It is said somewhere that your worst enemy is also your best friend, because it’s they who keep you up to the mark and true to yourself.
Back in the day, we spent a lifetime staring down the threat posed by the Soviet Union. They truly had the power to destroy the United States, to rub us out of existence. We could have done the same thing right back at them, but by then our country would be well on its way to radioactive non-existence. For that matter, the Soviet Union, and us, could have made a good start at destroying human civilization. That didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen because the United States had two clear goals — prevent nuclear war and halt the growth of communism, in part by demonstrating that our system worked better than theirs, both for the elite and for the workers. It took seventy years or so, but we did it. We defeated the communist system so badly that even their power elite agreed it was unworkable, and we did it without fighting a nuclear war. Our politicians were, for the most part, statesmanlike, willing to compromise for the greater good. As far as Greatest Generations go, those of my generation gave our parents a pretty good run for their money.
So the Soviet Empire collapsed, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon faded. There were no enemies left, at least none worthy of the name. The USSR was gone, and the US was left astride the world like a colossus.
“And then what happened, daddy?”
And then it all fell apart. For seventy years, the politicians knew that if they made a mistake, it would hurt us in the undecided minds of the third world. If we showed a flaw in our ability to govern ourselves, the Soviets would be there in a heartbeat, prying and poking and widening the flaw until it gave them the ability to defeat us. We had to stand strong, we had to be governed by statesmen, because we were the hope of the world.
But once the enemy was gone, once there was no existential threat to the nation (and as far as existential threats to the US, Al Qaida and its ilk are dangerous but laughable bumblers who never scored better than a 75% success rate on their best day), once there was no external reason to compromise in order to display a united front, well then, our statesmen turned into politicians. For that seventy event-filled years, our politicians agreed that a strong and well-run country was essential to our survival and well-being. Power was important, but not power at any price. Ideology was important, but not at the expense of the country. Those who forgot that, those who (like “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy) attempted to turn governance into a platform for personal power, were rejected, reviled, and forgotten. Today, the single, solitary goal of the politicians is to gain power and to hold on to it.
Or, I should say, the single, solitary goal of Republican politicians is to gain power and to hold onto it. We know the mechanical reasons — demographics, gerrymandering, safe seats attackable only from the right. What we don’t talk about is the profound moral collapse of the party. There are those who could take a principled, statesmanlike stand. My own representative Cathy McMorris Rogers, is in a safely Republican seat, with no sign of a credible threat from her right. She could stand for the country, but doesn’t. She could be a statesman, instead of being a Republican Party hack, but she isn’t. She’s dedicated to keeping and extending what power the GOP now has, and to hell with the long-term interests of the country.
Why don’t I include the Democrats? Because they are the party of diversity, and they have to foster compromise within their own party if it is to have any kind of a coherent policy. They could have played the government shutdown card when Bush was in office, but they didn’t. They are forced to be morally better than the GOP, in the same way the US was forced to be morally better than the USSR.
So, we have a sequester — a self-punishment so bad even the Republicans would seek compromise to avoid, but they didn’t — and we now have the government shut-down, for however long this farce lasts, and we’re staring a default on our debts if things continue as they must.
When we had the Soviet Union as an adversary, we could look inside ourselves and pull out the courage and strength of character needed. Without the Soviet Union, Republican politicians can no longer find such things as character and courage, all they can produce is petty, greedy, small-minded clutching for power at any cost.