Where Do We Go From Here?

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The debt-ceiling business is a hostage crisis. That much became unmistakably clear last week, with multiple commentators endorsing the view, James Fallows, Paul Krugman and law professor Geoffrey Stone among them (“Negotiating with Terrorists” was the original headline on Stone’s post). And while it’s yet to be determined how many casualties there will be from the Tea Party’s astonishing attempt to highjack the spending and taxing debate, it is not too soon to be thinking about what will happen next. These are bleak times, but here I aim to offer one hopeful possibility.

There has been bad behavior in the US Congress before, though not on such a scale. That’s not to say it wasn’t scarily dangerous at the time. I am thinking of the movement in the early 1950s that came to be known as “McCarthyism.” In these trying times, it’s worth remembering how civility was restored in those circumstances; how a new consensus developed rapidly in the mid-1950s that placed limits on disruptive political behavior.

Concern about communist influence in the United State percolated at a relatively low level during the early stages of the Cold War. Not all of it was misplaced. It escalated in 1948-49 with the Berlin Blockade , the Soviet atomic bomb, the Chinese Revolution, and spying allegations against Alger Hiss.

But anti-communism blossomed into a full-fledged political movement only after February 9, 1950. That was when a little-known US Senator from Wisconsin made a sensational claim. Joseph McCarthy told the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia,

I have here in my hand a list of 205 – a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

Attacking Secretary of State Dean Acheson was tantamount to attacking President Harry Truman himself. A few months later the Korean War began. For the next three years, McCarthy built a considerable following by playing on fears of betrayal (best sellers in those years included The Enemy Within and I led Three Lives). He manipulated the issue through frequent Congressional investigations and hearings, supported by religious leaders and, behind the scenes, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, and aided by various allies in the House of Representatives and in the press.

McCarthy assaulted Republicans as well as Democrats. Not even President Dwight Eisenhower, who took office in 1953, was immune. The Democrats had perpetrated “twenty years of treason,” McCarthy charged, but the new administration’s policy had turned out to be “appeasement, retreat, and surrender.” Journalist Richard Rovere wrote in 1959, “He held two Presidents captive – or as nearly captive as any President has ever been held.”

The firebreak came with the Army-McCarthy hearings in the summer of 1954. McCarthy’s aide, Roy Cohn, had bullied the Secretary of the Army, seeking preferential treatment for a member of McCarthy’s Senate committee. At some point McCarthy himself joined in the hunt. At a certain point, the Senate convened hearings on the differences of opinion.

For seven weeks that summer, five days a week, more than 20 million Americans watched transfixed on the still-new device of television, or listened on radio, as McCarthy tarnished himself before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Karl Mundt (R-S.D.). For a vivid summary of the proceedings, see the documentary Point of Order, produced by Emile de Antonio and Daniel Talbot, in 1964. Their film, it seems to me, is one of the great texts of American history, on a par with Federalist Paper 10 and the Gettysburg Address.

The climax of Point of Order comes, not in the dramatic confrontation with attorney Joseph Welch that everyone remembers, when McCarthy seeks to damage the reputation of a bystander to the proceedings (“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” asks Army counsel Joseph Welch. “Have you left no sense of decency?”) Rather it occurs during a lengthy exchange at the end with Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) in the course of which Symington alternately challenges and mocks McCarthy.

The charge by the junior senator from Wisconsin that we’ve had another year of treason under President Eisenhower, the charge that the CIA is infiltrated and infested with Communists, the charge that the Defense Department is full of Communists, the charge that the Department of Justice, that the Attorney General of the Department of Justice – there’s something phony about him – and the charge that the hydrogen bomb plants and the atomic bomb plants are full of Communists. Well, where do we go from here as the American people? It would appear some of us want to end up in this country with just plain anarchy.

Wounded but still dangerous, McCarthy was censured by the full Senate the next year. He lost influence rapidly and died of hepatitis in 1957. The anti-communist mania lost force.

Now to the present case. What are the chances the behavior involved in the debt-ceiling stand-off will come to be generally condemned, too? They are pretty good, it seems to me, especially if you’re not too mechanical about the correspondence between the situations.

One similarity to the McCarthy phenomenon is obvious. The Republican position is built on fear-mongering about the national debt. Clearly Congress needs to do something in the next few years to bring spending and taxing into long-term balance: that much has been obvious for years. But while a tender economy may not be the best time to implement tax hikes, it’s surely the worst time to institute massive government spending cuts – never mind the threat that default itself presents to the fragile recovery.

Much less parallel is the character of the threat. McCarthy worked by retail intimidation, a sheaf of blank subpoenas in his pocket. The Republican strategy today is tantamount to hostage taking – acquiesce to our demands or we take down the economy. Default is the equivalent of a nuclear weapon, as Politico’s David Rogers pointed out the other day. “The reason Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD worked in the Cold War was because the world had witnessed an atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima,” he wrote. “Boehner’s rebellious conservatives don’t share that same fear of default, a bomb that has never fallen but is just four days away and counting.”

Another big difference between then and now is that it’s not one alcoholic senator who is doing the bullying. The leadership of the Tea Party is diffuse and amorphous. The “young guns” may have been similarly opportunistic, but Eric Cantor (R-Va), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Paul Ryan (R-Wisc) are smarter than McCarthy was. They know the demographics; they know how to poll; they know how to do TV soundbites.

Finally, there is the absence of a suitable forum in which to bring the issues into focus. The Army-McCarthy hearings, when they occurred, were up close and personal. The audience had nothing better to do that summer politically, and almost all of them had come through a galvanizing war together. There was a marvelous unity of time and place, and the tension of the drama, as Rovere later wrote, derived from “the greatest of all sources: the conflict of human spirits: every face was a study, every voice a revelation of the man from whom it came.” There exists today no similar lens through which a great mass of people can view the current situation.

That said, the bad behavior is so epic that it’s hard to believe it won’t evoke some form of mass condemnation, if only at the polls. We have YouTube in lieu of network television broadcasting: that is the medium through which the inevitable moments of crack-up will be virally viewed. The elections are barely a year away. The financial, industrial and commercial Establishments of the United States, such as they are, are energized. The documentarians are at work. Obama still has the bully pulpit. We’ll see how he deals with the hostage-takers.

Where do we go from here as the American people? Based on an understanding of human nature and the political traditions of the United States, there is some reason to hope that the Tea Party Taliban may yet suffer from the of kind of moral revulsion that brought the McCarthy era to a conclusion. The alternative – the political anarchy of non-negotiable demands, enforced by credible threats of grave harm – is pretty dreadful to contemplate.