09/28/2010 12:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Shame of Our Nation

There are times when I wonder what it might have been like to have lived through some of the most egregious moral failures of our history. What would I say to my grandchildren when they asked me about America under Jim Crow, or the days before women's suffrage, or indeed any era in which an institutional fact of our national life would in hindsight be exposed as a brazen and incontrovertible injustice? Had I been there, living it, would I have felt that something wasn't right? Would a sinister normal have seemed somehow acceptable? I wonder, because I only have this era to live in, and here I am, and something feels terribly wrong.

When I heard Newt Gingrich chide the president recently for what he described (borrowing a term from the imbecilic conspiracist Dinesh D'Souza) as "Kenyan, anticolonial behavior," my first thought was that it sounded exactly like something a racist person might say. Gingrich, fresh from the set of his recent documentary detailing the impending Islamic attack on America, is arguably the most successful Republican politician of the last twenty years. He is also an unapologetic parasite on our great national conversation, the note-perfect embodiment of the malignant tumor on political discourse his party has opted to become since the election of President Obama.

I have come to the conclusion that the Republican Party no longer has any interest whatsoever in making the lives of Americans better. It brings me no joy to say it, but it is too horrific a fact to ignore. On every issue that touches our lives -- economic recovery, health care, financial reform, taxes, deficits, civil rights -- the GOP has winnowed their strategy to this: bamboozle and terrify their countrymen. Lie to them and enrage them, prey on their worst fears, on their ignorances, on their hard times. Your taxes are going up! Your freedom is going away! Muslims are coming to kill you! The president is Hitler, is Stalin, is Marx, is the very incarnation of a Luo tribesman, a philandering, inebriated African socialist; the president is not like us!

Of course, none of it is remotely true. Taxes have gone down, American freedom is, as of press time, still intact, the death panels and concentration camps never materialized, and the Constitution has yet to give way to Sharia law. Fear, lies, abject racism, and xenophobia are nothing new to our political history, but the difference today seems to be that those inhuman cudgels are not being deployed in the service of a political cause: they are the cause themselves. Every debate that could be had and every gain that could be made for our country has been sabotaged by a small group of hucksters -- and a large group of those too terrified or ineffectual to stand up to them -- who hold the same position on each issue. Make every effort to rehabilitate our distraught economy versus hurt the president. Try to devise a system that gives all Americans access to health care when they get sick versus hurt the president. Implement rules that keep bankers from taking absurd gambles at the rest of the country's expense versus hurt the president. Try to solve a problem -- try even to talk about how to solve a problem -- versus no. No, we won't. Just hurt the president.

Moments critical to our history probably don't feel so important at the time, and it would be fair of you to think of today as nothing more than an economic dip, a nondescript era of information filling time between major historical events -- World War I becomes World War II becomes the Sixties becomes 9/11 becomes something else down the road. I believe that we are in that moment now, however, standing halfway across the Rubicon that was the value we once placed on truth and a fair debate. When the present tense of this moment gives way -- when the "I am" settles foggily into the "I was" -- what will you tell your grandchildren? That you stood with the men and women who annihilated our economy with their craven obsession for making the rich richer and the rest of us poorer, who deceived us into a war that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, who then had the gall to blame the next administration for the havoc they wreaked, who fought for banks and insurance companies and not for the middle class, who decried science and education, who denied equal rights for all Americans, who looked at the good Earth and said "drill, baby, drill," who turned our children's textbooks into fundamentalist tracts, who turned us against each other, who saw the major problems of our day and refused to engage, who picked "the president is a Muslim" over "I have a better idea," every single time?

The Democratic Party is, to be sure, a trembling mass of political impotence, wholly unequipped to respond with the force of reason to the barrage of putridity with which they have been confronted of late. But I will tell my grandchildren that I stood with those who tried, however pitifully, to keep us healthy, educated, financially solvent, safe, and, above all, logical when so many others had fallen victim to charlatans promising easy solutions and comforting exclusions, the great shame of our nation. What will you tell yours?