The dysfunction beat

Sam Smith

The other day on a talk show I found myself saying something I had thought about but hadn’t put in words. In responding to a question about another absurd act by the Republicans, I told the host that I thought he needed a psychiatrist and not me to answer that one.

Never in my life have the gutters of American politics been so filled with the flow of madness – nonsensical statements, illogical actions, bizarre claims.And most of it – albeit far from all – is coming from Republicans.

There are two major subcultures of the GOP these days: the crazy and the criminal. The latter has always been a part of politics but it is at record levels. And the former is often so intrinsically mixed with the latter that it becomes impossible at times to tell them apart.

I use the word criminal to differentiate from the word corruption. The corrupt politics we read about of the Tammany years or in James Michael Curley’s Boston welled up from the bottom. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude. It was the voter as well as the politician who was in on the deal.

Tammny’s brand of corruption got down to the streets. Manipulation of the voter and corruption describe both Tammany and contemporary politics. The big difference is that in the former the voter could with greater regularity count on something in return.

Today, the bribery of private campaign financing, especially following the Supreme Court’s full approval of corporate contributions, has drastically changed the game. The public doesn’t have to be enticed with public works, public jobs and public short cuts. Today’s assumption is that with sufficient funds to mislead the public on TV, what the public thinks it thinks no longer matters. The typical politician is no longer an intermediary between grand and small constituencies and no longer feels the need to even tithe to the voter. It is enough to have the money to buy enough ads to deceive them.

While the major participants in this sort of politics these days are Republicans, it is probably fair to date its universal application to the Clinton years. After all, Democrats were supposed to represent the little guy, to do the most for the most. Clinton made it clear that he would go with the highest bidder. And the Obama economic recovery programs – so twisted to aid the large over the small – continues this trend.

It is not, however, that the Democrats are more evil than the Republicans, only that when they sell out, there is no one left to represent the rest of America. If Obama won’t defend the unions or those threatened with foreclosure, then who will?

It is difficult to tell where the money ends and madness begins, and this too has a bipartisan quality to it.

Consider a report from ABC’s Jake Tapper:

||| In an interview with Univision, President Obama re-defined the term “exit strategy,” and said our exit strategy in Libya would begin this week.“The exit strategy will be executed this week,” President Obama said, “in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment. We will still be in a support role. We will be supplying jamming, intelligence and other assets unique to us.”

Planes in the air? Ships in the Mediterranean? Intelligence being provided? Doesn’t sound like an exit strategy at all.

What it does recall is Lewis Carroll.

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” ||||

Since it is hard to imagine someone as well educated by Obama being confused as to what an exit is, one must assume he is lying to us, just as he did about his Iraq exit strategy.

But at least Obama keeps it down to a dull roar.

For the Republicans, perseveration, ignorance, hyperbole, and distortion are not tools of last resort. They are the modus operandi. Thus, reports Alternet, “More than half of the incoming Republican caucus denies the validity of climate change science. Some 74 percent of Republicans in the U.S. Senate now take that stance, as do 53 percent of GOP in the House.”

The difference between these Republicans and Obama is that the president lies like lawyer- with the considered manipulation of a con artist – while the GOP lies are not merely the work of the bribed but too often are truly believed by the politicians themselves.

It is this mixture of madness, imbecility and money that is hard to sort out.

I have increasingly come to think of our situation as that of a truly dysfunctional family, one in which the garb of the normal conceals deep inability to achieve any such thing.

Some, for example, have talked a lot about the need for more civil debate. But when, for example, has Michelle Bachman indicated any comprehension of what that might be, let alone an inclination to attempt it?

Indeed, any debate collapses in a culture in which facts and logic are held in such contempt. And how does the journalist balance properly the arguments of the rational and the mentally disjointed? What is the objective manner in which to cover someone being paid large sums to say the absurd, nasty or cruel things and who probably agrees with them anyway?

We are treating this all as politics as usual, but it isn’t.

Perhaps it would help if more with psychiatric training would weigh in our political affairs. What is the best way to handle a Scott Walker or a Sarah Palin when they’re having one of their fits? How does one debate with the paranoid, the aggressively ignorant or the pathological liar?

As a journalist, I feel that things seem to be moving beyond my skills. I know how to write about the traditionally corrupt, evil and stupid. But what does one do when members of one of the two major parties become so bizarrely irrational and, with no small help from the media itself, gain a constituency large enough to give them office? When madness is no longer a individual clinical matter but a popular consensus?

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