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Disunited States

Locks on a bridge
The recent invitation John Boehner extended to Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress was an unprecedented sign of disharmony between Republicans and Democrats. Usually, heads of state reserve the privilege of inviting other heads of state to address a forum like the Congress. But in this case, Boehner chose to invite Bibi on his own, without consulting Obama. The White House was “incensed,” in CNN-speak. The press was aroused and more than curious what the blowback could be. As usual Obama kept his cool and let the matter stand without much comment. The press would provide all that in triplicate. Of course the subtext was Republican outrage at Obama’s declared intention to continue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program in his State of the Union speech. Netanyahu wants to isolate and muffle Iran, even if his strategy led to a hot war. Israel seems eager to wage an all-out assault on Iran and wipe out its entire nuclear base – which would require a vast array of bombers and missile attacks to accomplish.

Needless to say, this hard-line hysteria on the part of the Likud party would throw the Arab world into a frenzy of hatred, and raise the specter of a much wider revolt against Israeli aggression. Egypt can hardly contain its own angry factions; neither can Jordan, or Lebanon. Iraq and Afghanistan might well bury their bloody hatchets if such a war would break out between Iran and Israel. Yemen and Qatar are primed to unleash more jihadists on the world. The recklessness of the hard-liners makes the possibility of a Middle Eastern Armageddon seem ever more likely.

At this moment, the Republican Congress is thwarting the Executive branch from carrying out its constitutionally-mandated right to prosecute American foreign policy. The cracks in the foundations of democracy were, up to now, little spidery flaws in the granite; with this latest strategy, the cracks are now gaping fissures under American government. Instead of its advise-and-consent role, the Congress is now actively engaged in its own global diplomacy.

There’s no love between Netanyahu and Obama. Their meetings have been few and edgy, and their comments to the press corps brittle, and forced. No surprise there. Obama has long observed Israeli abuse of Palestinian territorial sovereignty. The wall now separating the two sides is eerily reminiscent of the Berlin wall, and much of the graffiti sprawled across the Palestinian side closely resembles the anger and disillusionment East Berliners felt toward their Russian-ruled oppressors.

But there is deeper disunity at work. After decades of political engineering, the Deep South has turned uniformly red, a densely populated enclave of resentful white Republicans whose state legislatures have whittled away the voting rights of minorities. The electoral map of the U.S. looks like a crime scene in which a few patches of blue are engulfed in a sea of red. While the populations of southern states may be more mixed than such maps would indicate, the access to democracy is biased toward the white working and middle classes. Efforts to maintain this political fragmentation are funded by a daunting array of billionaire donors who keep pushing politics toward the extreme right. Not even Mitt Romney is conservative enough to win the affections of Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers are combing through the usual candidates to find someone equal to the task of defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016, and of silencing the rising voices of protest by all those disenfranchised by the concentration of wealth in fewer hands. Dead and dying cities are filled with the newly poor; prisons are crammed with minority dissidents. Cities like New York and San Francisco keep pushing out the poor to the hinterlands to make room for the newly rich, who alone can afford the high rents of a housing bubble.

Democracy in this age is no longer a word to describe governing by the people. A mutation has occurred that conveys a much more nuanced and menacing reality – a highly managed, digitally-monitored voting population that is transparent to the campaign teams that know the habits, tastes, inclinations, grudges of each voter. If Google has vetted its customers down to the minutes each spends on porn, looking up a local dentist, writing to friends, expressing a few seditious sentiments on a cell phone, which the NSA can then process further for its meta-data, the political parties have similar powers to interpret each voter’s likely penchants, flaws, impulses on voting day. The carefully tailored ads have the same uncanny power border collies draw on to control the waywardness of sheep. Hence, the five-billion dollar political industry that now controls presidential elections.

Fragmentation, polarization, the break up of democratic government are major themes of this age. The U.S. is not the only country to suffer the shocks of such disunity. Consider Europe’s present crisis over the Greeks’ revolt against German-enforced austerity. Or the polarization of social classes and ethnic groups in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and France. The euro-zone has a common currency and a collection of nations seething with resentment against the wealthy elites that impoverish and disenfranchise them.

We might well be coming to the end of democracy as we have known it; the forces contending for control over the voting public and the levers of government are not restrained by the possible dissolution of democracy. Great wealth has no ideology or grand mission; it is anarchic in its craving for more wealth and control. It would willingly sacrifice the institutions of democracy to wrest away the power to determine how a country like France or the U.S. conducts itself. Morality and ethical restraint are no longer sources of influence when wealth acquires most of the means of expression, which is where we are headed now.

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