American jitters (with apologies to Edmund Wilson)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during a news conference on the day after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Nancy Pelosi: Victim of a system she doesn’t understand.

Elections are supposed to make things better.  After thrashing out the issues this way and that, “we the people” at some point are supposed to call the question by putting it to a vote.  On average, 49 percent will be unhappy with the outcome.  But while vowing to fight on, they’ll have no choice but to go along.  After all, all they have to do is persuade one or two percent to switch sides in order to displace the old majority and declare themselves the new majority instead.

The majority is dead!  Long live the majority!  Such is the theory at least, but it’s not how things work in an eighteenth-century republic like the United States.  Thanks to a system of constitutionally entrenched minority rule that grows more oppressive by the year, elections accomplish nothing except to remind the majority of its growing impotence.

Thus, Donald Trump lost the 2016 election by 2.8 million votes but still found his way into the White House.  The 2018 elections were fair as far as the House was concerned since the Democrats’ share of the seats (54 percent) closely matched their share of the overall vote (53.4).  But the Senate was the opposite.  While garnering better than 59 percent of the total vote, Dems wound up with two seats less.  The majority lost in one contest, prevailed in another, and remains stymied by a minority president who wants to build a wall along the Mexican border that 54 percent of the country doesn’t like.

It doesn’t make sense.  But if a 231-year-old Constitution says it’s right, who are mere mortals to disagree?  This upside-down state of affairs explains the plight of people like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schitt … er, sorry, Schiff.  Democratic legitimacy and power supposedly go hand in hand, but whereas Pelosi and the rest arguably possess one, they lack the other.  Consequently, they’re prisoners of a government shutdown now entering its fifth week as much as everyone else.

So Thursday’s very funny incident about a congressional junket to Belgium and Afghanistan showed.  Irritated with Pelosi for canceling his State of the Union address before Congress, Trump responded by sending a letter informing her that he was cancelling the military flight that had  been scheduled to transport her and her colleagues overseas.  According to the Times:

Mr. Schiff was on the bus outside the Rayburn House Office Building near the Capitol when Mr. Trump fired off his letter, along with Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and several other lawmakers in what made for an unusual tableau.

Instead of heading for Joint Base Andrews and boarding a military plane, the lawmakers sat stunned on their bus, unsure of what to do next, until it eventually drove slowly to the Capitol driveway – some journalists jogging or riding electric scooters to keep up – to disgorge its perplexed passengers.  At one point, the House sergeant-at-arms, the chamber’s chief law enforcement officer, turned up to puzzle over the security arrangements for the lawmakers, whose secret travel plans were now public.

The Times says that House freshmen, all Democrats, also “staged a boisterous protest march” to call for an end to the shutdown.  But it adds:

When the House freshmen, all Democrats, arrived at the office of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, … to deliver a letter demanding that he reopen the government, they quickly discovered he was not there.

 One of Mr. McConnell’s deputies, Don Stewart, accepted the letter and promised to give it to his boss.  The lawmakers then milled outside Mr. McConnell’s office to plot their next move, as tourists gawked and cameras clicked, particularly at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York and a media darling.

AOC, as she’s known, would love to be an American La Pasionaria rallying her troops to overthrow Trump and his fellow oligarchs.  But a system of institutionalized impotence won’t let her.  Instead, it reduces her to the level of a “media darling,” as the Times calls it, someone for tourists to gawk at and photograph, but otherwise not take terribly seriously.

The farce goes on.  It’s tempting to say that Pelosi and Schiff got what they deserved.  Both are dutiful servants of imperialism who have supported every US war of aggression since the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Their all-expense-paid tour of Brussels and Kabul was nothing more than an opportunity to review the troops and bask in American military glory.  Schiff, who looks like a hyperactive gerbil in the best of times, no doubt hoped it would shore up his warrior credentials in preparation for a presidential bid in 2024.

But cheering on their humiliation would be wrong, as Richard Nixon would say.  Trump not only flaunted his control of federal expenditures in cancelling the trip, but his control of the military.  He’s got the aircraft and the rest of the shiny hardware, and Pelosi doesn’t    If he does declare a state of emergency as the shutdown drags on longer and longer, the new authoritarianism it ushers in will clearly have a militaristic edge.

I once described the House in a fit of enthusiasm as a proto-parliament awaiting its Cromwellian moment when it shuts down the other branches and takes power on its own (The Frozen Republic, pp. 289-97).  It was a mistake based on simplistic reading of Anglo-American constitutional history.  In fact, the House is a fundamentally conservative body closer in spirit to an Islamic shura than to a modern democratic assembly.  Rather than making new law, its primary purpose is to remind the ruler of his obligation to old law in the form of the Constitution.  Whether or not Pelosi enjoys the backing of the democratic majority, the fact remains that she is not a democrat at all, but the creature of an increasingly counter-democratic system who can’t understand why it’s treating her so badly.

 

2 thoughts on “American jitters (with apologies to Edmund Wilson)

  1. Adam Schitt – funny! I just loaned my copy of the Frozen Republic to a friend. Yes, you were wrong about the House becoming a proto-parliament but there’s still a lot good stuff in there. Seems to me that in the wake of 2016, more people (predominantly Democrats) are beginning to question the Electoral College and the gross imbalance of representation in the Senate. Of course, that immediately leads one to the question of how to address this without radical action superseding the existing system. But, if I’m not mistaken, that’s how we got our 1787 Constitution in the first place!

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