He predicted today’s GOP… in 1895

Folksy evangelical Sam P. Jones warned of “scandalmongers” who “feed on human character and soiled reputation”

Topics: Scandal, IRS, Benghazi, History, American History, Republicans, Barack Obama, Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, Mark Sanford, Ted Cruz, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, John Kerry,

He predicted today’s GOP… in 1895Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann (Credit: Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)

Sam P. Jones was an influential southern evangelical at the end of the 19th century, and one of his pieces in June 1895, published in the Biloxi Herald, was titled “Scandalmongers.” In his folksy style, Jones categorized three types: “the cowardly scandalmonger, who by innuendo drives his thrust and probes with his bill”; “the talkers of a community. Their tongues are ten feet thick and a thousand miles long”; and finally, those who “sit in the sanctum of newspaper offices, and wield a pen dipped in gall.” Altogether, these various scandalmongers were “vultures which feed on human character and soiled reputation…. Taste for tainted meat can be cultivated until it is more desired than fresh meat.”

Seizing on the Benghazi tragedy, IRS probe, and whatever else they can get their claws into, today’s Republicans on Capitol Hill and the outraged echo chamber at Fox News are vultures of the breed Sam P. Jones saw in the political world of his day. The fresh meat they have no taste for is what we might call productive reform legislation, which their diversionary tactics prevent from being put front and center. The vultures feed instead on rotten issues like abortion (how many babies did Planned Parenthood kill today?) or dismantling Obamacare before it can do good, put government in a positive light, and lead to further reform of a system that is stacked in favor of private insurance companies.

There is a sociopathy involved in Republican legislative inactivity. Every time they target one ostensible villain for their smearing (Susan Rice comes to mind), they put off honest scrutiny of some truly pressing issue – say, veterans’ care, or crumbling roads and bridges – avoiding self-scrutiny in the process. News outlets cover the scandal. Only the advertisers win.

The disease is endemic and systemic. Alternately angry and panicky, conservative members of Congress resort to sleight-of-hand scandalmongering to challenge reality. In the process (or lack of process), they act only to protect those who seek to have the public’s attention diverted from the real public immorality that goes on daily. Think of the oil companies that spill advertising dollars into commercials that boast of their humane concern for customers and environment. Or “clean” coal – and, hey, why not “clean tobacco” while we’re at it? They tell consumers to ignore what lies at the heart of their business plans, which is, in fact, to look past deadly effects and pocket profits for as long as their luck continues. Liars and hucksters. But every bit constitutional.

When the Constitution was hammered out, and the self-protective aims of large and small, pro- and antislavery, states were finally resolved, the object of the federal government was clearly understood: a high-minded, even-handed government. In 1789, it was thought that the president would “preside,” and that Congress – especially the democratically elected House of Representatives – was the body where ideas would received their fair hearing, where the best ideas would be voted on and tested. Works in theory, right?

We know where scandal comes from. Instead of practical ideas being discussed and forms of evidence being presented with a design to contribute to the public good, we have a political system that seems to go from shocking revelation to shocking accusation, and from scandals real to scandals bogus. The morals of men attract more attention than the morals of those who persistently rip off the people of the United States.

We know all about the compromised character of the people’s representatives:

Reports are rampant that many of our elected officials are not just drunk with power, but are heavy drinkers, too. This is not new. Washington has always been a watering hole, where the politicos gab and posture. But are these self-medicated so-called lawmakers the best at doing, not just talking? That’s the standard our founders wished for. They get elected because they are skilled at schmoozing–and also at accusing. They are poorly regarded yet keep getting reelected. What species of man enters politics and never leaves?

They like their liquor only slightly less than they like their extramarital sex. From House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills’ drunken drive with his Argentine stripper in 1974 to Governor Mark Sanford’s more sober Argentine excursion in 2010, we have come to expect philandering from male politicians. From Senator Strom Thurmond to Senator Pete Domenici, fathering children out of wedlock is another arrow in the quivering loins of the quivering politician. And we keep hearing about their free trips to desirable foreign destinations. And cozy relations with aggressive lobbying groups like those that manufacture tobacco or guns, whose interests are neither pro-life nor in the nation’s best interest.

So while our national politicians “distinguish” themselves as public spectacles, and tally up frequent flier miles, they aren’t doing nearly enough of what the founders envisioned. They aren’t putting the national interest above the interest of the rich who enrich them; they aren’t doing enough to divert attention from accusation and scandalmongering to better business.

Though liberals, conservatives, and independents may be at odds over method, pretty much every thinking citizen knows the short- and long-term problems of political culture and economy that are fixable. How our political system has deteriorated is obvious:

Corporations stash billions overseas. Legally. Meanwhile, people are starving in America. Who are “the people” that are meant to be represented in government? We grow food in abundance. How did we let this happen?

Campaigns are poll-tested sinkholes of wasted time and money instead of idea-focused contests aimed at solutions to real and the persistent problems of health and environment, jobs and education, and income inequality.

Congressional redistricting is carried out in a manipulative manner, not in any fair and objective way.

Which leads to the real question no one asks, but which needs to be asked: Are we a republic, or have we become something less? In a republic, every citizen should sense that his or her interests matter. In a republic, too, the will of the majority ought to rule… and, as Thomas Jefferson said in his First Inaugural Address, “that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” Clearly, we have lost both “rightful” and “reasonable” in the political calculus of the scandalmongers.

That authentic American, Sam P. Jones, translated Jefferson’s dictum into terms of interpersonal relations: “A just criticism, however hurtful, is not a slander if it be true,” he said. “But he or she who handles a fact only to hurt or to satisfy a selfish end will soon learn to handle a doubtful fact and then lie for some end.” Sam is speaking to us. Do Republicans who feed on their own cynicism know how inauthentic they are? The bombast of a Ted Cruz or the whiny, dispirited script of a John Boehner or Mitch McConnell only discourages all honest engagement with the truly critical issues that affect the standard of life in America.

Illiberal lies do no one any good. Just as the bubble mentality prevented Republicans from seeing the possibility of a Romney loss, all this particular brood seems able to do is to exaggerate and deny. While they deny science, they plant seeds of suspicion everywhere: What did Hillary know and when did she know it? Why does the census demand personal data? The government is coming after your guns.

The “scandal lobby” converted Obama to Islam (and immigrant status), probably because the tactic worked so well in the swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004. They can’t stop reminding their base how the incumbent president went around the world apologizing for America (it worked against Jimmy Carter three decades ago); and they delude themselves when they claim our secret Muslim president is soft on terrorism.

As Sam P. Jones framed it, the vultures go on beating, and devouring, their dead horse… constitutionally unwilling to taste the fresh and healthy ideas sprouting from a (relatively speaking) vegetarian White House that somehow oppresses them. The president tried sitting down to dinner with the opposition a little while ago. Now, as the cloud of scandal hovers in a more dramatic way than ever before in his presidency, he’s getting his unjust desserts.

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are professors of History at Louisiana State University. Burstein is the author of Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud and coauthor of Madison and Jefferson. Follow him @andyandnancy.

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