Occasionally, a single incident can characterize an entire era. Rosa Parks sits down near the front of a bus. Gary Cooper drops his badge in the dust. Warren Beatty is riddled with bullets.
And then, most recently, a Congressman berates a park ranger for monitoring the closure of a national park he had voted to close.
It is more than likely that historians years from now will cite this incident as the perfect illustration of American politics in the early 21st century. For it is this disjunction, this dislocation from reality, that represents our age. Politics have been dominated by a minority movement that creates its own counter-reality, rejects science, denies established facts, and produces untruthful narratives to justify behavior at odds with reality.
This could all be dismissed as an aberration and an amusement, except when it brings the government of the United States to a standstill. This Congressman, and others like him, did not connect the decision to shutter the government with the closure of national parks administered by that government. Nor apparently did they think a majority of Americans would be outraged by young cancer patients being denied treatment, or veterans losing medication, or the elderly losing home nutrition, or any of hundreds of things the government of the United States, as ordered by Congress, does every day.
If you live in a vacuum-packed world of talk radio, right-wing dominated town halls, and campaigns financed by anti-government billionaires, and if that’s the only Kool-Aid you drink, it must be a shock when you confront the real world. “Why is this park closed?” “Because you closed it, Congressman.”
If the “big government” you oppose is not the one that creates and operates revered national monuments, but is one that provides food stamps, unemployment compensation, breakfasts for poor school children, and rent subsidies and you can’t actually say that’s what you are against, because you believe, wrongly, that it’s mostly people with darker skins who benefit, it makes real-world politics difficult to deal with.
So what’s a Congressman operating in a closed-circuit vacuum, who only hears his own echoes 24/7, to do? What does he do when he finds out that his gerrymandered solid red district dominated by a minority is neither the real America nor the real world? You intimidate your Speaker and you threaten — or more likely have others threaten — your wavering, moderate colleagues with a primary campaign by a fire-breathing, alternative-reality version of yourself.
There is only one way three or four dozen alternative-reality Congresspersons can shut down the United States government: fear. Fear of what? Fear of not being a Congressperson. Fear of losing your job. Fear of not having a staff to look after your every wish. Fear of not being cheered at the next town meeting composed of people you’re already afraid of. Most of all, fear of returning to everyday life back home. But, of course, there is always the lucrative alternative of lobbying, where you can stay in Washington, go to all the parties and fundraisers, write the checks instead of taking the checks, and hobnob with all those other former members of Congress who, like you, decided not to go home.
But even that little promise of nirvana is subject to the perpetuation of the world of alternative-reality. And that world must come to an end. Because the day will come, sooner or later, when men and women of stature, honor, and conviction will say, as Joseph Welch said to Joe McCarthy and the park ranger should have said to our Congressman: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?”