MY COLUMN: Loss of respect for institutions by those in them dangerous for democracy

Former Speaker Joe Dini dies, two years after the passing of fellow legislative giant Bill Raggio.

Sen. Dean Heller calls an armed mob of sovereign nation folks standing up for rancher Cliven Bundy “patriots.”

The Legislature fails to act on a proposed margin tax, leaving it to voters.

This trio of events may seem unrelated. But they point to the same affliction, one crippling the body politic and one too often overlooked: the loss of respect for institutions.

This degradation has occurred gradually but inexorably, enabled by opportunistic and irresponsible politicians who care more about promoting themselves than the institutions they want to represent. This self-defeating behavior – who wants to be a member of a government body of ill repute? – contributes to an ever-alienated electorate, manipulated by elected officials and candidates who care most about self-perpetuation.

From Carson City to Las Vegas to Washington, D.C., important government institutions have lost the respect of those in them and outside them, threatening the very underpinnings of the republic. Melodramatic? Maybe. But consider:

Après Dini and Raggio, the Legislature has become a place of stasis or paralysis, where leadership is evanescent and invertebrates grow in number. Bundy and his gang of patriots are hardly patriotic, as they consider the United States government an enemy of the states and would be happy to tear down the Capitol, if not literally at least figuratively. And the Clark County Commission, along with other local government entities, have become laughingstocks, whether it is flouting the will of the people on medical marijuana or pressing forward with caprices such as taxpayer-funded arenas.

They may not deserve respect. But they must be respected, lest like loose threads pulled from an old jacket, they weaken the fabric.

The post Dini/Raggio era in Carson City has been marked by a series of uneventful sessions except for sensational misdeeds such as the Steven Brooks affair. They have promised much, delivered almost nothing and pointed fingers instead of using them to push the buttons for meaningful legislation.

This reached a nadir in 2013 when the Democratic leaders promised action on tax reform and broadening the base and abandoned their pledge almost immediately. Why didn’t they join hands with Republican Senate Leader Michael Roberson and five other GOP senators, who wanted to tax mining, as a way to start the discussion? “We don’t trust him,” Democrat after Democrat told me.

Dini and Raggio were different, from each other and from these folks. They wanted to get stuff done. They were willing to compromise. They knew what was at stake.

Now what we have is a thoroughly weakened institution, further debilitated by a rising tide of sectionalism, that has been bypassed by a state teachers union going to the ballot to get education funded. Is there any greater sign of disrespect than circumventing a government body? I think not.

Meanwhile, those who oppose the teachers’ tax plan, flawed though it may be, present no alternative while whispering they support more money for education. How do they get away with this? Because they know even if they lose, they can pull the levers of government, administratively or legislatively, to change the outcome. They have no respect for the institutions, either.

Neither Dini nor Raggio would have stood idly by and let it reach this point.

Nor would Raggio have joined fellow Republicans such as Heller and Assemblywoman Michele Fiore in enabling the Bundy mob, whose leader has been emboldened to say the federal government doesn’t exist. By calling them patriots, as Heller so glibly did on "What's Your Point?"  he gives sustenance to a movement that has as its hero a rancher who is under two court orders to pay his fees and who is openly flouting a law almost all others in his business respect.


It is unconscionable for high-ranking officials such as Fiore and especially Heller to parrot this rhetoric, rhetoric they either know is false or don’t care. (It’s also simply incendiary for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to fuel the other side by calling the putative patriots “domestic terrorists.” And Reid, of course, has contributed to the dimunition of the U.S. Senate's stature.)

It’s one thing for the right-wing echo chamber to reverberate with the voices of Hannity & Co. But for elected officials to serve this noxious swill to their constituents should be a disqualifying offense.

So Heller labels as patriots people who would tear down the institution in which he serves, just as Fiore, with all of her blather, contributes to the embarrassment that is the Legislature.

I have not even mentioned local governments, where longtime observers generally agree that the bodies are at a historical low in quality. They bicker, they say dumb things, they can’t cooperate on major issues. They won’t fund more cops, but will pursue arenas, again genuflecting to the LCDs who come before them or the powerful interests that influence them.

People believe in myths like Cliven Bundy is Paul Revere or voter fraud is rampant because politicians allow them to do so or want them to do so. By action – Heller and Fiore – or inaction – the Legislature – they help destroy the institutions they were sworn to uphold.

If there is violence in Bunkerville, Heller, Fiore et. al. are partly or even mostly to blame. If the education system in Nevada continues to wither, the Gang of 63 must take responsibility.

What Dini and Raggio knew in their own ways was that the structures of government would crumble if those inside took sledgehammers to the foundation. They wanted to accomplish something in the long run, not simply pander to the base to get re-elected.

In a world in which people acquire validation not information from cable news, the only hope for voters is that their representatives will not play the same game.

Cliven Bundy may be a footnote; the margin tax may die. But unless politicians start to engender respect for the institutions in which they serve, they will soon find the mob they enabled is the mob that comes for them.