American politics never was supposed to be a process in which we all "just got along." Among the benefits of having a far-reaching federal government, thought the Founders, was that it would ensure the participation of diverse and discordant voices; that an "increased variety of parties" would protect against "one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest," or so surmised James Madison in Federalist No. 10. It was a federal union, he thought, that would best be able to present "obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority."
Except not. With the rise of groups like ALEC, which provide legislative templates for congressional minions who obtain their marching orders behind closed doors, the marketplace of ideas has been co-opted by shady secretives who prefer to advance their agendas under cover of benign acronyms. Anonymity, of course, makes it easier to lie -- such as when the "Center to Protect Patient's Rights" gave $13 million to a GOP group that helped underwrite false claims regarding Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley's support for building a mosque at the World Trade Center site. I suppose that misrepresenting a congressman's position about the location of a mosque might advance patient rights on some planets, so I won't be too dismissive in criticizing the correlation.
The Koch brothers are reportedly connected to this health care/mosque prevention outfit, but the organization doesn't disclose its donor list. Admittedly, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison didn't sign their names to the Federalist Papers either, but perhaps there is a difference between anonymous communications that encourage readers to judge the idea rather than the messenger, and those that simply service the ability to lie without allowing us to "consider the source."
Maybe, however, I am being too harsh. These anonymous players have the potential to provide an endless number of distractions from some of the more troubling questions keeping us up at night. If a set of nameless operatives going by the name of "Protecting the Freedom of American Families" (to use a hypothetical example) can convince people that gay marriage is the biggest threat to the republic; then, perhaps, we won't notice that certain of those same (nameless) partisans are underwriting a national economic plan in which oil company subsidies don't count as public spending but high school science classes are too expensive. Why avoid the sexiness of a good old-fashioned culture war fight -- especially when it can take our minds off of the fact that American students are in danger of losing their competitive edge vis-à-vis their international counterparts? The anonymity of these provocateurs only adds a little fun mystery to the mix!
The election season has the potential for an endless variety of these amusements. For instance, even though federal taxes as a percentage of our gross domestic product are lower than they were during Reagan's presidency, a hypothetical group called "Americans United To Save The Republic" might lambaste us with ads describing the president who presides over this economic model as an unAmerican socialist who is secretly concocting a plan to relocate investment bankers to Three Mile Island. Of course, no one believes this stuff (at first) -- the American media and its consumers are famous fact-checkers, aren't we? -- but isn't it a hoot to debate these "issues" until someone eventually believes them?
But why be so roundabout in our entertainments? If we want distractions, let's just do it the old-fashioned way and make a TV show. It could feature a bunch of "patriots" who hate "Big Government" (unless it involves providing tax subsidies to some of the richest enterprises in the world or forcing women to stick probes up their vaginas) and about how those who disagree with these novelties are all America-hating socialists. Also featured in the cast might be a group of "liberty-loving" freedom fighters who think that spreading the risk of health care costs is communism but that shooting unarmed kids is a heroic exercise of constitutional freedom and personal liberty.
The Real Americans and Everybody Else, we could call it. Or Fun With Secret Donors. It would make The Real Housewives look like The Mickey Mouse Club:
Mitch McConnell throws a drink in Harry Reid's face. McConnell yells that his proposed earmarks don't count as spending, while Reid rolls his eyes and does a neck roll. "Oh no you didn't come at me like that. No you didn't," Reid says, turning red. Reid gets in McConnell's face: "If you come at me, I'll come right back at you," only Reid is secretly worried about coming back too strong out of fear that Team McConnell (whose members often find themselves in front of talk radio microphones) will decide what he's said before he's even said it. McConnell sees an opening. "You better not EVER come after my kids again," (referring to banks and oil companies), McConnell warns. "Swoop," McConnell says, snapping his fingers in Reid's face so as to underscore the point.
In the shadows a group of characters is sipping Pinot Grigio, listening intently to the exchange. One of them, however, is chatting endlessly, excited about a plan to introduce into as many state legislatures as possible a bill requiring women to submit their bodily orifices for state inspection before making various medical decisions. "What is great about "Project Body Cavity,'" he slurs, having finished his own bottle of wine and making the quotation mark sign with his fingers, "is that it really allows us to 'push the envelope.'" He makes the quotation mark sign again. Someone else interrupts him. "Shut up!" he growls. Referring to the McConnell/Reid exchange, he barks, "I paid for this fight! I want to hear it!" The other Pinot Grigio-drinker responds: "Don't YOU tell ME to shut up! I'm rich! I'm very, VERY rich!" Another among the group, who has finished his bottle, is sobbing quietly. "Why aren't American people as cheap as the Chinese? It just isn't fair." "I know," another says wistfully, rubbing his shoulder so as to provide a measure of comfort. "I love China. If only these socialists here didn't stand in our way." Then, uncomfortable with the idea that their newfound intimacy might be construed as a longing to take a dip in the boy-boy pond, they quickly pull away.
Move over NeNe and Ramona. Here we come.
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