By Tom Ehrich

The so-called “Sage of Baltimore” is said to have remarked, “The nation is safe. Congress is not in session.”

Never has H.L. Mencken’s dim view of the legislative branch been more fitting than in these past several weeks, as a dysfunctional Congress came close to leading the United States over the cliff thanks to  conservatives’ disdain for a black president and for his policies, including affordable health care.

Unable to stop that law through normal Constitutional means, they tried to hold the nation hostage by threatening financial ruin.

Fortunately, the president they loathe discovered some spine and wiser heads prevailed in the Republican Party and in the Senate.

The debacle — shuttered federal government, billions in pay and benefits lost, disruption at every level, undermining global confidence in the US economy — showed what happens when ideology replaces democracy, when die-hards refuse to accept election results, when legislators put narrow partisan gains ahead of the national interest, and when the normal political process known as compromise is perceived as weakness and a call to double-down on obstruction.

Now what? The drama could well be repeated in January and February. The 2014 mid-term elections look more important than ever. Ideology will retain its hold on the right wing. The plundering class will grab as much as it can before financial systems lose confidence in the US.

Or the center could decide to stand. That’s my hope. Extremists threaten every nation, including our own. The center must push back. I mean people of good will and common sense, people willing to listen to opposing points of view, people who disagree but don’t demonize their opponents, people who see that the system has to work for the many or else, in time, it won’t work for anyone.

I think the center has more proponents than we might think. It has leaders ready to step up. Right-wing zealots make noise beyond their numbers. At some point, however, wise ones count votes, not decibels. That is how it is supposed to work in a democracy.