Despite our political differences, almost all Americans would agree on one thing: Our political system is broken. But why? What led us from the relative political unity following World War II to the anger and divisiveness of today?
It didn’t just happen.
A few individuals intentionally created the politics of destruction, most notably the so-called three amigos consisting of Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. Beginning in the 1980’s, these three not only viewed politics as a quasi-military, win-at-any-cost enterprise. They viewed it as a profit center in which they could squeeze millions from conservative groups and ideological billionaires to control the political dialogue and enrich themselves at the same time.
As leaders of the College Republicans, these first-rate bullies embraced combative politics. The only thing they treasured more than money was confrontation with liberals, progressives, and moderates of either party. As their power and standing in the Republican Party and conservative circles grew, our national politics devolved into a series of culture wars combining right wing militancy with the evangelical fervor of “Christians” unhappy with what they believed to be a nation in moral decline.
Abramoff was eventually arrested in 2006 and sentenced to six years in prison for mail fraud, conspiracy to bribe public officials and tax evasion. As executive director of the Christian Coalition, Reed was also implicated in the scandal but not charged. However, he was previously found to have violated federal campaign finance laws in 1990, 1992 and 1994. Meanwhile, Norquist has continued to gain power, having established Americans for Tax Reform and created the notorious Taxpayer Protection (No New Taxes) Pledge that all Republican candidates are asked to sign.
But the three amigos are not entirely responsible for our poisonous politics.
When Newt Gingrich was selected as Speaker of the House, he transformed Congress by pushing Republicans to vote as a unified block or risk being labeled a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and forced to face a difficult, and expensive, primary fight in the next election. Rather than fight, most Republicans submissively fell into line. As a result, we have an uncompromising, European-style parliamentary party in a two-party system that was based on compromise.
Adding to the dysfunction, the Tea Party movement, feeling displaced by minorities and disenfranchised by large corporations that had shipped jobs overseas, attached themselves to the Republican Party like leeches determined to bleed the party of every remaining moderate.
There you have the perfect political storm. A storm that destroyed the party of Lincoln and has now taken aim at our federal government. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
You can learn much more about the three amigos in Thomas Frank’s book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. Frank summarizes the thesis of his book this way, “Bad government is the natural product of rule by those who believe government is bad.” I also highly recommend It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics of Extremism by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Orenstein.
Neither of these books were written by anti-conservative ideologues. To the contrary, they were written by thoughtful and highly-respected moderates who are as dismayed by our take-no-prisoners style of politics as I am.