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Divided We Stand | Political Waves

Once again I am struck by the sheer absurdity of our political situation. This week Mike Huckabee held forth at FOX News about the 'ick factor' in homosexuality, while Elena Kagan, vetted by Congress as a Supreme Court candidate, insisted that Don't Ask, Don't Tell policies present an unacceptable level of bias in the workplace. General McChrystal retired, and Petraeus changed tactics in Afghanistan to expand the killing rather than pursue the delicate mission of nation building. Unemployment extension failed again; the Republicans called those without work lazy and suggested that those still receiving checks should be tested for drugs.

To fund more war, House Minority Leader John Boehner proposed that Social Security be pushed back to age 70, adding that the proposed financial reform is similar to "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon." Running against Majority Speaker Harry Reid, Nevada candidate Sharron Angle proclaimed that God's plan for those impregnated by rape or incest does not include abortion. Glenn Beck has embraced the real spirit of Martin Luther King, of which the majority of us remain unaware. Oh, and don't forget that Hurricane Alex, the earliest superstorm in fifteen years, is pushing oil in the Gulf onto land with 90 mph winds.

If you're thinking just shoot me now, that's exactly what I think, several times a day. How is it possible that we've come to such a pass? How did the national conversation become so thick with preposterous distractions while real solutions are obstructed? How is it that the progressive policies we so desperately need are thwarted at every turn? You won't be surprised to learn that this was all planned, well in advance of our current crises. "Government is the problem," is a political meme that found its champion in folksy Ronald Reagan.

Our 40th president was once a Democrat, then ran for office as a Republican, but was clearly Libertarian in his heart of hearts. Populist conservatisms can be found in St. Ronnie's vision of deregulation, limited taxes and non-interference from government. His message was pointedly Christian, born in the cradle of white elitism. "We who live in free market societies believe that growth, prosperity and ultimately human fulfillment, are created from the bottom up, not the government down," said sunny, old Ron. "Public servants say, always with the best of intentions, 'What greater service we could render if only we had a little more money and a little more power.' But the truth is that outside of its legitimate function, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector."

Reagan also proclaimed, "Approximately 80% of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation, so let's not go overboard in setting and enforcing tough emission standards from man-made sources." Warming deniers still quote this gospel according to St. Ronnie. After Jimmy Carter's unwelcome 'stern Daddy' warnings about energy, environment and economy, Ron wasn't just a popular president, he was a free-market enabler who broke down the walls of corporate mistrust erected by FDR, replacing them with suspicion of government and disdain for social safety nets. He's the 'dotty, old Daddy' of every disaster we face today.

Since Reagan broke the barriers and established deregulation as the answer to America's most pressing needs, government ineptitude has flourished under the Republican administrations that followed. Democratic administrations have failed to restore any semblance of a balance of power between business and government. Even Richard Nixon was too liberal for Reagan's vision of America. His 'small government' philosophy has grown more strident and garbled, less nuanced and defensible, during ensuing decades of financial volatility and evangelical explosion.

How do we fight this level of disinformation? One might think that facts would be enough, but they aren't. Clearly, the private sector is not dedicated to the public good. Government's dependence upon private services has put BP in the catbird seat in the Gulf and keeps Blackwater in charge of security in the wars. Despite financial reforms more stringent than any since Roosevelt, Wall Street breathes a sigh of relief, already hunting loopholes to bypass new restrictions. Rupert Murdoch, extending a continental model of news casting that is un-American at its roots, has not only established a demagogic medium bordering on sedition, but also has infected other news agencies that compete with it. In privatizing our military, we have established a warrior class that views civilian leadership with disdain and mistrust; the McChrystal episode displays the worrisome gap between the 'military mind' and the political body that leads it.

Government's abdication to the private sector abandons us to those who consider profit first and public good later, if at all. Is this what our forefathers fought a revolution to establish? Is this what we want our government to look like? Can we pick through the thousands of distractions and distortions in order to find a commonality that will unite us? Can we put the country first, before our own special interests?

It's possible. A former 'Exalted Cyclops' of the Ku Klux Klan died this week at 92, after serving in the United States Senate longer than any other American. He came to Congress a Dixiecrat, a white separatist who filibustered LBJ's civil rights legislation for 17 grueling hours back in the 1960s. His name was Robert Byrd, from West Virginia, and he served as Senate Majority/Minority Leader through the '70s and '80s. Over the years, Robert Byrd mellowed, seeing things differently as the country changed its mind about what it should become.

Byrd evolved from a few constituents' representative to a champion of the people. In the end, as in the beginning, he was a passionate man who fought hard for what he believed. He voted against the Iraq War and grieved when it was approved: "Today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned. Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination."

A staunch Democrat, Byrd went to the Senate floor to criticize Bush's appearance in codpiece and flight jacket on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, "I do question the motives of a deskbound president who assumes the garb of a warrior for the purposes of a speech." In fragile health, he demanded to be wheeled in to the Senate floor to vote for health care reform. As President pro tempore of the Senate, Byrd was third in the line of presidential succession, behind the Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. According to Wikipedia, "Rating his voting record in 1964, the liberal lobbying group Americans for Democratic Action found that his views and the organization's were aligned only 16 percent of the time, less than even conservative Republicans of the era; by 2005, he had an ADA rating of 95 percent."

Robert Byrd arrived in Washington, DC a bigot; he left it a patriot. For all his personal failings, he -- like his friend, Ted Kennedy -- was a dedicated public servant who loved his country and believed in the stabilizing and protective influence of government. As we celebrate Independence Day this weekend, we might think about what our revolution was meant to create and how we must change in order to bring its promise to fruition. Our humanness is both our liability and our opportunity, but like change in the heart of an old Klansman, we are capable of redemption. What we need now are the inspired and inspiring changes in consciousness that can recreate a person, a philosophy, and ultimately, a nation.

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