Sunday, October 9, 2011

Government by Cabal

I am reading an interesting book, for me, entitled "The Broken Branch," by Norman Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann on the Congress in its current manifestation. It led me to wonder anew about our corrupt republic or our pretend republic. Ornstein and Mann recognize the intense partisanship that characterizes our politics today and attribute it to several factors, among them the ideological leanings of many politicians today and of years not so far past. They lay much of the blame on the Republicans, even while recognizing that the same tendencies were evident under the Democrats as well. The result with which they are most concerned is the degeneration of Congress as a deliberative, legislating institution as well as an institution willing to oversee the executive department of the government.

But this led me to ask myself: Why would people choose to act in ways that undermined the institution in which they worked? Ideology can explain it in part but there are different ways of pursuing ideological goals, some of which would involve compromise, negotiation, and deliberation. So why take the "low road," as Ornstein and Mann label it? That is, how do people in power benefit from proceeding in this fashion?

And this is where my head stopped at the word "cabal." Consider the following sentence from Ornstein and Mann: "Winning at all costs consumed Republican leaders in Congress, which meant not merely shutting the minority Democrats out of the lawmaking process but also regularly marginalizing the views and roles of rank-and-file Republicans, moderates, and staunch conservatives alike in order to advance the president's program." [pp. 213-214, emphasis added]

Who or what is left, except a cabal working its will to the exclusion of others, even all others? What was the invasion of Iraq about? It surely wasn't about WMDs because there were none and it certainly wasn't about remaking the Middle East because that was not about to happen because the U.S. invaded Iraq and anyone with half a brain would have known that. It was, I now think, the means by which this cabal would solidify its control of, for its own benefit, the government. Some have argued that government by a cabal lay behind "the Iran-Contra scandal," which had to fail once it was exposed. But in this case, the push by and for the cabal was "hidden in plain sight," under the guise of "national security," which made it more likely to succeed.

By intensifying the partisan character of our politics, deliberately, those few can, as Ornstein and Mann have noticed, drive others out of the political arena. The purpose is not so much ideological, although it is not devoid of such motivations, as it is political in the old fashioned sense of getting as much power as is possible and using it to serve the interests of those in power and their friends. Consider the following sentence from Ornstein and Mann:

"Speaker [of the House Dennis] Hastert proudly announced that his primary responsibility was to pass the President's legislative program, which often required ensuring the majority sentiment within the majority party, even if it reflected a distinct minority of the full House, prevailed."[p. 213]

Of course to call the sentiment Hastert and the president were advancing "the majority sentiment" is less than accurate when it required "marginalizing" all but those most committed to the president. Rather, this sentiment "reflected a distinct minority of the full House," meaning that it did not reflect the opinion of the public or those who had elected a majority of the full House. And it is doubtful that this sentiment even reflected "the majority sentiment within the majority party," except of course as that sentiment was manufactured by Hastert and others in positions of leadership in the House by means of earmarks and other tools used to ensure obedience.

In other words, it would seem that when Ornstein and Mann label the Congress "the broken branch" they mean that that branch has been captured by a cabal that refuses to compromise, negotiate, or deliberate and refuses even to consider public opinion except as an obstacle to be gotten around. Hence, it would seem to make sense to intensify their public rhetoric because in this way they can disguise their "cabalistic" politics as ideological politics, which seems to lend them more legitimacy. And, of course, if they are a cabal, they could care less about the institutional integrity of the Congress. In fact, undermining that legitimacy would serve their purposes. One might even say from this perspective, scandals such as those involving Tom DeLay and Abramoff are not inconsistent with the desired outcomes of the cabal, that is, maximizing their power at the expense of Congress as a legislative body. From this perspective, "ethics reform" is politically undesirable.

And this is where we seem to be: In a political order that depends upon scandal to function, just as it depends upon waste and war to function. And we are not likely to escape this order any time soon if the current administration is any indication.

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