'People Are Close to Revolt'

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Yesterday I quoted a long-time Congressional staffer -- one involuntarily retired by the mid-term results in 2010 -- who ratified previous comments about the Republican-led nihilism of the Congress and the disgusted reaction it was evoking in the rest of the country. A university librarian in the Midwest responds:

>>I've never actually written to a journalist before, but I was one of the 1,252 people arrested this weekend in front of the White House.  I also live in the rural Midwest and your source is right.  People are close to revolt.  I think it will be a five year process of movement building, but even my very conservative staff of library assistants all cheered me on when I told them what I was doing.  The people I interact with here and the ones I met in DC are all fed-up at a deep and fundamental level.

 All of the people I know who are capable of rational thought also understand that the combination of (we're rural so pretty much everyone gets climate change) climate change and energy issues, lack of jobs, and the refusal of government to provide us with basic services means that a new revolutionary social movement is needed.  Food prices are soaring, gas prices are making it hard for people to get to low paying jobs, and the amount of suffering because of lack of access to medical care is dire. 

I sent a staff person home today (without pay since she's part-time) with a draining ear infection and a high fever.  She also has a mass in her abdomen.  She has no insurance and she's divorced with children and her ex also has no money.  She is paying her bills with what I would call scam student loans that will eventually ruin her.  These people are getting closer and closer to the point where we will have fundamental break-down of law and order.

How far does Congress think they can push before they get pushed back?<<

Several more worth reading after the jump, a small sample of what has arrived. I am out of the country and on the road and will catch up with these as often as I can.

The U.S. has been through difficult moments in public life before, including many I experienced and remember myself. This is different from the eruptions and desperation of the late 1960s, it's different from the Constitutional crisis of the Nixon era, it's different from a range of other bleak episodes that come to my mind. But today's fatalistic exasperation about the basics of self-government -- about whether a rich and still-powerful nation can address its rudimentary and most obvious challenges -- is more than I remember in a long while.

From a former Senate staffer and academic specialist in Congressional operations, the must-win battle to the death:

>>Thanks for bringing to our attention the fine Lofgren piece. I agree with his comments and those of another former staffer, but I'd add a couple points.

When challenging Speaker Jim Wright over his book sales and then during the House banking scandal, Newt Gingrich defended his efforts as "We have to destroy the House in order to save it."  I think you can make a line connecting that approach with Reagan's "government is the problem" and Grover Norquist's "starve the beast." Many Republican leaders somehow believe that they and the country will benefit if they undermine public trust in and support for government -- and they see no difference between the national and partisan benefits from such an outcome.

I think it's also significant that large segments of the opposition party have believed that our last 3 presidents were fundamentally illegitimate: Clinton, with 43% of the vote and personal misbehavior leading to impeachment, Bush for winning in the Supreme Court but not the popular vote, and Obama for his exotic background and birth certificate controversy.

As much as I defend Congress -- because I remember a time when there was more civility and some good things were accomplished -- I must admit that in recent years the Republicans have turned every disagreement into a must-win battle to the death.Their party unity is stunning, I guess because they are quite willing to punish deviants severely.

The only way to stop them is for the voters to reject their approach -- and the polls showing greater criticism of the GOP than of Obama suggest this might be working. I don't know if the political system can survive until that punishment is meted out.<<

From another reader, what "starve the beast" really means:

>>What I find interesting about this is that it isn't news.  Republicans have long (since Reagan) spoken of the need to "starve the beast" to radically reshape government to their specifications.  I think most people have viewed it as some kind of a colorful metaphor. But if you remove the blinders and take it literally, what would starving the beast look like?

Choking everything that has sustained the beast:  Cutting revenues (taxes); Undermining the economy; Damaging the institutions that have sustained the beast; Removing beast-loving voters from the voting booth. Republican tactics and goals all involve choking:  crimping tax revenues, crimping voter access, crimping resources, crimping legislative processes.

There is very little that the Republicans have been promoting which, if clearly and effectively laid out for the voters, would be approved by a majority of American voters.  The Republicans have to have known this.  And so they starve the beast, and the beast includes the US government as we have known it for the last several decades.  The government and its institutions are being choked to death.

Oh. And one more thing: Obama and Biden have mentioned that in being mentored as new senators, they were told, no matter what, never question the good intentions of your opposition. 

This is excellent advice for preserving a collegial institution where all the participants truly are dedicated to the integrity of the government.  However, if one party actually wants to undermine the government, it is a prescription [for disaster] for today's Democratic Party.<<

From a reader in (I think) his 20s with some Congressional staff experience, the Tragedy of the Commons:

>>First, the life of a congressional staffer is grueling and difficult, with a very high turnover for the 20-somethings that arrive each year. I'd bet that staffers are caught in a negative feedback cycle - as Congress gets worse, it becomes harder and harder for anyone less interested in their proximity to power to stay. Idealism is tough to maintain, especially given the examples that Members and Senators are setting, and sweeping out droves of elected officials doesn't change the underlying population that keeps the Hill ticking (or not ticking).

Second, remember that the debt deal was made by Biden + McConnell, one of the few long-standing relationships between credible party leaders. Those relationships were crucial; they allowed our leaders to see each others humanity, and to trust each other far more than today's politics allows. Being able to fly home to one's district may be good for that particular Member, but it's a Tragedy of the Commons - if no one sticks around in DC, national policy making suffers. And has suffered.

Why don't we think of Congressional service like a military deployment? Soldiers can't come home each weekend, and those that spend the money on their wars shouldn't either.<<

Of course this last writer recognizes all the reasons why you couldn't -- and shouldn't -- keep Congress in DC for months on end. But the drive-by nature of today's legislative interaction has its own destructive consequences, as he points out. More soon.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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