There are three basic laws about discussion, especially political discussion, that are useful in the contentious government situation we have today. The third of these laws is especially relevant because it warns us that what is happening in Congress is not a passing aberration, but in fact a threat to democracy in our country.
Here are the three laws. Almost everyone has suffered through examples of the first two in their own lives.
First Law: It is almost impossible by rational argument to persuade people to believe what they do not want to believe.
Second Law: Almost any argument, no matter how feeble, will convince people of what they do want to believe.
The third law is the non-obvious one; I learned it the hard way, by making mistakes.
Third Law: If you think your opponent's position doesn't make sense, or that he or she is stupid or uninformed or irrational, think again. Almost certainly, YOU are the one who does not understand.
The meaning of the Third Law is this: Your opponent may look stupid or irrational to you, but in fact he or she is probably doing something that does make sense. Most likely you simply don't know enough about your opponent's real motivation; if you understood more, you would see that he is anything but stupid.
The Third Law is violated with great regularity by many pundits. We are used to hearing Democratic pundits say that the Republicans are irrational to cut government spending when people desperately need the jobs that that money pays for. How can the Republicans be so ignorant, so stupid? The Republican pundits are equally clear that it is stupid and irresponsible for Democrats to increase the public debt and hand this debt on to future generations.
The cries of "stupid" from both sides should warn us that it is time to invoke The Third Law and find out what is really going on in Washington. We will find that what is described as stupidity is in fact a sensible but very unpleasant reality: Washington, Democratic and Republican, is being taken over by the power of money.
In Washington the influence of the financial industry and major corporations is enormous on both sides of the aisle, and within the Democratic administration as well. Their political power comes from the well-organized use of their economic power; or put more simply, from money. They have the money to spend on primaries and elections, for lobbying that offers, in addition to persuasion, the promise of future benefits and support. They have money for political advertising and for think tanks to provide legitimacy for the ideas of their sponsors. All this is happening today on a scale that dwarfs historic norms.
What is this activity aimed at in this time of recession? There may be a recession for most people, but the financial industry and major corporations are in fact enjoying record years. They have a work force that won't press for raises and will work long hours just to keep their jobs. Things are good as they are; they don't want an activist government thrashing around trying to create jobs, increase their taxes, or regulate their activities. They prefer something less activist and less expensive focused on what business wants. Reducing government and refocusing it seems sensible to them.
While the financial industry and the corporations aim mainly at controlling the government for their own purposes, many of the right wing and Tea Party Republicans think simply of weakening or crippling it. This group, well-funded by a wealthy few, is especially singled out by liberal pundits and is described as ignorant, stupid, and irrational. But think again.
For this right wing, failure to reach agreement in Congress is itself a triumph. That failure shows our people that their government is dysfunctional and ineffective; which is exactly their point. The sequester was a happy event for them; failure to reach agreement on a budget would be even better, it would mean no budget, and will deprive the annoying and interfering government of the breath of life.
When these two moneyed groups are on the same side, they effectively control the government. The failure to implement the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, years after they became law, is an excellent example of their power. When the two groups disagree, there is continuing struggle and uncertainty. But in Washington today conflict is conflict between the moneyed groups; the voice of the people is far away and only dimly heard.
The present budget struggle is only a skirmish in an ongoing battle. Despite all the talk about stupidity, the situation we face is not a mistake or an aberration, but rather an evolving effort by a plutocracy to take over a democracy and run it in their interest.
This is far from the first time that important emerging events have been mistaken for stupidity; The Third Law is as old as history. A painful example is provided by Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the French Revolution. Legend says that when Marie Antoinette looked out at the hungry people crowding the streets of Paris demanding bread, she thought they made no sense. "Let them eat cake," she said.
Unfortunately for Marie Antoinette, it was she who did not understand.
We should not repeat her mistake. In Washington we are not seeing stupidity or ignorance, but rather economic power eroding effective democracy. We should acknowledge this reality and actively attempt to change it.