"Homeland", "Alpha House" and the Tea Party
Fiction is very hard pressed to keep up with history. This weekís Homeland episode was about Brody put back in action so as to assassinate someone high up in the Iranian regime so that a CIA mole could become important in the Iranian government and, as the head of the CIA puts it, ďstart talks with a regime that the United States hasnít talked to for thirty years.Ē And yet that is exactly what happened just a few months ago, long after the episode had been planned and probably filmed, those talks already having borne considerable fruit in the form of a temporary agreement to stop progress in Iranian nuclear weapon development. And it hadnít taken CIA skullduggery to accomplish the breakthrough. It had happened because a new Iranian leader had been elected who wanted to get out of the box created by oil and banking sanctions themselves created through diplomatic negotiations that the media reported on as beginning, having their difficult moments, and then resulting in an agreement that gives us what we want. We donít have to engage in a military strike on Iran and we do not have to give up very much in return. As I understand it, the Iranians will lose far more in assets to be frozen over the next six months of the oil embargo than they will recover from this deal. They must desperately need some cash to just keep going.
It isnít just Homeland that was flummoxed by this development. The Republicans were as well. They canít believe that Obama does anything right, and so they continue to think Obama was embarrassed by what happened in Syria, when what happened was that he got what he wanted without firing a missile or intruding in a civil war, one between Sunnis and Shiites, that has been going on for fifteen hundred years. He bluffed, and the Russians caved. But the Republicans always prefer a war solution to a diplomatic one, and so not much should be expected of them, but it would be nice if they responded a bit freshly rather than engaging in just Obama bashingóthough it is worth remembering that Obama bashing is the sum total of their policies at this point. None of them can say what they are for. Scott Walker says government is too intrusive in our lives but doesnít say how, and that makes him a statesman in waiting as far as Republicans are concerned.
Another example of fiction not living up to fact is Alpha House, the comedy about four Senators who share a house in Washington, D. C. that is now being shown on Amazon and is based on the true life house sharing of Senators Durbin and Schumer and I donít remember the others, though this time the Senators portrayed are Republicans. The first episode was already dated. One Senator in the house is teased for being gay and does seem overly concerned with tastes that are conventionally gay and non-macho. He doesnít fire rifles though doing so would help him in his district. But this episode is a way to make fun of Senator Larry Craig, the one time Idaho Republican who was arrested in a Minneapolis menís room and the first thing he said was that he wasnít gay, which is what the poker players would call a tell. Being gay may soon lose its luster, given how many people are coming out of the closet, which is what Harvey Milk, with a good deal of prescience, thought was the key to gay liberation. And the even more remarkable thing is that gay marriage is slowly and steadily making its way across the country, embraced by one state legislature after another, until we will find ourselves, as usual, in a country divided by this issue between its red and blue states. The disgust over gay sex is diluted in overt legislation about matters, such as marriage, which can indeed be handled by legislation. The same thing happened in the nineteenth century with the abolition of slavery state by state in the North at the same time that Southern states were unyielding in that they never even considered legislation that would humanize slavery. Change through mundane politics rather than war or conspiracy also happened in both Northern and Southern states when the franchise was extended to working class people (though not to non-whites in the south, something that would have to wait until the mid twentieth century but which was again a matter of legislative enactment, in this case by the federal legislature).
Legislative enactments may not be as sexy or diverting to the minds of the conspiracy obsessed, which is how people who are not very knowledgeable about politics think things must happen, everything modeled on Dallas or 24 or, yes, Homeland, but that is how history is made: right in front of you, often very quickly, but so long in preparation and anticipation that people canít believe what overtly happens is what is really happening. What really happens must be, in one sense or another, what happens under the covers. The drama of civil rights legislation or of the March on Washington or of the march to gay equality is there only if you are capable of noticing that what the nightly news reports is what counts. Obama is down but he will be up again as soon as there is decent reporting about how many people have benefitted already from the Affordable Care Act and how few, in fact, have been hurt by it. It is a scandal that so far the networks, including PBS, take at their word people who report how they were hurt by Obamacare and do not treat these as reports to be tested. Donít take a consumerís word for their calculations. Look into the details of whether their co-pays would indeed go up and whether there were other much better plans available to them. Why rely on these people as health care experts? When the truth comes out, Obamacare, I think, will prevail, and we will all settle down to wondering how we were ever able to do without it. The truth, however, does not always prevail over the fictions spun by Republican operatives who also lied, you will remember, about welfare queens. Urban legends do not die because they bear fruit too, which in the case of welfare meant that Clinton ended welfare as we know it because he was hounded into doing so and did not want to give Dole an issue, though the truths about how many people suffered as a result of re-designating welfare as a job support program may not be known until researchers dig into what happened at those renamed welfare centers. It will prove not to have been a conspiracy that made the poor suffer; it will have been legislation and the execution of legislation.
Here is another case where truth overtakes fiction, even if in this case the fiction is an inside look at how the 2012 campaign was played. Double Down is a work of reportage by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and so is not a fiction in the sense of being made up; it is just a species of narrative that turns what we also know from the political pages of the New York Times into an insider story, people interviewed to give the moods of the players and some of their saltier comments. Everybody knew that Obama had contempt for Romney; you could tell it in his body English and his snide remarks. Everybody knew that Biden wasnít trusted by some White House insiders, though it is not clear from the book or in other press reports whether in important matters the President did not trust Biden just as much as he said he did. Biden made the deal for the sequester, which seems awful in retrospect, but it kept the deadline on the debt ceiling from being passed, and allowed the President to move himself into a position down the road when he no longer felt he had to compromise on the debt ceiling issue. Obama picks his battlefields and sends only trusted people to negotiate a tactical withdrawal. Halperin and Heilemann throw a lot of weights on the balance scales but provide no way to tell how they add up or cancel one another out.
The great mystery of the Republican Primary season in 2012 was why Huntsman did not break out of the pack. After all, even the Pizza King had been at the top of the polls for a while. Everyone acknowledged that this field of outliers was each getting a turn at bat because everyone wanted someone other than Mitt and someone minimally acceptable might show up. Of the clowns available, only Newt Gingrich might strike one as Presidential at all. Why not Huntsman to the rescue? The authors spend a lot of time with inside gossip about him, such as the uncertainty of his financing and of his own commitment to the race, but do not deal with this question, the answer to which is available in plain sight. During the Iowa debate in August, they do note, the candidates were asked if they would agree to a deal by which there would be ten dollars of spending cuts in exchange for one dollar of tax increases. Every one of them said no, it being the Republican mandate at the moment that not one cent for tax increases; there were to be no compromises with Obama. Huntsman went along with that.
The authors say Huntsman paused and thought that he had become just like the other candidates. No, the truth is that this acceptance of the Tea party mantra of no compromise was just what made him no longer an answer to the Tea Party and so a solution other than Mitt to the problem of whom to nominate. He said later on, after the campaign was over, that he gave the knee jerk response because things were moving so fast during the debate and so that was the easiest thing to do. But he could have clarified the next day or the next week and it would have provided him with what he wanted: the brand as the sane Republican. But he didnít do that and so, right there on the face of it, he was declaring himself just as much of a panderer as any of the others, and at least Mitt had fire in his belly. Huntsmanís auto de fe happened right out in public for all to see; it was no fiction; it requires no insider interview to tell you what he was thinking.
The mystery of candidates and elected representatives caving in before the Tea Party host remains. Why canít Boehner control his caucus? His supporters outnumber the Tea Party. The best explanation I have heard is from David Konstan, who makes the sociologically acute observation that extremists always have legitimacy on their side. I can think of other examples that show David to be correct. The Ultra-orthodox in Israel are powerful because Israel was in part founded to make the world safe for non-secular Jews. Leninists not only outmuscled the Luxemburg types; they had a deeper sense of calling about the Socialist message. Democratic socialists always had to declare that they were also real socialists, the most real socialists, and not sham socialists. However long the Tea Party endures, it will have the flag of rectitude to wrap around itself. There is no recourse to this other than the electoral process. That is the only way to put the stake through the heart of Tea Party Know-Nothing-ism, and that will happenóor notóright in front of us and be dismissed as inevitable and at the same time superficial, a cover for something else.