'The Two Great Classes—Tramps and Millionaires'

In response to recent items on current partisan politics as a slow-motion coup, here are messages from two readers with extensive first-hand experience in politics. First we have Mike Lofgren, for many decades a Republican Senate staffer, whom I have quoted before and whose book on what has happened to American politics, The Party Is Over, comes out this summer. He writes:

tramps.jpgOur great-grandparents would have recognized the current Supreme Court and the Citizens United decisions for what they are: the institutions of government in the grip of what they then called the Money Power.

Witness the 1892 Omaha platform of the People's Party ("the populists"), reacting to court rulings such as that of the 1886 court session, when a court headnote on a case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, laid the foundation for "corporate personhood" and established the precedence of corporate prerogatives over citizens' rights. The populists' Omaha Platform called out the high­est court, along with the rest of the political apparatus, as rotted by money:
"We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized. . . . The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauper­ized labor beats down their wages. . . . The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind, and the pos­sessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injus­tice we breed the two great classes - tramps and million­aires."

That last line commands the admiration of anyone attentive to rhetoric. So does the passage as a whole. "Even the ermine of the bench" !

Next we have Charles Stevenson, who was for decades a staffer to Democratic senators before becoming a professor at the National War College. He writes:

- I used to think that increased party polarization was simply the result of the growing ideological unity of each group, a process reinforced by redistricting into safe seats.  Now I think that a better explanation is a combination of a capture of the GOP by a radical fringe and the defeat of congressional institutionalism by partisanship.  Newt Gingrich was the godfather to both movements, starting with his rejection of the bipartisan 1990 budget deal and continuing with his strategy of "destroy[ing] the House in order to save it" by undermining public confidence in the institution....

- Congressional norms have also changed, most dramatically as you've noted in terms of the abuse of the filibuster. But they've also changed in terms of defending the congressional institutions and their proper Constitutional roles. Few members any longer assert congressional war powers against a President of their own party. Committees - and conference committees --are routinely bypassed by the leadership to avoid messy compromises. Some congressional leaders seem to put partisanship above lawmaking. Bill Frist [R-Tenn] had little Senatorial experience or respect for the institution when he was picked by the Bush administration to be GOP leader. Mitch McConnell openly announced that his goal was defeating Obama in 2012, rather than something like "using the votes we have to limit presidential excesses."

- Another development that has poisoned our politics is the fact that each of the last 3 presidents has been viewed as fundamentally illegitimate by a large segment of the opposition - Clinton first because of his narrow victory in a three-man contest, then because of his lying under oath about his sexual activities; G.W. Bush because of his minority popular vote and the Supreme Court ruling; and then Obama because of questioning his birth certificate.

- I don't think we should eliminate the filibuster because I can foresee partisans on both sides wanting to prevent what they consider a radical appointment to the Supreme Court or a narrow majority vote approving use of torture or ending civil liberties in the event of another terrorist attack. I'd be happy with a rule change forbidding filibusters on "motions to proceed" and requiring the opponents to produce 40 live bodies in order to sustain a filibuster each day.

The "tramps" illustration above comes from the very useful "New Spirits / Tramps and Millionaires site," as does this Charles Dana Gibson illustration of another side of turn-of-the-19th-century American life.

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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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