The ongoing partial shutdown of our federal government (as this is written) represents a failure of national governance and especially of Congress’s role in the same. It should be said, however, that it is not the result of broken negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, as many media outlets persist in describing it. Nor is it, as GOP leaders now misleadingly depict it, President Obama’s unwillingness to compromise in the face of their demands. It is instead, as I have argued previously, the outcome of the hijacking of the Republican Party by a relatively small radical group within it who are electorally safe in gerrymandered districts and whose House of Representatives constituencies, perversely, are supporting this wholly indefensible turn at extortion-driven politics by their legislators.
It is worth examining more deeply how matters came to this pass. Apart from the critical role of fear arising from demographic change and decades of stagnant or declining personal income among the constituents supporting this effort, this paradoxical political scenario arises from at least two wellsprings. First, the current situation results from a long-term cultural change afoot in this country since its industrialization. That turn has quickened in the post-World War II period with its increasing globalization, resulting in a shift in our culture toward consumerism or commodification of all goods and services, private and public. American citizens today, and especially the extremist members of the GOP supporting the government’s shutdown, appear to be fast adopting an understanding of freedom as a consumerist capacity to choose those public services they prefer in a completely privatized way. That is, these leaders and voters increasingly view their citizen role just as they view themselves as consumers and they have redefined government and their responsibility to their fellows accordingly. Since capitalism regards freedom as a personal and unfettered capacity to choose what one wants, on whatever bases, it thoroughly commodifies all transactions while completely privatizing the space within which such choices occur. One owes nothing to anyone for one’s selections and all decisions reflect only one’s own preferences of the moment, however defined. All elements of a choice are assigned absolutely to the consumer. As economists like to say, the consumer is sovereign.
This capitalist understanding of freedom and sovereignty contrasts starkly with traditional views of democratic popular sovereignty. In democracies, citizens are expected to deliberate on public needs and services with an eye not only to how those will affect their personal preferences and predilections, but also the interests of their fellow citizens and the commonweal. To the extent this civic virtue claim has withered and been replaced by an ever more thoroughly privatized understanding of government and citizen obligation, we now have voters who view the government as they would consider any company or firm, and who certainly do not wish to contemplate others’ interests as they make choices since such contradicts their idea of what it means to be free and sovereign. Freedom and self-governance have been redefined for these individuals as another sphere of personal choice-making predicated on preferences. This is surely how the GOP now defines freedom in its public rhetoric.
If the influence of capitalism has literally engulfed our culture, including our economy, civil society, families, religious practices and beliefs and more, its growing reach has been enshrined and held up for four decades by Republican neo-liberals particularly, in a second wellspring shift in our national politics, as not only a welcome development, but also one to be vigorously encouraged and applauded. This perspective argues that markets should play an ever-larger role in societies and democratic politics should have an increasingly diminished one. In the United States this point-of-view has taken the guise of assaults on government as inefficient, ineffective and inequitable as well as “out of control” in order to justify additional functions for the market in American life. As President Ronald Reagan remarked, in this view, government is our society’s biggest problem. The corollary of this proposition for Reagan and many GOP devotees since is that markets represent our nation’s strongest resource in redressing this alleged challenge.
The result of decades of commodification of the role of the citizen and adoption of a privatized conception of freedom, coupled with continuous attacks on governance as a social choice mechanism, is a cadre of voters, especially in the South, who have become convinced that government represents only an overweening “other” to be deplored, avoided and hated. Individuals with this constellation of beliefs can be mobilized to all sorts of claims more appropriate to nihilists or anarchists than deliberative citizens. This seems to be so, for example, for those GOP partisans supporting the shutdown who contend, but who can provide no evidence for their abstract conviction, that President Obama is leading an assault on them in the name of fast growing numbers of minorities bent only on receiving tax benefits unjustly and unnecessarily. The only way to stop this tsunami, in this view, is to attack government and governance relentlessly. The result is a politics among this constituency and its leaders fueled by angry paranoia and scapegoating underpinned by an erroneous understanding of sovereignty and freedom.
The upshot of safely gerrymandered GOP districts, profoundly misled Republican voters and leaders willing to play to those mistaken views, whether out of pursuit of power or of conviction, has left the nation adrift and ungovernable. None of this is likely to change unless and until large numbers of Americans come to see this situation for what it is and demand a different course. This state of affairs is bitterly ironic in at least three ways. First, those voters supporting the GOP leaders who have shut down the government are deluded and remain so amidst their misplaced fears and anger. Indeed, they are so confused and so convinced of their suspicions apparently, that they are vigorously supporting leaders who treat them with contempt. Second, these trends have not only played a key role in creating the present ugliness in our polity, but more deeply, they are fast creating a broader society which may soon have no idea how to govern itself deliberatively. And in lieu of taking steps to educate Americans on the dangers of this shift, GOP leaders particularly have been crucial in embracing and proselytizing for it as if it represented a fresh breeze on a 100-degree day. Those supporting this turn in our politics have helped to create a constituency so misled, misinformed and fearful that it may truly be said of them that they are captives of a false consciousness. Finally, this turn in our governance has found a share of the nation’s electorate eschewing their rightful role as community-minded reflective choice-makers in favor of promised false panaceas and fear-laden claims concerning “other” groups of their fellow Americans. This sort of irresponsible and vicious collective madness, left unchecked, has surely already diminished the freedom of all of our nation’s citizens.