Political Hackery

I am an open, enthusiastic fan of something most Americans, including many of the professional practitioners of it, claim to hate, which is politics. I always have to laugh when politicians say they want to "take the politics out of" something, or when they accuse their opponents of being "political" -- as if that was somehow appalling for a politician to be.

I love politics, and I believe that in a democracy, it is not only a positive good but absolutely essential to a functioning government and society. I further believe that, as my late friend Paul Tully used to say, you can't take the politics out of politics. By this I mean that you can't take the wheeling and dealing, the give and take, the posturing, the deal making, the speechifying, or the partisanship out of the world of politics, and it actually makes things worse to try: as long as humans are human, it will be there. It is fundamental to a democracy to have politics, and my view is progressives should be good at politics and not shrink from it.

So why am I so upset that the Supreme Court seems to have been taken over by a bunch of political hacks? Look, I think everyone brings their ideology with them in whatever position they get appointed to, so I don't think justices are ever going to be pure and impartial as they listen to cases being argued and make decisions on whether legislation is constitutional or not. But the kind of pure, unadulterated right-wing Republican hackery exhibited by Scalia and some of his brethren this week in the health care arguments was one of the most repulsive things I have ever seen. I mean, really -- the broccoli argument? Talking about things that didn't even make it into the bill? Come on, guys: are you going to have Bill O'Reilly write your opinions for you?

Okay, I'll admit, I knew before this that some of these justices are hacks. Bush v. Gore and Citizens United proved that definitively. So did Scalia and Thomas flying out for a retreat with the Koch brothers. But, wow, to see it out there in front of God and everybody, so obvious it hurt, it was shocking even to a hard-ass old denizen of politics like me. I guess I grew up thinking the courts were supposed to preserve some modest measure of impartiality.

In spite of my love of politics, I still have this old-fashioned belief that some institutions ought to try to maintain some semblance of balance and integrity and dignity. I'm old enough to remember a time when not all or even most American institutions were utterly taken over by partisan politics. The Supreme Court, as one example, has always had conservative and progressive justices, but a couple of decades back they had enough independence to rule in a way that didn't automatically help one party or another, and there were frequent surprises in how they did rule. But it is also true in other institutions.

One example: the Catholic Church was of course very upset when the Roe v. Wade decision came down, and they have always mobilized against abortion rights. Yet when I was a young man growing up in organizing, progressive groups frequently were in coalition with Catholic bishops and institutions on an array of issues. When I started my career as a community organizer in my hometown of Lincoln, Neb., my closest ally was a fire-breathing Catholic priest named Father Dale Hardes, one of the best organizers I have ever known. When I was doing organizing in Iowa in the '80s, one of my closest allies was the Catholic bishop of the Des Moines dioceses, a wonderful and thoughtful man named Maurice Dingman.

Both of these men were mentors and heroes to me. Many of the groups I worked with were funded by the Catholic Church's Campaign for Human Development, a foundation that put millions of dollars a year into progressive causes to help poor and working class people organize on economic issues. Even when I came to D.C. with the Clinton administration, all the time the Catholic Church was fighting us on abortion, gay rights, and vouchers, they were genuinely helpful on health care reform and budget fights over Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs to help people.

No more. The Catholic bishops did not lift a finger to help health care reform get passed in spite of the Obama administration bending way over backwards to accept the Stupak and Nelson amendments on abortion, and in spite of the fact that the Catholic church has been on record in support of universal coverage for more than 70 years. They refused to accept a compromise on contraceptive coverage that made the Catholic Health Association perfectly happy. Worst of all, they haven't said a word in opposition to the most hatefully anti-poor budget introduced in Congress in at least 80 years, in spite of all that stuff in their Bible about helping the poor. Now mind you, the Catholic Church as a whole isn't this way: There are still plenty of priests, nuns, hospitals, charities and faithful laity who care about the poor. But the Catholic Conference of Bishops has essentially become an arm of the Republican Party, utterly poisoned and corrupted by pure partisanship.

Here's another example: the Chamber of Commerce. It may surprise you that this business association at one time was more bipartisan, but when I came to D.C. with Clinton, I talked to people at the Chamber all the time, and for the first year of the health care reform discussions, they were seriously entertaining endorsing our bill and working constructively with us on it. There were plenty of Democrats as well as Republicans on the staff and board, and while they were of course conservative and pro-business, you could talk turkey with them and work through reasonable compromises. But the Republican Party and right-wing movement did a major organizing job on the inside, elected a new far right-wing board, and they never worked with us in any kind of serious way again. Today, they are all-out Republican hacks who will do anything they can to defeat Obama and Congressional Democrats.

I love the political game, and unlike most people, I believe there is honor in it. There is no greater professional joy to me than fighting hard in the political arena for the policies and candidates I believe in. But I also believe that there are some institutions in American life that ought to have more balance and reserve, which ought not to be populated with people whose total identity is as partisan hacks.

Churches ought to be one of them, and I happen to think that business associations ought to look out for what is best for a majority of their members rather than be political attack dogs for one political party. Above all, I firmly believe that our democratic system of government begins to break down if the courts, most especially the Supreme Court, become a home of the worst kind of partisan hackery. If the court abuses its power and loses its credibility, the justices will face a day of reckoning when a no-longer-respectful public and Congress will take away their power.