A Limited Government of the People, by the People, for the People
Sunday night, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 3590, health care legislation historic in scope, with a 219-212 vote along party lines. (Thirty-four Democrats joined all of the House Republicans in opposing the legislation.) Although not an example of divided government as discussed earlier, see supra here and here (relevant comment), the partisan split on the vote was not the only division this bill illuminated. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-OH, and other Republicans contended that the bill was unpopular with the American people, while the majority party, in victory, assured all that the measure was what the people wanted and needed. Voters opposed to the legislation said that Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats were unresponsive to the electorate, while those in favor decried Boehner’s false populist demagoguery. The difference between a democracy and a republic is a topic suitable for a future post. This post focuses on how, within the context of division and divided government, people express themselves.
Probably since before written language, people have expressed themselves through art. From cave drawing, stone sculpting, wood carving, and mound building, to mosaic work, painting, and architecture, artistic creations carry and project messages. Sometimes the intended communication is an ode to beauty or a representation of reality. Other times, art is a statement about culture, society, religion, or politics.
Music is an apt artistic vehicle for conveying political messages. Folk music is particularly well-designed for this task. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger lit the torch for this medium during the First Great Depression, and Seeger keeps it burning to this day. Along the way, they shared the flame, in varying luminosities, with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Paul & Mary, John Prine, and many many others. Folk singers need not become famous to succeed. Perhaps more than any other secular genre, the message is the most important aspect of the music. Usually accompanied by light acoustic instrumentation, folk music is portable, the information spread through live performances. Unlike modern pop music, folk musicians do not aim for identical performances each time. Fans and critics alike attack Bob Dylan for the unfamiliar, often garbled settings in which he presents well-known numbers. The point is not to create fist-pumping arena rockers, but rather to tell a story. Stories aren’t told exactly the same way twice, and sometimes they change. This is not to say that audience participation isn’t allowed. Sing-alongs, for example, are a great way to engage listeners in direct participation and encourage the spread of a song’s message. It just depends on the song.
Musicians in this area tend to be populists and progressives, but some are conservatives, like songwriter Orrin Hatch, a U.S. Senator and Republican Party member. Another folk musician who walks the political line is Woody’s own son. Arlo Guthrie, known for songs like “Alice’s Restaurant Masacree,” “The Motorcycle Song (The Significance of the Pickle),” and his version of “City of New Orleans,” is a Catholic and, as of President George W. Bush’s first term, a Republican. In 2009, Guthrie told an interviewer:
I became a registered Republican about five or six years ago because to have a successful democracy you have to have at least two parties, and one of them was failing miserably. We had enough good Democrats. We needed a few more good Republicans. We needed a loyal opposition.
In the 2008 presidential election, Guthrie endorsed Ron Paul, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Guthrie’s case is an example of the practice of divided government politics, and it shows that divided government proponents aren’t always conservatives crossing over to vote for Democrats. His position as a folk singer– part of a royal lineage with a solid identity of his own– reminds us of the voice we all have and have a responsibility to use. Divided government doesn’t mean unresponsive government, and a republican form of government doesn’t mean disconnected government. Indeed, many have sacrificed so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”