I have a 90% completed post tentatively entitled “Why We Are Doomed” sitting in my drafts file, and I can’t bring myself to finish or post it. I don’t want to believe we are doomed, so the Golden Rule keeps telling me that I shouldn’t be trying to convince others we are doomed. I believe in hope. I believe that cultures, especially this culture, can do the right thing and still be successful, provided that they can find leaders and role models who represent and encourage ethical values.
On the other hand, I really do believe we, that is to say, the United States of America, are probably doomed.
A story unfolding now, a sad saga that has really been unfolding for a long time, illustrates one of the factors I lament over in my languishing draft. Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) has been accused of an “unwanted sexual encounter” with the teenage daughter of a longtime friend. We have to be careful here, but there seems to be little doubt that the “encounter” occurred. The Oregonian has reported that sources aware of the incident say that Congressman Wu, who is 56, “acknowledged a sexual encounter to his senior aides but insisted it was consensual.”
Wu has been a train wreck waiting to happen for a long, long time. He was accused of sexual assault while a student at Stanford, and though the incident never made its way to a police blotter, he more or less admitted the incident occurred when he was running for his fourth term in Congress in 2004. In the midst of his campaign in 2010, Wu began acting so erratically that he alarmed his staff, showing signs of an emotional breakdown and possible mental illness. This was reported extensively in the press, symbolized, perhaps unfairly, by a strange photo the Congressman circulated of himself dressed in a tiger suit, but liberal Oregonians didn’t care, not enough of them anyway. They re-elected him. It is unclear how well Wu has been functioning since his re-election, or if he has been functioning at all. He has made most of his scheduled votes in the House.
When Anthony Weiner brought his political career down in a wave of immodesty, infidelity, dishonesty and bad judgment, the most frequent defense heard from his supporters in the public and in the media was that the character, and even the judgment, of elected officials didn’t matter to them, and shouldn’t matter to anyone else. What matters, the Weiner defenders said, was whether a representative voted for policies his or her constituency wanted, believed in, or liked. This, in turn, led Weiner’s defenders to accuse those asserting that Weiner, a lying, creepy narcisist who publically humilated his party, his district and the U.S. Congress, was unworthy to serve was doing so because all they cared about is removing an elected official who doesn’t vote for policies they want, believe in, or like.
It is clear from the headlines and the daily stream of idiotic, uncivil, simple-minded statements coming out of all branches of our government that there is now a critical mass of citizens who embrace this suicidal view of a representative democracy. Sufficient numbers on both ends of the ideological spectrum not only don’t care about character, experince, ability, intelligence, temperament, or ethical orientation, they don’t even comprehend why these are important. All they care about is electing representatives who will function as walking, talking, voting ventriloquist dummies for a largely ignorant public, whipped into a paranoid frenzy by like-minded demagogues in newspaper columns, radio talk shows, cable TV, and the blogosphere.
This turns representative democracy on its head, and we all know how well things function upside down.
While the Founders envisioned a republican system of government in which the most accomplished, skilled, experienced and public-spirited would be chosen by their neighbors to do what the representatives believed was best for both the community and the country, we have deteriorated into a dysfunctional system in which warring extremists send dependable fools, frauds, liars, boors, bigots, cynics, satyrs and madmen to Washington and call it “representative government.”
The results were predictable: farce and failure. The debt ceiling crisis may yet be averted, but the conclusion to be gained from this disgraceful episode is already clear: if there are mature, responsible, rational leaders in Washington, they cannot overcome the shear numbers of the ventriloquist dummies whose narrow-minded, semi-educated and doctrinaire masters won’t allow them to go off script, even if they had the wit and will to do so.
This is why we are probably doomed, and Rep. Wu is just a convenient example. He had a history of irresponsible and possible illegal sexual conduct, but his constituency didn’t care about his character, values or judgment…after all, he voted their way. Then he seemed to be mentally ill. Never mind: he was still well enough to vote the “right” way. Now he may be mentally ill and displaying old bad habits. But in the minds of his constituents, most of whom only follow the issues in grossly simplified and slanted form, if at all, Wu is preferable to a stable, experienced, open-minded moderate capable of seeing both sides of an issue and engaging in compromise.
This is how an embarrassingly shallow and inept candidate like Christine O’Donnell, who would be a poor choice to run a PTA, got a major party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate. This is why we have elected representatives, often in powerful positions within the Senate and House, like David Vitter, Charlie Rangel, Maxine Waters, John Ensign, Richard Blumenthal, Rand Paul, Jim Moran, Joe Wilson, John Conyers, Mark Kirk, Sheila Jackson Lee, Michele Bachman…the list is so long and depressing that I can only provide a sample.
And it is why the Tea Party actually held a Presidential candidates debate last week via Twitter, as if the complex, nation-threatening issues in the economy, foreign affairs, health care and so many other areas can really be intelligently discussed in 140 character messages. It took Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas seven public debates and hundreds of thousands of words to refine their positions on how to navigate the moral, social, political, legal and economic problem of slavery, and now the supporters of a powerful political movement believe that candidates can make their positions clear in tweets. For the record, the candidates that lowered themselves and the political process to pander included Bachmann, Thaddeus McCotter (whoever he is), former House Speaker and current human punchline Newt Gingrich, ex-Sen. (and Dan Savage-designated post-anal sex discharge) Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and businessman Herman Cain, who tells his audiences that he will revere and follow the Constitution but that communities can legally ban the building of Islamic places of worship.
Any candidate who declined to participate in this presidential ventriloquist dummy audition should immediately move toward the head of the field. You see, it takes character, values, integrity and ethics to say, “I’m not going to be your dummy, even if it costs me the election.” It takes character, values, integrity and ethics to say, “Yes, I have my beliefs and principles, but my primary duty is to the welfare, stability and future of the United States of America. If that means compromising, being flexibility and disappointing my constituents after careful study and consideration, then so be it.” It takes character, values, integrity and ethics to be a leader in a democracy, and we haven’t been electing enough of them. We’ve been electing ventriloquist dummies instead.
And if we keep doing it, we will be doomed.