Unprecedented chaos in Congress grew from a familiar fever
Tying together Indiana’s Ku Klux Klan history with today’s fight for a U.S. House speaker. (Official book cover)
“A Fever in the Heartland” vividly explains many things about our past. It makes our present feel like a predictable continuum of the same awfulness. The book’s subtitle, “The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and The Woman Who Stopped Them,” gives context to the story for those who haven’t read it yet.
Acclaimed author Timothy Egan writes the true story of the rise and fall of both the hate group and its Indiana-based leader, D.C. Stephenson. Through Egan’s meticulous research and expert storytelling, the reader will see 1920s Hoosier life and the “fever” that engulfed it with clarity.
Today’s U.S. House is also sick. The unprecedented challenge of electing a new Speaker to preside over an unruly Republican caucus is the result of that sickness, not the cause. The cause is that the bulk of the caucus is there for the wrong reasons. They aren’t there to govern, to solve problems or to serve their districts.
Being there is all they really want. Being there gives each of them an individual platform. Being there creates personal opportunities for fortune and fame.
The historic and disgraceful performance by this bunch since earning the majority at the beginning of the year isn’t costing them a thing in their chosen currency. Quite the opposite: it’s creating space for them to promote their grievance of the day, with their target audiences lapping it up, seemingly ignorant of the consequences of the ongoing disorder in our government.
The Klan’s rise in Indiana following World War I wasn’t merely a cultural spell the state fell under. By the end of 1924, an estimated 85% of government in the state was controlled by the “Kluxers,” including incoming Gov. Edward Jackson. It was a rapid ascension to power and politicians feared crossing them. So, few did in public.
This week in the Capitol, right-wing firebrand Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) was the latest Speaker nominee. He was Donald Trump’s pick. Twenty-five members of his party voted against him on the floor the final time. After that last public vote, the caucus took a private vote, where 112 voted no. That’s fear. The same kind of fear politicians felt a century ago.
And so, what? House GOP voters don’t have a policy vision of tomorrow, let alone a plan for it, making government paralysis irrelevant to them. For now. Like petulant children holding their collective breath in protest of bedtime, all the House GOP’s audience wants is to stay up just a little longer. And for no meaningful reason.
In “Fever,” D.C. Stephenson’s meteoric rise to power as the “Grand Dragon,” a title as hilarious as the group’s silly hoods and robes, was ended by the courage of one of his many victims. She was a woman from Irvington, a near eastside neighborhood of Indianapolis, named Madge Oberholtzer. Thanks to Egan’s thorough and comprehensive recount, I will always remember her, though I won’t spoil her incredible story here.
Much of our political news today is reported as typical discourse, but it’s not. The partisan debate is no longer about how to govern, it has been reduced to whether or not to govern at all.
Democrats in Congress have long had the problem of policy disagreements with each other becoming messy. They often err by letting their internal squabbles lead to the failure to achieve aspirational goals. However, whether those goals are good, perfect or otherwise, it has remained a party driven by what policies it supports, what platform it values, and what specifically serves its constituents.
That’s nothing to brag about; that’s the job. It’s how civics was once taught in schools.
Though the Indiana House Republican delegation is not creating the biggest headlines, they are all equally responsible for this mess. Some are quietly letting the disarray engulf them. Others, like Reps. Victoria Spartz and Jim Banks are making some noise of their own, but noise is all it is.
The majority caucus is desperately looking for a person — any person — of some special character and charisma to lead it. It should be looking for what it really lacks: a reason to even exist. These social media warriors are getting rich by agitating an already angry voting bloc, purposely keeping it angry for profit. It’s a scam just like D.C. Stephenson’s skimming off of KKK dues and hood sales.
The leaders of the Klan in the 1920s were selling grievance and hate. Whether they believed all of it or not was incidental. They were selling it for their own inexhaustible greed. That greed, and one brave woman, was ultimately what brought it down.
Electing a new Speaker won’t solve much in the House. Reconnecting members to its purpose must come with it.
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