While congressional Republicans have adopted the stance of the pit bull, Democratic party leaders have been sent whimpering and piddling to the sidelines like lapdogs in virtually every debate over the future of this country. While the Democratic party has been fractionalized over minor issues, it has remained largely silent in the face of a Republican onslaught.

From the imperial pieties of George Will and Bill Bennett to the vulgar venal banalities of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, the extreme right wing has determined the vocabulary and set the agenda, seizing on “morality” and “values” as abstract issues while maintaining the roles of political action committees and military-industrial welfare states. When the Pentagon failed to request money to fund the B-2 bomber to the tune of $2.2 billion per airplane, the Republican Congress, elected to reduce government waste, ordered twenty at the same time it began the process to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (whose combined budgets cost each citizen sixty-four cents, the price of two postage stamps). Barely a Democratic whimper.

Welfare, a major issue in the Republican definition of “values,” accounts for one percent of the national budget. Most recipients remove themselves from welfare roles within two years. Unfortunately, most of the programs designed to educate the marginally employable are being sundered by Republican budget cutting. Most of the programs designed to move the poverty-stricken toward a tax paying middle class are being sundered. Most of the programs designed to provide for extracurricular education of inner-city children to turn them into employable adults are being sundered. Programs to feed hungry children in our schools are being sundered. But we can still, according to the fiscally responsible Republicans, afford B-2 bombers and enormous tax cuts for the wealthy.

I don’t believe in handouts. I think welfare reform is a legitimate issue. My Zen practice reminds me that a day of no work is (or ought to be) a day of no eating. But I do not believe that reducing the welfare check of an unwed teen mother helps either the mother or the child. Or society as a whole. Requiring her to attend school while on welfare seems perfectly reasonable.

The art of politics in this democratic republic is the art of building consensus, yet fewer than half of eligible citizens vote. Most of those who most desperately need social assistance don’t vote. And it is much easier, alas, to motivate the electorate through anger and frustration than through reasoned argument on behalf of a liberal tradition. So we now have a government elected on an anti-government platform of one kind or another.

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