Decency and depravity have something in common: they are behaviors characterized by the same human desire to be included, to follow the rules, to be liked, and to win approval. In social systems, leaders are vital -- they persuade large groups to prefer one type of validation over the other. Successful societies choose decency. Today's Republican party sits right on the crosshairs of these two futures. They are back in DC this week -- having won the House. After a degenerate campaign season and two years of obstruction, everyone is waiting to see how they govern. The dog has caught the tire.
The framers of the US Constitution had decency in mind when they built our governing institutions. Though they might not be paragons of virtue, Members must meet certain standards of respectable decorum. You really can't participate in Congress without conforming to most of them. Rules and peer pressure manage this system quite well.
But here's the problem: Republicans (not all, but most) have gained power by rallying followers through surrogates and media personalities -- whose antics and rhetoric are increasingly anti-social and divisive: being loud and unpleasant, deriding evidence based decision making, threatening violence, lying. This behavior has escalated over the past year. From disrupting health care Town Halls in August 2009 to demonizing Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi on the campaign trail, decency has gone missing on the political right. A far cry from its ancestors, today's conservatism tilts uncomfortably toward the depraved.
There are more than 100 new Members of Congress with some affiliation to the Tea Party. They didn't get elected for the chance to be ignored. How the next set of Republican leaders handles this unpredictable addition will be crucial. Will they persuade the newcomers to work within institutional boundaries? Will Democrats help? Ironically, Democrats and institutions may soon be the Republicans' best friends. Judging by Tea Party rhetoric, every Republican who believes in modern collective governing is a progressive. Watch what happens to the Office of Congressional Ethics. The Tea Party wants it, Mr. Boehner thinks it is redundant (an Ethics Committee already exists).
Who's your Daddy?
When not campaigning for Nazi impersonators in his home state this fall, Republican Speaker in waiting John Boehner (OH) gave some good speeches. At a September event, he put forward some institutional reform ideas that deserve consideration:
The institution does not function, does not deliberate, and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people. From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas -- the very lifeblood of the House -- is virtually nonexistent.
He's right! But his own worse enemy will be the forces that gave him the Speaker's gavel.
John Boehner is a survivor. He is the only one left of the Group of Seven -- a band of rebels elected in the early 1990s who went on to craft the Contract with America. He's a likable corporate pal -- known for golf, steak and good cigars. He is a partier -- but he's no Tea Partier. John Bohner -- and his sparkly blue eyes -- has become skilled at governing. Most of all, he loves the US Congress. If this is really true, then Mr. Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership need to stand up, condemn and sever themselves from the depraved behavior of their far-right political allies -- starting with media personalities.
Degenerates vs. Democracy
Republicans, do you really want to be identified with Glenn Beck, who recently called financier George Soros a self-hating Nazi sympathizer? (Soros is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor).
Back in 1989, when Mr. Beck was practicing hand-puppet voiceovers, George Soros was liberating half a continent. I know. I smuggled stuff for the underground democracy movements all over the communist bloc. Soros' influence was everywhere -- supporting the freedom fighters: the dissidents and the students. He helped regular people who were loathed by the state. His strategy was simple and perfect for the times -- he enabled the resistance to share knowledge through communications equipment (copiers, and remember fax machines?). He was a key figure behind the first global communications revolution -- a lesson that we don't fully understand yet but desperately need to learn from.
And please, Rep. Barton ( R,TX), tell me that you did NOT send around a Dear Colleague letter featuring anti-science commentary by Rush Limbaugh. (Dear Colleague letters are internal hard copy and electronic communications between Member offices.) Even if you don't really care about embarrassing your colleagues, how can you do this to your constituents? Limbaugh is the high-priest of ignorance (he is also a drug addict who in 2006 was stopped en route from the Dominican Republic with someone else's Viagra. Wink wink. Nod nod. Yuck yuck!)
I could go on, but you get the picture. Contagious rumors like the accusation that Obama was not born in the USA are harmful bunk. Republicans in the House, now that you are the object of your campaign ire, i.e. the government, you need to reject these malevolent bloviators and stand up for our institutions before they break and fall into irrelevance for good.
Show the rest of us that you believe in your new Speaker's words
What I won't accept -- what I refuse to accept -- is that we can simply walk away and let our government continue to drift -- this government our forbears sacrificed everything to build.
Bravo! Now turn off Fox News.