Breaking the fever
One wants to ignore him. To write about him gives him the ink and exposure he craves. It is easy to mock him and to dismiss him, and writers far and wide have succumbed to the temptation.
In fact, Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, is really just the outward manifestation of a larger problem, in the way a skin rash is a sign of measles. That he is a demagogue despised by fellow senators, even Republicans, is a given. But demagoguery flowers in troubled times, when fear and discontent work like a fever in the body politic. When we have a fever, we want to know why. Is it a three-day cold, a case of the flu, the onset of West Nile? We wonder and we worry. What is wrong with us? The demagogue provides easy answers.
The great demagogue of our past was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who rose to prominence in the unsettled period following World War II. The nation had just experienced the enormous suffering of the war, and yet new threats stoked fears that new wars were on the horizon. Then the Korean War began. Communism seemed to be an insidious threat that was both global and local, a manifestation of the unknown. McCarthy used tactics of innuendo and baseless accusation to exploit and spread the fear that was already prevalent. In the end, like many bullies, he crumbled when confronted squarely, and he died of alcoholism a few years later.
We are in another unsettled period following years of war and economic collapse. Communities in many parts of the country have been sapped of life by the demise of local ownership and the penetration of giant companies who dominate the nation’s economic life. In this economic environment, opportunity shrinks and profits seep upward and away. The consequence is a historic level of inequality that becomes a self-reinforcing economic death spiral.
Cruz and others have seized on the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — as an emblematic power grab by the federal government that they say will destroy jobs, suck up tax money and wreck the health care system. There is a bitter irony in this attack. President Obama pushed his health care program in the teeth of the great recession because of its potential for saving or creating jobs, lowering health care costs and saving the health care system — for helping millions of people suffering as a result of the recession. Obama’s enemies understand that if Obamacare succeeds their entire political strategy and the philosophy underpinning it will be thrown into doubt. So they have fomented an attitude of nihilistic rejectionism.
Cruz mounted a quasi-filibuster to call attention to the Republican effort to cut funds for Obamacare, even threatening to shut down the government or force the government to default on its bills to get their way. It is easy to quote Cruz’s loonier and outrageous statements to show that he is only loosely moored to reality. When you reach for comparisons to Hitler in trying to discredit a health care program, you have revealed your own extremism.
The larger harm is to the nation’s ability actually to govern itself. Our divisions are in part sectional. The fanatical anti-government conservatism associated with the Tea Party is most dominant in the old Confederacy, where resentment of the federal government has a long history and racist rejection of Obama remains a factor.
The problem remains: how to overcome the balkanization of the nation into disparate, incompatible factions unwilling to compromise and work together to meet the nation’s challenges. One possible outcome is for the fever to play itself out — for Cruz finally to reveal himself, as McCarthy did, as a phony, and for the nation gradually to creep back toward moderation. The success of Obamacare would help that happen. That’s why the demagogues are out in force to make it fail.