The Dangerous Game of All or Nothing

When the Republicans filibustered government to a standstill in the 90s, they took the hit for it. Now the Democrats seem intent on protecting the Republicans from having to filibuster. They are allowing the Republicans to pin the blame on the Democrats for failing to unite all of what were sixty nominally Democratic Senators behind a single bill or nomination. Somehow the Democrats learned the wrong lesson.

The loss in Massachusetts should free the Democrats from Mr. Lieberman and his idiosyncratic politics as well as from Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson who got a one state privilege in the health care bill. Let fifty-one senators put together the best, most coherent bills they can and then let the Republicans filibuster.

Lyndon Johnson when majority leader didn’t stop at crafting a civil rights bill to suit the filibusterers from the segregated South. He built a national majority and put real civil rights over the top. We need Democrats to stick to their principles.

Let me be clear. That is not necessarily the best way to govern in a democracy. The Democrats are right about that. In fact the issue is quite serious. Other countries have succumbed to dictatorship when sabotaging competing parties became more important than cooperation in a small “d” democratic way.

Americans have worried about threats from abroad rather than from within. But this scorched earth policy is very dangerous. It radicalizes people and legitimizes extremism. All or nothing thinking, our way or no way, is even more dangerous when coupled with guns and paramilitaries.

The combination of scorched earth extremism and guns has paved the way for thugs to take over American governments repeatedly. Before World War II, both Republican and Democratic machines took over cities and states by force, fraud and bribery. Our continuing distrust of parties and party bosses is a legacy of that era. The extremism of southern racists, through the KKK and similar organizations, were responsible not only for murders and lynchings but for systematically eliminating opponents and taking over the machinery of state government by force.

Paramilitary, and racist, organizations in the U.S. continue to train to save us from our own government when, in their own idiosyncratic view, the U.S. “goes too far”. They object to people they call “14th Amendment citizens” – in other words, the Civil War settled nothing for them and they think only Caucasians are legitimate citizens. Such groups spawned people like Timothy McVeigh who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. The Iraq war created more paramilitaries. Revelations and indictments of Blackwater and Blackwater operatives reveal again how dangerous armed paramilitaries can be.

Yet the Republicans seem blind to these threats to democratic government. Their support for possession of weapons has no noticeable effect on crime but makes it hard to control domestic paramilitary organizations. They have refused to investigate armed paramilitary organizations here even after they shot and killed federal officers attempting to do their jobs. Their insistence that we disregard statutory and constitutional rules before spying on Americans or holding people in prisons brings home to America some of the prime tools of dictatorships. And their support for those who feel entitled to disrupt orderly gatherings only reflects disrespect for the rights of others and substitutes brawls for democracy.

We didn’t elect Obama to be a Republican. But more important, for the sake of American democracy, it is crucial that Democrats find ways to force the Republicans to turn back from extremism before they do even greater damage. Let them filibuster. Let them pay the price. And let us restore sanity, and plain old American decency, to our political life.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report on February 16, 2010.

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