Not Exactly News

To summarize the Republican philosphy as I understand it: our national government is overreaching, arbitrary, ineffective, and quite possibly the tool of foreign interests. Our president is ineffectual and weak-minded, and has accomplished little or nothing. We would certainly be better off without presidents of this ilk, and to the extent possible, without the federal government itself.

Thus Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and a newly-formed Republican Party viewed the national government and President George Washington in the mid- 1790’s. A strong national government was first and foremost a threat to individual liberty. A powerful government should be blocked at every turn, and any movement favoring individual freedom supported. Thus, when Monroe arrived as Minister to France on the heels of Robespierre’s execution, he still praised France’s Committee of Public Safety as a bastion of equality and freedom (and exceeding his instructions, to put it mildly).  The overthrow of longtime oppressors was worth any cost.

If modern Republicans would look to this as historical precedent, I’d like to point out some things. For one, that Republican party was a different party than our modern one. For another, all of Donald Trump’s feverish fantasies aside, the oppression of kings and any modern US governmental shortcomings are not very comparable. Most importantly, the Republicans of the 1790’s, while concerned with liberty, were also nation builders.  For all of the griping about Washington and government power, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were also three great architects of our national identity, unless the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase, the Constitution, and the Monroe Doctrine can be considered irrelevancies.  Each was also a true patriot – none could ever be accused of playing pattycake with potential enemies like George III. Whereas now we have Donny and Vlad, sittin’ in a tree, h-a-c-k-i-n-g.  (As an aside, I do wish people would stop saying that Vlady and His Hackers couldn’t possibly disrupt the US election, as they’ve already done that, haven’t they?)  This small slice of history proves…what?   Perhaps that critisizing government need not be entirely divorced from concrete and realistic plans to improve or even expand the government. All our current Republicans need are, well, some realistic plans.

I am not entirely out of sympathy with those that complain the current federal government can be arbitrary, overreaching, ineffectual, or indifferent. It can. But unlike Republicans of the 1790’s, the present Republican Party seems hijacked by people who are essentially anarchists – they don’t want to build anything. The orders of the day are to tear things down, avoid decisions, avoid expenditures, oppose new ideas, or (most critically) oppose those who would try new ideas – at any cost.   Perhaps most conspicuously, “Obama”-care, originally the brainwave of a right-wing think tank, and first implemented in Massachusetts by a Republican governor, is treated as a liberal cancer that will destroy the country as we know it. Why? Not what we’re told by Republicans, that’s for certain.  The actual reason seems to be that Obama would get some credit, and that’s bad.  After all, the Affordable Care Act has improved life for many people when it’s been given a chance, including in Massachusetts and California.

Now the Republican candidate and a surprising number of his followers say they’ll decline to accept (not just support) an elected government they don’t like, or any remotely-contestable electoral outcome.  Perhaps I was napping at school when our duties as democratic citizens were enumerated, but wouldn’t those be the actions of traitors?  If members of the military were to adopt the same level of irresponsibility,  how far are we from Seven Days In May?  Of course, this talk of revolution is probably hot air (or should I say locker-room talk) – apparently Trump’s only true product. Nonetheless, people are capable of believing anything  – including the idea that our elected government can be illegitmate and we’re better off without it.

I wonder if some people are eager to jettison our government simply because the government actually does a great many things very well, without being particularly noticed or appreciated.  (Ironically, for military veterans that lack of notice has probably enhanced the disenfranchisement they report.)  What makes America great? Well, not the exercises in separatism and exclusion that Trump recommends.  By those lights, Trump himself – whose father was of German heritage – would still be in Germany.

Isn’t what makes America great actually investment – in things and in people?  And in this regard, our goverment has done and still does a remarkable job, in ways that often unfold routinely and without fanfare.   Physical, security, and financial instrastructure may not be exciting, but try getting along without effective payment mechanisms, with real worries about foreign intervention, without reliable transport, without support for agriculture, without standards and regulations that make it safe and convenient to do just about anything, without research that has made everything from communications to materials to computers exceedingly cheap, or without science and healthcare advances that are directly responsible either your well-being, or that of someone in your family.  All of this has taken place at the direct behest of our government, and with taxpayer support. To complain about this is to only look at the costs, without considering the benefits.

It’s rare to find a top expert in any technical field whose training wasn’t funded by the government. In graduate studies, students work on projects often directly financed by government funding.  It’s easy to complain that we spend money on research and and get “nothing” in return,  but in fact nothing could be further from the truth.  There may indeed be little in immediate and direct returns  from a research project- it’s research, and research can, does, and should sometimes fail. Still, nudging along the boundaries of learning and knowledge, sometimes at considerable expense, is how we train a professional class that can actually solve the next important problem, whatever that is.  And make no mistake: the companies that receive so much credit for moving technology forward rely very heavily on this professional class.

Of course investment like this supposes a degree of community-mindedness, which also seems absent from modern Republican thought. That’s now ironic, for one cannot make a country great(er) while simultaneously being separate from that country and its democratic decisions.  It’s hypocritical too, for those who claim to desire separation actually seek selective separation – disclaiming things perceived as objectionable, while continuing to draw from collective infrastructure and advances that have been paid for by everyone, over many years.  As with the Amish, those wishing to live in separation from the larger community can do so, and contrary to the frantic fantasies of Repuplican demagoguery, they will indeed be left alone.  But separation also means forfeiting any participation in community greatness, which requires an engagement currently lacking in Republican thought and action.   If they win – and that’s still not impossible – the wrecking ball cometh.  There isn’t much else they are equipped or philosophically committed to do.

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