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Commentary: New nihilists would send government over the cliff

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2013 - Politics has been passionate through most of our lifetimes. But those on different sides of issues have long been able to find a compromise or continue promoting their ideas until persuading a majority.

In the past few years, a portion of the electorate has made a radical turn. The tea party wing of the Republican Party seeks to limit government, and those it has elected would rather send government over the cliff than compromise with their fellow Republicans, let alone Democrats.

In the 20th century, Republicans were always more conservative and more pro-business than their counterparts across the aisle. Some came to accept, if not support, New Deal measures, civil rights legislation and environmental regulation. There was also a rapport among the nation’s legislators. Even if they did not always vote in tandem, they could share a drink or a story.

Today there is less tolerance on the left and on the right. There is less common ground to be broached. Tea partyists were enraged by the growing federal debt and the creation of Obamacare, an extension of the powers of the federal government. Tea party adherents in the House of Representatives have effectively tied the hands of House Speaker John Boehner. They do not give an inch.

One has to wonder who benefits from their obstinacy. Is it the voters who sent them to Washington? These voters are almost uniformly white and live outside central cities. They reject debt and governmental activism without specifying what functions government should perform and why.

Government becomes a scapegoat, standing in for change that threatens traditional values and practices. The argument is put forward that, if there were less government, people could be more self-reliant and have greater say over their own destiny. Less taxes and less regulation are key here. But behind what is expressed is also fear of the shrinking white majority in the U.S. and the economic uncertainty and reduced earning power for many.

Will fewer taxes and smaller government aid those who have come under the tea party banner? Interestingly, tea party candidates are frequently financed by people of great wealth, people who clearly benefit from lower taxes and fewer rules. At a time when the very wealthy control a higher percentage of income and wealth and the middle class less, this does not seem like a wise strategy for tea party voters. They do not see this as a problem though, and the very wealthy do nothing to deter the obstinacy that exists among the ranks.

The GOP leadership is afraid to buck the 80 or so tea partiers in their ranks. They fear possible primary opposition next time out, and apparently Boehner himself might face a challenge. This is a new conundrum, far more serious to the nation’s well being than previous episodes of divided government.

A new nihilism is abroad with representatives willing to endanger a shaky financial recovery to assert their own truths. Certainly other social welfare measures have been despised in various quarters but not with the vitriol applied to Obamacare and the derision of a black president.

In some cases, there is false consciousness. People support the current health care system that does not benefit them. Our 24-hour news cycle and the opinion-news of Fox and MSNBC also exacerbate the situation.

The naysayers of today stand behind one governmental pillar, the Second Amendment. Weapons and ammunition should be available for all everywhere. Maybe we should return to old Dodge City that had many guns and little governance.

In the next couple weeks, we will find out whether the government will be shut down. Everything from the military to meat inspection will be affected. Will this prove a point or will it hurt us all?

A relatively weak president will grow weaker, and steps that could improve government will not be countenanced. True believers always present a test to democracy, particularly when they eschew intuitions, laws and traditions that have been part of a common fabric for so long.

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