Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
Starting about three thousand years ago, in old, old China, there was a tradition called the Tiger Tallies. Every general in charge of an army had a jade tiger figurine. It was pretty cute. The emperor had duplicate figurines, one for each general. When the emperor wanted to go to war, he had to meet with his generals and match up their figurines.
For 800 years this ritual went on. Then, in the mid-Second Century BCE, during the reign of the fifth Han Emperor, something changed. Han Wu Di wanted to go to war, but his paternal grandmother, The Grand Dowager Empress Dou, had the Tiger Tallies. And she didn't want Han to go to war. She was a Taoist and something of an isolationist and anti-imperialist, at least as much an anti- imperialist as someone calling herself Grand Dowager Empress could be.
Han Wu Di woke up one day and said, "Screw this. What's with this Tiger Tallies crap? I'm the Emperor, for Confucius' sakes. I'm going to order my generals to go to war, and no controlling old dowager with an egg-carton full of jade tiger figurines is going to stop me."
Thus ended the 800-year tradition of the Tiger Tallies. Not through trickery, not by coup, not by reasoned argument, not by ethical appeal, not by plebiscite. The guy in charge just decided not to honor it anymore, because it obstructed his desires.
And that's also how our democracy ended. One day the Republican party decided that the quaint tradition of pretending to consider the public good wasn't worth the hassle. It involved too much deception, and they realized the people they needed to deceive weren't such sharp tacks. The Constitutional rituals for the formation, consideration and passing of laws could remain in place, since it was a very useful way to coerce the aristocracy to share its money with the lawmakers. And the Democrats themselves weren't that enthusiastic about forcing the GOP to honor the quaint tradition. The legislative branch became like a repurposed shuffleboard court, one no longer used by people to play shuffleboard, but rather now completely monopolized by two gluttons sliding cheesecakes to each other, bargaining with the various aristocratic cheesecake bakeries for more and better cheesecake.
The GOP had witnessed what a pain in the ass it had been for Obama and the Democratic Congress of 2009/2010 to appease the people while also appeasing the insurance companies. They said to Obama, after the fact, "Why did you pretend? If you weren't going to fix the problem, which was definitely the insurance companies, why poke and prod and chip away at them? You only made them and some rich taxpayers sad. You didn't want a public option, and you didn't want single-payer, so you didn't really want to fix the problem. You clearly liked the problem. You wanted to preserve the problem, just as we do. Why not just redefine the problem? The real problem is the people, not the insurance companies. Flip the script. If we just take the people out of the health care equation, it's all good. Silly Democrats."
And the Democrats said, "You're right. For all our troubles, we got voted out of office. The people aren't worth it. And anyway, they're not the ones with the big, delicious cheesecakes."
And then a president got elected, sort of, who was not just a worthless piece of crap, but an amoral, greedy, petty, corrupt, treasonous louse. And the Republican Congress decided to extend the principle of not even pretending to consider the public good by ignoring the louse's lousiness. And the Democrats decided to see if maybe getting the louse into trouble would get more of them elected in the midterms. Not because they actually cared that the louse was damaging the people or the country, but because it might be good for their own election prospects. Because deep down they too wished they could stop pretending, stop kowtowing to the grand dowager and her piddly little jade tiger figurines.
That's us. We the people are an old woman, who once thought she was powerful because she held some stone tigers in her hand. And we're left abandoned and powerless, because no one gives a hummingbird's fart about our stupid tigers. You can't even play chess with them, they're all the same color, and they're all tigers!
There's just no payoff for doing the people's work. Supposedly the founders of our nation put together a system of checks and balances. Supposedly, we were once told, they were worried about elected and non-elected public office-holders receiving gifts from people and foreign governments, gifts which, whether given as part of a quid pro quo or not, had the potential to woo an official's loyalty away from the people and nation they were sworn to represent.
But when the entire government decides that all that is just so much passé BS, what good are those safeguards? The founders might as well have written, "Oh, and please play fair. We'll be using the honor system." All those rules and checks and balances are good for nothing but preventing those in government from doing what they really want to do. Press freedom is just a big headache. Keeping corporate control from perverting the electoral system isn't what they want. Respecting the national sovereignty of people browner than John Wayne is just going to make them miss out on extra cash. Fighting to dislodge the fossil fuel industry from its spot on top of the food chain isn't going to help buy a lawmaker another house.
Bumping up against rules and checks and balances is over. That quaint tradition is over. The Tiger Tallies are just a pile of worthless green stones. Not through trickery, not by coup, not by reasoned argument, not by ethical appeal, not by plebiscite. The people in charge just decided not to honor them anymore, because they obstructed their desires.
And what do you suppose the Han people did when their Emperor made the war powers tradition obsolete? The same thing we did when our leaders made our war powers tradition obsolete. They went to war. Han Wu Di went to war often. And he really did unify a lot of land under one flag. But afterward the country's finances were in ruins, not to mention the homes and bodies of many a human being. There was hell to pay.
It's probably too late to call the story of the Tiger Tallies a cautionary tale. It might also be too optimistic to believe we're a wiser people than the Han under Emperor Wu. Are we perhaps in a better position to influence our so-called leaders than they were? And if we are, again, the question arises, are we wise enough to make good use of our influence? There's one quaint tradition that says yes, and a slightly less quaint one that says no.
There's the quaint tradition of the people respecting authority, but the people have been known to dismiss that one. The people tore down the Berlin Wall. They decided the tradition of allowing the wall to contain them was irrelevant. In the late 18th Century, the French decided that the quaint tradition of a king having a head wasn't worth honoring anymore. We could arbitrarily decide one day to cease respecting any number of arrangements that long ago settled into tradition but have become irrelevant to our needs and desires.
Quaint traditions come and go. They have to start somewhere. They don't suddenly emerge on the scene already hundreds of years old. Times are certainly growing ripe for some new ones.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!