As I began to write this essay, the United States was balanced precariously on the brink of default while a relatively small group of GOP radicals in the House of Representatives, backed by an even smaller number of right-wing billionaires and their aligned “think tanks” and advocacy organizations, refused to budge from its position that the nation’s debt ceiling constituted an appropriate device to realize their desire to change existing federal law and (failing that) to force additional reductions in national social welfare and health-care related expenditures. As I set out to write, too, the United States government remained partially shut down (for more than two weeks), and for the same reasons, and that fact was costing billions of dollars, to say nothing of the services not being rendered during this period, or of the long-term effects on the nation’s interest rates and economy. The country’s business leaders, a large and growing majority of Americans and many foreign government leaders were increasingly aghast and alarmed. Nonetheless, the lawmakers who created the situation remained convinced of their righteousness and continued to demand that they be rewarded for seeking to ignore the American legislative process and to extort changes in substantive law that they had been unable to gain legitimately. Had they succeeded, the nation would have descended into governance by blackmail, and we may expect, even though the current imbroglio was temporarily resolved at the last possible moment, to confront a crisis of this sort in January and February of 2014 and perhaps, unless attitudes change sharply, every few months thereafter well into the future. To say this turn represents a completely unnecessary pass, as the President and dozens of other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have justifiably remarked, is to understate reality.
As I have written previously, there is no doubt of the origins of this crisis and they lie with the escalating radicalization of a significant share of the House GOP caucus and the unwillingness of its most extreme fringe to recognize the legitimacy of the outcomes of the governance institutions they are sworn to serve. That process has unfolded during more than thirty years and has now reached a logical culmination. Having preached hatred of government and implicitly of self-governance for several decades, the most extreme wing of the Republican Party now finds itself with leaders and followers who are willing to create national fiscal crises to force their legislative and policy will when otherwise unable to do so at the ballot box or within policy processes.
This can occur because of support within the gerrymandered districts of the congresspersons taking these stands. The Party’s strongest popular base is among the less well educated in the south and mountain west regions of the country, areas that remain relatively poor and whose citizens have also been rocked by the recent deep recession. These groups are fearful of the economic and cultural changes that have shifted the ground beneath them in recent decades and are aware that maintaining their standard of living has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible. GOP officials and would-be leaders have convinced these voters that their government is the primary architect of these insecurities and difficulties. Rather than assume responsibility for changing processes they might not like, as one might expect of democratic citizens, many Republican voters have instead been convinced to support individuals who ever more shrilly attack those governance institutions, to the point now of simply ignoring them and seeking to extort change of their choice by threatening the economic and political standing and stability of their own nation and the global economy. When challenged recently by the President and Senate (including many Republican senators) concerning the utter folly of their stance, these citizens’ leaders’ fallback position has been that they must “receive something” for having launched the country on this perilous course. Those pressing this barely avoided calamity continued to call for refusing to bargain in good faith until their demands were met. This is a fine example of how ardent citizens and the officials they support have adopted a false consciousness that has little to do with reality.
Meanwhile, in the real world, radical GOP demands for draconian cuts in social welfare expenditures and continued deregulation particularly, do not command anything like strong support among Americans who, by large majorities, neither wish to privatize social security nor send children to bed hungry, nor do they wish to see their landscape and waters despoiled with impunity. The debt ceiling has nothing to do with increasing expenditures as GOP radicals have ever more shrilly claimed, and the nation’s budget deficit is falling, despite their oft-stated claims to the contrary. These leaders’ focus on short-term government expenditures and relentless efforts to block virtually every policy-related action of the current administration have not changed the nature of government or governance, only made it far more difficult to assure the services for which their supporters are already helping to pay. Likewise, these GOP officials’ stands have worked against the interests of their most ardent supporters, even as they have materially harmed the nation’s economy, broader population and prospects in the present instance.
All of this is sadly and deeply paradoxical. Today’s Republican fringe has derailed the honorable course of the party of Abraham Lincoln, which has long stood for principled and prudent concern over the pace of social change and the rightful role of government in society. In contrast, a significant share of the current GOP is little more than a vehicle and increasingly shrill mouthpiece for demagogues bent on securing their personal media salience and standing. I use the word demagoguery advisedly; I can find no other term to describe the recent antics of Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Cruz, a key architect of the use of the debt ceiling as blackmail tool (originally in his view to force the President to call for repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act) and ally of extreme House members, and Palin (a sometime contributor to Fox News) held a rally at the World War II memorial on the National Mall to protest its closure and demand its reopening, even as Cruz, especially, had engineered the government shutdown he decried at the event. There is no other way to put this except bluntly: a share of our leaders chose to descend into demagoguery and they took the nation to the brink of disaster with them. This was not an isolated instance within the GOP’s radical fringe, but a repeated, self-righteous and decidedly ugly turn for many leaders within it. As matters evolved, and as one Washington Post reporter put the point recently in an interview on American Public Media’s Marketplace, the “grown-ups” in the Senate found a way forward and around the sad debacle created by these leaders, but the extensions last only for three months, with fully 144 members of the House GOP caucus and 18 Republican Senators voting against the agreement that narrowly avoided national default.
I have a colleague and good friend who has lately taken to reminding me that we are a young nation and that democracies have a poor record historically for longevity. As he puts the matter pithily, “We could still lose this thing,” meaning our free society and the institutions and habits of mind and heart that have sustained it. And he is right. Decades of rhetoric vilifying our government, artful manipulation of citizens’ fears by unscrupulous leaders and campaign consultants, the splintering of media outlets and media’s continuing propensity to present even completely fabricated stands with more reasoned ones as equivalent in its zeal to report “both sides” of political controversies, have now been joined with outright demagoguery fueled by pompous self-righteousness to threaten our nation from within. Ironically, our country has withstood all manner of strife and woe in its history, including a horrific civil war, but it is now corrosively and deeply threatened by a profoundly misled group of its own leaders and their often equally fanatical financial and political supporters. This situation is not simply frustrating or concerning. It is sad. It might be said we are victims of our own freedom. What no enemy has been able to do to date, we are handily imposing on ourselves. We move now as a nation into a fitful few months in which, once more, we must look to the leaders who brought us to this pass to behave more responsibly and to avoid their dangerous and divisive behavior of the past. Only time will tell whether such will be so and whether they have learned any broader lessons from this episode, or will again proceed wildly down a misguided path. There is, meanwhile, no question that the damage they have inflicted on their country has already been large, real and long-lived.