Many people have said and written some very cogent, passionate words on the subject of today’s commencement of the 17th shutdown of the United States Federal Government, which is going to cause a great deal of unnecessary pain and suffering for a staggering number of people and likely derail whatever recovery our national economy has made since the bankers and sociopaths on Wall Street tanked the economy back in 2008. It is entirely the choice of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives that it’s happening. They are, in effect, shooting the hostage to prove that they’re serious about stopping the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Why would they do that? It’s an important question to ask, I think, and one with a definite, if complicated, answer.
It begins, I think, with the election of Barack Obama. For a significant chunk of the population, that was a real shock, something heretofore impossible, and it represented not only a major electoral defeat, it signaled the emergence of demographic trends that meant the end of their way of life. America was no longer a majority-white, center-right nation. The son of a black man could ascend to the land’s highest office. The easy swagger of the Bush years were over, and had left such a bad taste in our mouths that we all tacitly agreed to forget them. This was not the America they grew up in, the America they loved and believed in with all their hearts, and it freaked them the fuck out. Think about the Tea Party’s early days, their eruption onto the scene as the result of an offhand comment by a finance pundit on CNBC. Remember their passion and outrage. They were (and are) fundamentally incapable of recognizing the election of Barack Obama (or the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) as legitimate, because neither of those things were allowed to happen in the America they believe in.
This was (and remains) an existential crisis for them. Extreme measures are not only permissible, but necessary. The United States federal government has become an occupying force, and invasion from otherwhere, and their duty as citizens of the real America is to resist with whatever means are at their disposal.
Motivated and determined, they got on the phone with their Congressfolk and made it clear that their re-election efforts depended on intransigent resistance to literally everything Obama and the Democratic Party tried to accomplish. They were successful enough to discourage the folks on the left, who went off in a sulk when Obama did not deliver the magical progressive unicorn paradise they delusionally believed he had promised them. They stayed home in 2010 in sufficient numbers that the Republicans not only won the House back, they won all the down-ticket elections, too, to state and local offices. They put themselves in charge of redrawing congressional districts in the wake of the 2010 Census, and they gerrymandered the everloving shit out of them, to the point where there are several states with a majority Republican congressional delegation despite the fact that Democrats received a majority of the congressional vote in those states. These seats are, largely, unassailable. They will be in conservative hands until at least 2020 or 2022, and the only thing that might dislodge their current office holders is a primary from someone even more conservative than they are. So even those representatives from those gerrymandered conservative districts who are not true believers in the conservative revolution/second civil war have to act (and vote) like they are, or they’re out of a job. And their constituents have made good on their threat. Almost half of the current Republican House Caucus was elected after Bush.
The people in these districts are overwhelmingly white, conservative, and older, and they’ve been driven crazy enough by their demographic de-hegemonization that they’re willing to destroy the country in order to save it, causing untold unnecessary suffering along the way. They believe this is a life or death struggle for the heart and soul of real America, and they’re willing to sacrifice everyone and everything to win it. Basically, if they can’t have it, no one can. They’re like the kid who takes his bat and ball and goes home because he’s losing at backyard baseball, or the crazy guy who throws acid in the face of his ex-girlfriend so no one else will want her.
The worst part of it is, no matter how badly the shutdown turns out for the vast majority of us, there will be few to no immediate political consequences for the people behind it, whose idea of negotiation is, literally, ‘Give me everything I want or I will shoot the country in the head.’ It doesn’t matter to these people that the Affordable Care Act passed both houses of Congress, was signed by the President, and upheld by the Supreme Court, that it has, in short, passed Constitutional muster in as definitive a fashion as is possible. That, to them, is only further proof of the illegitimacy of a government they didn’t vote for, of a historical moment that tells them that they’re only one voice among many now, and that it might be someone else’s turn for a while, and that they’ll have to learn to play well with others instead of doing whatever the fuck they want without anybody telling them no. What’s happening now is the resulting tantrum. Unfortunately, they’re breaking things we all need and use. In a twist of tragic irony, many of the people these politicians represent are likely to suffer the most as a consequence of the shutdown.
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They’ve been able to get to this point for a few different reasons. One is the abnegation of moral calculus that they imagine the stakes of the contest gives them. Another is a clear-eyed assessment of and focus on the leverage points in our political system, and ignoring everything else, including, perhaps especially, the norms and niceties entrenched in our political tradition that allowed the governance of our nation to proceed until the last decade or so. Finally, there’s the simple willingness to fight, and fight dirty, for what they believe in.
I think it’s clear they must be opposed. I think even those responsible citizens who identify with part or all of at least traditional conservative ideology can agree that enough is enough: that when you’re willing to sacrifice the lives and well-being of your constituents; to damage the (fragile, just barely recovering) economy we all depend on to provide ourselves and our families with the things we need to continue our material existence; to take down the whole edifice of our great cooperative national endeavor, all to make a political point in protest to a duly-enacted and -upheld piece of legislation — to demand, in essence, a rematch on a fight you’ve already and legitimately lost — that you’ve crossed a line, lost your moral standing, and that it’s time for the grownups to step in and try and set things right.
There are lessons to be learned from the faction of the American electorate who have driven us to the present debacle. One is essentially negative. We cannot abnegate our essential humanity, no matter the stakes. The good guys always fight with one hand tied behind their back. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fight, and fight hard, even dirty when it comes down to brass tacks. And the clear-eyed assessment of where the buttons and levers actually are (hint: they are not in the realm of public debate) is where the real contest is. Personally I think taking the drawing of Congressional districts out of partisan hands is a great place to start, and is something that can be done at the state level with citizen initiatives in order to grow momentum for a national overhaul. It’s not sexy, and will take years of detailed and dedicated effort, but then, such is the work of a self-governing people. When something is broken, it’s up to all of us to fix it.
After all, the purity of your idealism does no one any good if you can’t enact good policy.