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Empty Political Calories


“In other countries, mechanisms of government are viewed in modern terms as no less fallible than the beings that made them. They are machines that must be repaired, updated, and revamped from time to time in order to remain in good working order. Despite its reputation for practicality, though, the attitude in the US is almost defiantly pre-modern. Rather than people like ourselves, the constitutional system, Americans persist in believing, was made by a race of giants…”

Daniel Lazare, 2001

The Democrat convention droned on nightly this week. As the faithful, the hopeful, the seduced cheered from the floor of the Denver Pepsi Center,  corporate candidates and their wives announced surrender from the podium.

Balloons and confetti sometimes drop from the rafters like the ashes of popular-sovereignty-cremated at such anti-climactic moments.

The party hopes for “unity” as it sends its war criminal candidates against the self-confessed war criminal John (”McNasty”) McCain in November. They quest for the right to finger the nuclear trigger, roll bail-out packages at banks, screw poor people (for their own good of course), and maintain the health of the insurance industry. There is loose talk of something they call “our democracy” and fevered expressions of fealty to a civic religion; the pre-modern American constitutional order.

In a country as profoundly on the skids as this one — spending borrowed money careening from one testosterone-laced, greed-drunk blood-fest to another and squandering our childrens’ legacy that other children might be killed in their beds half a world away —- you might think that gatherings of politically-inclined people could yield something more bracing. But this is the USA. So, you’d be wrong.

Sadly, majority rule democracy is, to the American system roughly what sunlight is to vampires. It’s, shall we say, “unwelcome.” Here, unlike more modern countries, majority rule and popular sovereignty are shunned  by responsible people as frankly totalitarian. If people could vote themselves a better life, such power would threaten what the Framers called “the opulent.” In a land dedicated to the “rights of property” over people, such threats are generally unconstitutional.

Thus, whether at the local, state, and federal level the hide-bound American system of checks and balances carefully attends to the wants and needs of the business class. Money screams and government listens.

Over 20 years ago now, a huge regional trash incinerator was sited here on the banks of Maine’s Saco River. The slicksters from the trash burner beguiled the local city councils with their honeyed words. They promised state-of-the-art garbage processing and flaming using methods guaranteed to render the operation nearly invisible, inaudible, and pollution/odor-free.

It was all a lie of course. Other lies followed as the dioxin burping stench manufactory outraged and offended the local citizenry over decades. Local government, however, continued to talk of “partnership” with the refuse importer, meekly hoping that one day it might become what they called “a good corporate citizen.”

Over the years, the people of my hometown repeatedly had it demonstrated to them that their elected officials were essentially powerless (or ragingly disinclined) to do anything about this “knife in the heart of the downtown” or the malodorous pall of putrescing swill that regularly assaulted Main Street pedestrians.

Finally, this past Wednesday, neighboring Saco’s former mayor Mark Johnston announced that he was trying something unprecedented. He remarked, “I… a private citizen… have filed a lawsuit in York County Superior Court against Maine Energy [Recovery Company], the belching, polluting, stench-producing garbage incinerator you can see right across the river, in downtown Biddeford.”

“Here in downtown Biddeford-Saco, the locals just call it the Blue Monster.”

Johnston was asked essentially, “Why this, why you, why now?” The former mayor  patiently described the three branches of (gridlock) government that we are taught in grade school to revere: The executive, the legislative, the judicial. Though he had wielded executive authority for years as well as serving legislatively on Saco’s city council, he had to admit that after 20 years the effort hadn’t really come to much. The Blue Monster droned on.

So now, politely despairing effective action in the public interest from elected officials, he had decided to use the judicial branch, assuming not unreasonably that an unelected judge (who would quickly shut down a pig farmer’s operation if it reeked this way) might intervene. Johnston and his attorney, Eric Cote concluded that if a procession of local residents swore under oath to MERC’s repeated olfactory outrages, that the “justice” might order an end to the nuisance.

Later that day, Johnston sent a letter to arch corporate lackey, Governor John Baldacci. He described the problem: “…MERC stinks. It has stunk, it does stink, and unless something is done it will always stink. This summer has been particularly bad and last week was horrendous.” He referred to  (Twin City) Biddeford’s shiny new contract with the garbage processor and its utterly toothless “odor protocol” — a slightly tweaked bona fide surrender system. “The odor protocol does not work… it is useless. The passage of time has proven that,” he wrote. Further, “…Maine people are not being protected by the (State’s) Department [of Environmental Protection]…”

“Weary of government’s inability to deal with this glaring problem,” Johnston continued, “I will press forward with my lawsuit as a private citizen. No business should get a free pass to flaunt the rules that everybody else has to live by.”

The episode presents a local illustration of our infamous and regularly demonstrated political paralysis-by-design, forcefully described in Daniel Lazare’s profound 1996 book The Frozen Republic.  As Lewis Lapham suggested to Harper’s readers after reading Lazare’s masterwork, the author had neatly explained the central feature of our political life: American government doesn’t work because, frankly, it was never intended to.

As hope dies and decays the odor is foul. But a beaten people can get used to almost anything.

They have to.

RICHARD RHAMES is lives in Biddeford, Maine.

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RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at:

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