason for the Republicans’ ferocity is their sense that their time is inexorably running out.

Institutional reform could provide constraints that the Republican Party has long since lost. Changing the Senate rules to curtail filibustering and expediting the nomination process, for example, would halt some of the most outrageous obstructionism we’ve seen since 2008. The rise of a different kind of mainstream press, devoted to telling the plain, unvarnished truth, without fear or favor, instead of propping up a false equivalency and calling it objectivity, would also be a great improvement.

For the foreseeable future, though, the prolonged death throes of the Republican Party will lead from crisis to crisis, with little chance that leading Republicans, even if they fail to get their way, will learn any lessons in moderation and self-control. So the acceleration of radicalism and the political crises will continue. Even Mitch McConnell – a notoriously conservative partisan, the party boss behind the obstructionist Senate filibusters and a man often openly contemptuous of President Obama – is the target of a primary challenge from the right in his 2014 re-election campaign. Sadly, frighteningly, after the 2011 debt-limit deal was struck, McConnell observed that “it set the template for the future,” and threatened that soon “we’ll be doing it all over.” And so, all too soon, we will, in a reprise that ought to alarm Americans across the political spectrum: the Constitution unheeded and endangered, the nation’s history blithely ignored, and the security of the American people put severely at risk by an extremist political faction.

Sean Wilentz is George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University. His books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, which won the Bancroft Prize for American history and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. 

Inside the Suicide Machine by Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, 10-9-13

It’s open warfare within the Republican Party, and all of America is caught in the crossfire.

The day before Congress broke for its August recess, on an afternoon when most of official Washington was tying up loose ends and racing to get out of town, Senator Ted Cruz was setting the stage for the chaos that’s consumed the nation’s capital in recent weeks. The tall Tea Party-backed Texan – the state’s junior senator, with less than a year in office – worked his mischief in a windowless Capitol basement, where dozens of the most radical members of the House had gathered for a meeting of the Republican Study Committee. Once a marginal group known for elevating anti-government dogma above party loyalty, the RSC now counts among its members 174 of the 232 House Republicans.

“Father, we thank you,” said Representative Michele Bachmann, opening the meeting. “You are the most important presence in this room.” In a pinstriped suit and yellow tie, Cruz sat at the center of a long conference table, flanked by RSC chair Steve Scalise and the group’s most powerful member, former chair Jim Jordan of Ohio – who’s routinely marshaled House rebels into battle against leadership. Jordan flashed the visiting senator a conspiratorial smile.

Soft-spoken but passionate, Cruz insisted that “as scary as a shutdown fight is, if we don’t stand and defund Obamacare now, we never will.” With those words, Cruz fired the first shot in a struggle that threatens the legitimacy of the Grand Old Party and the stability of the global economy. The fight has little to do with policy, or even ideology. It pits the party’s conservative establishment against an extremist insurgency in a battle over strategy, tactics and, ultimately, control of the party. The establishment believes the insurgents’ tactics are suicidal; the insurgents believe the establishment lacks the courage of its convictions, and are so convinced of their righteousness that they compare themselves to civil rights heroes like Rosa Parks. The establishment is backed by powerful business concerns with a vested interest in a functioning government. The insurgents are championed by wealthy ideologues who seek to tear down government. Both sides are funded by millions in unregulated, untraceable “dark money.”

America is now careening toward a catastrophic voluntary default on our debt because no one in the Republican Party with the authority to put on the brakes has the guts to apply them, for fear of being toppled from power.

Republicans took control of the House in 2011, fueled by the passion of the Tea Party and the virtually unlimited funding of donors like the Koch brothers, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor and GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy had actively recruited most of the 85 incoming freshmen. “They figured they could ride the Tea Party to a majority, and co-opt all of those people,” says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative think tank AEI. But from the start, leadership misjudged the new arrivals. Many had come to Washington to fight, not fall in line. “You show up in the fall,” says Representative Tim Huelskamp, a self-described Young Turk from Kansas, “and they say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, and everybody follow.’ And we said, ‘We’ve got a bunch of folks who don’t very much like the direction you’ve been wantin’ to go.'”

As leadership struggled to corral the class of 2010, a fellow congressman from Boehner’s home state of Ohio seized the advantage. Third –tern congressman Jordan, the RSC chair, recruited 78 freshmen into his fold. The RSC suddenly comprised a majority of the majority party, and Jordan found himself in a position of tremendous power and leverage. Speaker Boehner soon suffered two stinging defeats at the hands of Jordan and the RSC.

The first came during the 2011 debt-ceiling battle, when Boehner shut out his conference to negotiate with President Obama a $4 trillion “grand bargain” that combined modest tax increases with draconian spending cuts. By any objective standard of Washington deal making, Boehner had extracted extraordinary concessions from a sitting Democratic president. Believing the old rules of Washington still applied, Boehner was confident that where he led, House Republicans would follow. But Jordan’s RSC wouldn’t abide any deal that raised taxes, and more than 170 members were united against the speaker. If Boehner pressed ahead, the Grand Bargain could only pass with a majority of Democratic votes, so Cantor spiked Boehner’s deal. Jordan’s intransigence forced Republican leaders and the president to settle on a smaller, cuts-only package that cost America its AAA credit rating and created the across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester. Jordan and more than 60 House radicals opposed even that final deal, but he claimed victory.

Jordan beat Boehner again a year later during the fight over the expiring Bush tax cuts. In December 2012, the speaker introduced a compromise measure to preserve the Bush rates for incomes of less than $1 million. “We’re going to have the votes to pass,” Cantor declared, and Grover Norquist – the keeper of the Republican Party’s anti-tax pledge – gave his blessing. But Jordan and his loyalists locked arms against it.

With Boehner bowed, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell crafted a compromise that sailed through the Senate on a vote of 89 to 8 – an astonishing display of bipartisanship in the chamber of Congress that people used to think of as the broken one. In a public rebuke of his House’s right flank, Boehner brought the bill to the floor and joined a minority of Republicans and Nancy Pelosi’s majority bloc of Democrats in voting for it. The message was clear: The Capitol was uniting against the destructive House partisans. Jordan fumed at the passage of what he called a “classic Washington deal.”

Seeking to restore discipline to the House, Boehner tried to play the tough guy, kicking four Tea Party troublemakers – including Huelskamp – off their favored committees. But once again, Boehner misread his opponents. Far from backing down, the backbenchers mounted a January coup that came close to toppling Boehner. Huelskamp cast his ballot for Jordan. The speaker realized that he needed to stop feuding with his fellow Buckeye, a politician with almost zero national profile, who’s emerged as the commander the House GOP’s opposition bloc of 40 to 50 members.

Jordan sits on a shadow leadership team, dubbed the Jedi Council, whose other members include Paul Ryan, current RSC chair Scalise, and former chairs Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Tom Price of Georgia. At the beginning of the new Congress, stinging from the loss of the tax battle, Jordan and the Jedi were eager to lead Republicans into a new confrontation with President Obama over the debt ceiling. They’d drawn a dangerous lesson from the previous battle: brinksmanship works. But the first possible moment for such a fight would be in February, right in the middle of Obama’s re-election honeymoon. So the Jedi decided to hold their fire. At a House Republican strategy retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, in January, Boehner accepted their plan, along with a list of other strategic aims, known as the “Williamsburg Accord.”

The hard-liners were firmly in control. In February, the House temporarily suspended the debt ceiling, intending to give the president’s poll numbers three months to come back to earth. In March, Republicans rallied around a new, even more extreme version of the Ryan budget and forced Democrats in the Senate to produce a budget of their own for the first time in four years. The strategy was to showcase the parties’ contrasting visions – a Democratic budget that raised taxes and didn’t balance versus a Republican budget that slashed safety-net programs to achieve balance in 10 years.

In the spring, the House forced the sequester – $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts triggered by the first debt-ceiling deal – to go into effect. The RSC was delighted; they’d feared leadership might lose its resolve on spending reductions that hit defense contractors and other financial backers of the GOP.

But no one saw how radical the party had become until July, when after months of keeping the specifics under wraps, the House unveiled a slate of bills comprising the most reactionary major-party legislative program in a generation. It was calculated to block every facet of President Obama’s agenda, whether halting his executive orders to curb carbon pollution or blocking spending on infrastructure and research intended to jump-start the economy. The bills also punished the GOP’s most hated agencies – slashing the IRS budget by a quarter, the EPA budget by a third, and eliminating funding for public broadcasting.

The strategy wasn’t to turn the debt ceiling into a do-or-die standoff over Obamacare, but an improving economy spoiled the Jedis’ timing. Tax revenues spiked, mortgage giant Fannie Mae repaid $60 billion in bailout money, and Treasury was flush. On August 20th, three weeks after Cruz first made his pitch to House conservatives, the senator took his campaign against Obamacare to the next level, joining his mentor – former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation – for the Dallas stop of DeMint’s nine-city “Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour.” The original Tea Party uprising of 2009 took place in stuffy community centers and church basements. But tonight’s event – which packs a capacity crowd of 2,000 into the grand ballroom of a Hilton – felt less like a grassroots insurrection than a corporate convention. Jumbotron projection screens flanked a large stage decorated with Texas and United States flags. On a riser at the back sat an array of camera-pleasing, demographically unrepresentative audience members – African-Americans, Latinos, and young people.

Just a few years ago, the Heritage Foundation was a stodgy, deeply conservative think tank at the heart of establishment Washington, its main business offering right-wing-policy solutions, not driving government gridlock. In fact, the cornerstone of Obamacare – universal health care based on a mandate for individuals to buy insurance – was originally dreamed up by Heritage. On this night, however, DeMint denounced Obamacare as “the most destructive law ever imposed on the American people.”

If Cruz is the frontman of the defund fight, DeMint is the man behind the curtain, orchestrating the battle through a tight network of outside pressure groups under his sway, including Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth. In Congress, DeMint wasn’t much of a legislator – more like a Super PAC who happened to be a senator. Finding many of his Republican colleagues repulsively moderate, DeMint launched the Senate Conservatives Fund, which raised millions from the Tea Party’s grassroots to elect a new guard of anti-government hard-liners, including Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Cruz in Texas, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah, and Marco Rubio in Florida. SCF also backed a crop of fringe candidates – including Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Todd Akin in Missouri – who won primaries with Tea Party support, but whose oddball views on witchcraft and rape (respectively) sank their general-election prospects.

DeMint holds the religious views of the extreme right, arguing that homosexuals and even sexually active unmarried women should be barred from jobs as teachers. But he’s best known as an inflexible economic conservative and a first-class opportunist: last December, he walked away from the Senate in the middle of his second term for a job that would give him even more power in his quest to revolutionize Republican politics.

DeMint quickly put his stamp on the organization. In the first high-profile study released under his tenure, Heritage warned that comprehensive immigration reform would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion. The math was wildly at odds with the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which calculated that reform would reduce the deficit. And it soon came to light that its top author once claimed to be able to rank the intelligence of different ethnic and racial groups – starting with Jews at the top and blacks at the bottom. “The scholarly quality of Heritage’s work was never up to academic standards,” says Bruce Bartlett, a former fellow at the think tank. “But there was some degree of quality control. That’s gone out the window under DeMint.”

With his defund-Obamacare road show, DeMint marshaled the Tea Party to his side – and against congressional leaders. An online petition at Dontfundit.com gathered nearly 2 million signatures. Heritage Action folded new recruits into its army of 5,600 trained “Sentinels” across Republican districts who parrot DeMint’s talking points. It’s all part of a sophisticated strategy – modeled, ironically, after the Obama campaigns – to turn up the heat on Washington lawmakers. The big idea, says Mike Needham, Heritage Action’s 31-year-old CEO, is to keep members of Congress “enveloped in our message” – both on the Hill, “where he’s hearing it from our six lobbyists,” and at home, “where he’s hearing it from a well-informed Sentinel who is a Tea Party leader.”

Once again, the GOP establishment had underestimated the strength of the party’s insurgent wing. Initially, old-guard Republicans seemed to believe they could derail Cruz. But by the time Congress reconvened on the morning of September 10th, 80 radical members – including Jordan – had signed on to an open letter demanding that the budget bill “affirmatively de-fund” Obamacare. Worse, top voices in the Tea Party had turned against House leaders with the kind of venom usually reserved for the president: “If this thing isn’t defunded, it’s Boehnercare!” thundered Mark Levin, the right-wing radio host.

With the speaker in the cross hairs, it was Cantor who was chosen to announce the leadership’s new strategy: He declared that within a week the House would vote to pass a single bill with two parts – one defunding Obamacare, the other funding the government. The bill would force the Senate to vote up or down on Obamacare, before considering the budget. Standing ramrod-straight in a banker’s suit, Cantor flashed unusual vitriol: “It’s time for the Senate to stand up and tell their constituents where they stand on this atrocity of a law!”

No sooner had Cantor’s press conference wrapped than his clever strategy began to unravel. That same morning, thousands of bused-in Tea Party activists from as far away as Tennessee, gathered in the withering heat of the Capitol’s West Lawn, holding signs and shouting slogans. And, one by one, the leading lights of Tea Party Washington took the stage to denounce the Cantor Plan as an empty gesture – and worse. Cruz, who blasted the House leadership for “procedural tricks” to let Harry Reid fund Obamacare, was joined by fellow DeMint loyalists Rand Paul and Utah Senator Mike Lee.

Back inside the Capitol, the anti-Cantor Plan forces already had their hashtag. “I do not support the #hocuspocusplan,” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash. First elected in 2010, Amash recently led the charge to defund the NSA’s surveillance of average Americans. He has a wide following on social media, which he uses to communicate directly with his constituents, explaining every vote he casts, in detail, on his Facebook page. Mostly, Amash votes no – including 136 times against the Republican Party line. He says he’s “voting [his] constituency.”

Thanks to the efforts of groups like DeMint’s to give it a top-down structure, the Tea Party is no longer a ragtag army. Regimented troops can now be marshaled to the barricades in minutes. The group even threatens to “recruit and fund a primary challenger” to House Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions if he aids leadership. Sessions, who’s served in the House since 1997, has a lifetime score of 97% from the American Conservatives Union, but SCF labels him a “Texas RINO” – Republican in Name Only – adding, “We can’t sit back and let wishy-washy Republicans like Pete Sessions destroy our freedoms.”

A determined minority in the House today can command powers of obstruction far greater than even the filibuster in the Senate. The big, strategic votes in the House are party-line affairs. Leadership needs 218 supporters to even bring a vote to the floor. Less than 36 hours after it was announced, the Cantor Plan was dead. The following week, House leaders conceded to the demands of the defundistas. They put a continuing resolution vote on the floor that affirmatively defunded Obamacare, and the GOP House members passed it with 230 votes..

Americans are used to Republican-led houses running on near-martial discipline. “A couple of years ago, the speaker and majority leader, they had all the power,” said one conservative. “They don’t anymore.” The old Republican command-and-control structure ran on cash. “It was a patronage system,” said a GOP aide. “Raise money for the [campaign] committee, and get put on a good [House] committee that lets you squeeze lobbyists for more money.” Members with the greatest talent at raising cash could hope to be plucked from the back bench and placed on a leadership track. The current House leaders are all products of that old machine. But the system that made these men powerful has been disrupted. “They don’t have the same levers that previous leaders had,” said a GOP strategist, “to intimidate or coerce the conference to move in step.”

The irony is that the Republican Party brought the state of affairs on itself. Boehner gained the speaker’s gavel by agreeing to reforms that weakened the power of the office. In the aftermath of Tom DeLay’s criminal indictment in 2005 for laundering corporate cash to Texas campaigns (his conviction was overturned this fall), Boehner campaigned for minority leader as a reformer. In 2010, Speaker Boehner put teeth to his promises, banning pork-barrel projects in appropriations bills. The reform was logically consistent for a party that had made “wasteful Washington spending” its bête noire. But the speaker himself has bemoaned the loss of leverage on must-pass legislation. “It’s made my job a lot more difficult,” Boehner has said. “I’ve got no grease.”

Back in 2010, old-school Republicans, hungry to return to power, cheered on the Tea Party insurgency. But what was once seen as an electoral blessing is now understood as a governing curse. “Most of these Tea Party folks think that government is obscenely out of control and that the only way to get it back in line is to draw a hard line,” says the GOP strategist. In the past, pressure from the business community could force House hard-liners to embrace ideologically unpalatable compromises like the TARP bailout. But the sway of K Street and the Chamber of Commerce is much diminished among these radicals. “In the past, Boehner could call a lobbyist and say, ‘I need you to lean on this member,'” said a right-wing think tanker. That kind of pressure is counter­productive with new arrivals who got elected by denouncing lobbyists, business PACs and the D.C. establishment.

The partisan gerrymandering of 2012 locked in the Republican electoral gains of 2010. In redrawing congressional districts following the census, the GOP focused its efforts on protecting House incumbents, making their districts as red as possible. Last November, this redistricting effort produced a shocking subversion of representative democracy. In the popular vote, almost 1.4 million more Americans cast their votes for Democratic House candidates than voted for Republicans. But Republicans maintained a commanding majority in the House.

Today, the number of true swing districts in the House is vanishingly small. Only 17 Republicans won in districts that Barack Obama also carried. Meanwhile, the number of what elections-data savant Nate Silver calls “landslide districts” – districts that are 20-plus points more Republican than the nation at large – has swelled to 125, up from 92 just a decade ago. Members from these über-safe districts don’t fear the challenge posed by a mainstream Democrat in the general election – they dread a well-funded primary opponent running to their right. “You’ve got very small numbers of people who vote in GOP primaries,” said a Republican who served in the Reagan administration. “It doesn’t take very many of these Tea Party people to show up to find out you’re on your ass.”

To keep this threat fresh in members’ minds, the Club for Growth recently launched a campaign called “Primary My Congressman!” that seeks to oust centrist Republicans from safe seats – and replace them with the hardest of the hardcore. “The Club for Growth is a cancer on the Republican Party,” said Steve LaTourette, a recently retired moderate House Republican from Ohio. “The only thing that grows when the Club for Growth gets involved is the number of Democrats in office.”

Republicans were also ecstatic when the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision undermined the system of regulated campaign finance. But this boon to the wealthy donor class has become the bane of those trying to forge party unity. Now donors can microtarget the faction of Republicanism that suits them best. “There’s a difference between rich Republicans used to working through K Street and the guy who just sold his plumbing business and happens to be a total libertarian winger,” said the think-tank fellow. The rise of outside money has made a mockery of what used to be the leadership’s biggest stick: “If leadership says, ‘We’re not going to fund you if you don’t vote with us,’ the members laugh,” the strategist says. “‘Keep your $10,000. I’m going to take $200,000 from an outside group.’ Or better yet, ‘I’m going to start my own Super PAC and send out e-mails about how John Boehner is standing in the way of our shared values.'”

In the last election, for instance, John Ramsey, a 21-year-old Ron Paul fan from Texas, used money he inherited from his grandparents to create the Liberty for All Super PAC. He funded the winning campaign of libertarian Kentucky freshman Massie with more than $629,000 in independent expenditures. As a result, Massie – a gregarious, MIT-educated 42-year-old – is a party of one, free to buck GOP leadership. Indeed, in his very first week in office, Massie joined in the coup effort that nearly stripped Boehner of his speakership.

The chaos now roiling the House is, in many ways, a battle between the two most powerful GOP party bosses – Karl Rove and Jim DeMint. For Rove, the activists of the Republican base have always been useful rubes. Republicans in the Rove school campaign on wedge issues that rally grassroots Republicans to the polls. But once these politicians get to Washington, they shift to fight for the interests of the party’s financial backers. In the emerging party of DeMint, however, the base that Rove scorns is everything. Only the daily pressure of grassroots activists, DeMint believes, can force Republicans to deliver in Washington on the small­government promises they make to their constituents back home.

These two schools of governing can’t, ultimately, be reconciled. The DeMint school believes in combat, and in turning every possible government choke point into a high-stakes confrontation: You win by standing on principle, refusing to yield and letting the chips fall where they may. As Cruz put it to activists in Dallas, “If you have an impasse, one side or the other has to blink. How do we win? Don’t blink.”

“The elites have different agendas than the rank and file,” says the former Reagan official. “Your average Tea Party people may be content to have gridlock forever, but the money people – the corporations, the lobbyists – they need stuff.” And people in that camp have a lot riding on John Boehner and Eric Cantor.

Boehner and Cantor have learned to speak the language of the Tea Party – the majority leader more fluently than the speaker – but their real job is to keep the old Republican-patronage machine humming. In their political bloodlines and in their donor networks, both Boehner and Cantor are deeply connected to the politics of Rove. Boehner’s signature accomplishment was steering George W. Bush’s education initiative No Child Left Behind to passage – a law that Needham decries as “a gargantuan federalization of education” and “an anathema to conservatives.” For his part, Cantor was a key member of the 2003 Tom DeLay whip team that twisted arms in an infamous all-night session required to pass the deficit-financed Medicare prescription-drug plan, a Rove-driven gift to Big Pharma and the most sweeping expansion of the program since the days of Lyndon Johnson.

Boehner is renowned as a “Chamber of Commerce Republican” – and the campaign-finance data are unambiguous: In the 2012 election cycle, Boehner was the House’s top recipient of campaign cash from 34 different industries, from hedge funds and investment firms to coal mining, student­loan companies, hospitals, nursing homes, and Big Tobacco. He was also the top recipient of campaign cash from lobbyists themselves, raking in $393,000 according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In D.C., the speaker’s clubby network of staffers and lobbyists is known as “Boehnerland,” and its members include heavy hitters for Citigroup, UPS, Altria, AmEx, Akin Gump, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Although he’s positioned himself as a kindred spirit of House insurgents, and has even joined the RSC, Cantor is even more deeply knitted into the Republican establishment than Boehner. His prodigious fund­raising talents elevated him to the fast track in 2003, when he became chief deputy whip after just one term in Congress. Married to a former Goldman Sachs VP, he speaks the language of the investment class and is said to sell financiers on the “return on investment” of their political donations to the party. He’s been a fierce defender of the hedge-fund loophole that taxes the income of top investors at less than the rate of their secretaries, and over his career he’s raised more than $2.4 million from the investment community.

Though they used to bicker, Cantor and Boehner now agree on most policy, and share the same benefactor: the Cantor-affiliated Super PAC YG Action Fund received $5 million from casinos magnate Sheldon Adelson last cycle, the same amount that the Boehner-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund got.

New York Representative Peter King, one of the few centrists left in the House GOP, says of the struggle between the old and new guards, “This whole thing has become madness.” House radicals won’t pull themselves back from this brink, but if Boehner sidelines the Tea Party contingent and defuses the debt-ceiling crisis with the help of Nancy Pelosi and Democratic votes, it’s likely to be his last act as speaker.

The men who put this chaos in motion have admitted they don’t have a strategy for the endgame – they just wanted to put the ball in play. Speaking on September 19th, after the House had all but guaranteed a federal shutdown, Jordan invoked the coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots. “Even Belichick,” he said, “doesn’t script out the whole game.”