The Sunday Times: The ‘mad as hell’ brigade stir to wobble the Washington bubble

Photo: Marko Berndt

Photo: Marko Berndt

In the 1976 film Network, a crazed news anchor becomes so disgusted with the venal idiocy of American television that he refuses to say his lines. During a meltdown on air he encourages audiences to follow his lead and shout: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Instead of laughing at him the nation grinds to a halt as millions of Americans join in, screaming their frustration from the rooftops.

Last week 65,000 Republican voters in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District offered their own version of “I’m as mad as hell”. Only instead of screaming in frustration they used the primary race to get rid of Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives. Instead of being good little followers and ticking the Cantor box, they voted for an economics professor, David Brat.

As the US media gleefully reported: Brat won by a whopping 56%-44%, despite having no name recognition and minuscule financial support. His campaign raised just $122,793; Cantor’s election headquarters spent $168,637 on steak dinners alone.

The upset has the Republican party spinning in shock. It could be that religious bigotry among the mainly white, Christian, Southern, conservative voters led them to reject Cantor — who is the only Jewish Republican in the House.

A few political pundits have said as much. It could also be that Cantor’s qualified support for tackling immigration reform made him a traitor in the eyes of the “shoot first, send them back later” crowd — who are among the country’s most assiduous voters. No “amnesty” for illegal immigrants was the only campaign issue that Cantor’s opponent ever mentioned, thus appearing to confirm the worst fears of moderate congressional Republicans.

The “mad as hell” Virginian Republicans didn’t just show Cantor the door, they threw him down the steps. It was the ultimate protest by voters who are far too law-abiding to occupy a park and throw missiles at the police. Between the quintessential Washington insider and someone whose sole political experience consists of having once served as president of the Virginia Association of Economists, the Virginians chose the latter. In other words they were rejecting the model of democracy-as-usual.

According to a Gallup poll earlier this year, about 65% of Americans are “dissatisfied with the US system of government and its effectiveness”. The possibility that two thirds of Americans believe that American democracy no longer works is deeply disturbing.

The poll is even more worrying than the latest results from the Pew Research Centre, which reveal the extent of political polarisation in American life. According to the year-long survey, liberals and conservatives aren’t just at loggerheads politically, they won’t even socialise with one another. An extraordinary 30% of committed conservatives say they would be unhappy if a family member married a liberal.

Nevertheless, it is one thing to dislike what your opponent stands for, it is quite another to stop believing in the entire process. Yet there has been precious little evidence over the past decade to show that the branches of government can work together to improve rather than just regulate people’s lives.

It’s not simply that Obamacare, as the Affordable Care Act is known, has had one of the worst roll-outs in the history of health reform. It’s that there is still no consensus in Washington over what the act can do, should do or will achieve. Since its passage in 2010 Congress has voted 54 times either to repeal or amend it, while the White House has made at least 23 changes. That’s not leadership, that’s politicking.

On other issues, from gun control to immigration, there has been no movement at all. All this, of course, has become dispiriting to voters and is one reason why national approval of Congress stands at 13%. But for many people it is not even the grand themes of political discourse that are weighing them down, it’s the fact that they see the richest country in the world unable to ensure that the most basic improvements take place.

This summer, for example, millions of families, including my own, will take a short holiday. We might drive along the famous highway system, created by the Eisenhower administration in 1956, when big projects were still possible. Or travel on the slowest trains in the developed world, thanks to congressional infighting over whether to modernise the tracks. Or go abroad and return to a long wait at passport control. By long, I mean queuing for four hours or more because congressional authorisation to hire 2,000 more customs officers didn’t happen in time.

At home Americans can look forward to another summer of rolling blackouts and power cuts because the electrical grid is decrepit.

The building of Colorado’s Hoover Dam in 1930 was the greatest hydroelectric project of its time. Las Vegas and Los Angeles wouldn’t exist without it. But that was then and today, when there is a critical need to build new transmission lines, Congress has become an untouchable “vetocracy”. Even after the electrical cascade in 2003 that left 45m in the dark, a thicket of congressional fiefdoms stands in the way of allowing the transference of power from one region to another.

Ironically, the one unambiguous congressional agreement in the past 12 months — cutting $85bn from the federal budget — has come through inaction. The so-called sequester cuts were originally a backstop — a threat passed into law in 2011 that hung over the heads of the joint select committee on deficit reduction to force them to agree on a plan to resolve the debt ceiling crisis.

They couldn’t and sequestration began. It’s amazing that Congress still calls itself a legislature when the budget is being decided by a failsafe mechanism.

Right now the 113th Congress looks set to be the least productive in US history, passing the fewest number of bills into law. But the fed-up Republicans in Cantor’s district have delivered their message.

Maybe, just maybe, regardless of ideology, the rest of the country will start shouting too. After all, the one thing about democracy that still works is that people only need ballots and not bullets to make their point.

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