What rough beast?

revolutionNothing ruins a good revolution like winning.

Wiry, wily Irish bomb-throwers get their place at the dinner table, stuffing themselves on the political pie that has been denied them for so long, and find themselves growing fat and slow and toothless. Hezbollah finally hacks and burns its way into mainstream Lebanese politics, and next thing you know they’re no longer the wild-eyed incarnate Wrath of God, but a gaggle of middle-aged politicians in pricey Italian shoes struggling to defend their prerogatives against a new generation of anarchists and Islamic fundamentalists. George Washington’s cold winter at Valley Forge, battling the old aristocracy, led to a long, warm afterlife as the first of a new and even more deeply entrenched ruling class.

* * *

When Newt Gingrich led his overthrow of the ancien régime in 1994, his shock troops were a gang of novice politicians coming from single terms in Midwestern state legislatures or moderately successful careers as doctors or media figures or corporate lawyers in Tennessee and Georgia and Texas. The “Contract with America” crowd had been throwing rocks at the Tom Foleys and Jack Brooks and Dan Rostenkowskis for years, demanding change – change at any cost, prune the deadwood, pump out the bilges, plow the whole mess under and start fresh – and now, at long last, they were ready to take charge.

Except governing turned out to be so damned hard.

It’s easy to dismiss the Tea Party and its exemplars as a nightmare product of some dark Trailer Park of the American Soul, but there’s more to it than that: People like me, talking heads with their history books and their economic pie charts and their fifty-dollar vocabularies have done a lot to confirm and validate the alienation that the Tea Partiers feel. Nothing makes an ignorant person angrier than being shown over and over just how ignorant he is. In my own defense, I’m proud of my intellectual achievements, and have had it up to here with having to pretend to be dumber than I am just to coddle the delicate sensitivities of someone who could be better informed but is just too damned lazy to work as hard as I have to get there. But there, of course, you see the problem: an attitude like that doesn’t exactly build bridges.

Standing outside shouting slogans at the WWII vets and the leftovers from Eisenhower and LBJ and Nixon who had been running the show for so long was exciting and simple. You could demand policies that couldn’t possibly be enacted in a democracy, or propose plans that violated the most basic rules of elementary economics, or promote actions on social issues that failed even the most superficial Constitutional test, and it didn’t matter, because it just wasn’t up to you. You weren’t running the show. There were no consequences if you made promises you couldn’t keep, you could just blame Those Guys for everything.

Once in office, however, things got complicated. The boys who had paid for your trip to the big city were now expecting results, and now that you were one of Those Guys, it was you they were expecting those results from. Unfortunately, the machinery of governance was big and spooky and dangerous and the only people who knew which buttons and levers did what were the very geezers and deadbeats you had driven out of town with such enthusiasm.

Four years after Newt Gingrich proclaimed victory over the old guard in the US House, he was himself out of office, brought down by ethics violations so egregious that it was difficult to reconcile Gingrich’s obvious intelligence with the political naiveté demonstrated by his crimes.

Many of the Gingrich crowd stumbled and fell into that same hole: lacking the more time-tested sensitivities of their predecessors, elected officials behaved like poorly supervised fraternity boys. There were ridiculous sexual misadventures like Mark Sanford’s Argentina adventure; or David Vitter’s trips to the whorehouse, using his own publicly-available telephone number to arrange his outings; or Larry Craig’s game of footsie with an undercover cop in an airport restroom in Minneapolis. There were episodes of influence-peddling that sometimes crossed the line into illegality, but frequently just smelled bad.  Once the dust had settled, however, the survivors, bruised and sticky but still in the game, found themselves firmly in control of the same government that Gingrich had worked to shut down only a few years before.

Then came Barack Obama, and in response to the spectre of a black man in the Oval Office yet another “revolution” arose, but this time with rhetoric about legitimate political, economic and social issues painted only very lightly over a substrate of racism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism. Men and women who would have found it difficult to name ten former Presidents of the United States, or to identify where exactly in the US Constitution the job was defined, were now clamoring that one of their own be given control of that post.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!
Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body
and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast,
its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Like the Gingrich team more than a decade before, the new rock-throwers found enough support among voters to achieve important positions in the government that they professed to despise; and even more than those Young Turks of 1994, these inexperienced and unqualified newcomers found themselves struggling to understand the fundamental responsibilities of the jobs they had worked so hard to get. Making incendiary speeches to adoring crowds was easy, even fun; making law, not so much. Staying out of trouble while surrounded by the seductions of lobbyists with gigantic expense accounts, and special interest groups funding gigantic PACs, and high-class hookers bouncing gigantic – well, anyway: it’s a jungle out there.

And now, the curtain has risen on Act III: the kind of confusion and consternation at every level of American politics that has not been seen since the end of the Civil War. The bomb the anti-Washington crowd has been building since 1994 has gone off with a vengeance. Bombs, unfortunately, don’t pick and choose among their victims: if you happen to be in town when the clock reaches zero, you’re going to get hurt. Whatever happens on election day in a matter of days from now, the story won’t be over once the votes are counted.

The rough beast will have been born, and we’ll have to decide how to live with that.

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