Undermining Democratic Self-Governance via Ideological Absolutism

            Like many of his counterparts in the so-called “chatter class” on television, in newspapers and magazines and on radio, David Brooks of the New York Times in a column this past week made three basic points concerning sequestration, the latest crisis du jour of American governance:

  • It revolves around continuing and competing claims of our two political parties for smaller government, on the one hand (the GOP), and assured social services provision (the Democrats), on the other hand
  • The ongoing series of governance crises the nation is undergoing are the responsibility of both of its political parties, and
  • President Barack Obama can and should “change this partisan conversation,” but has failed to do so, representing a continuing “failure” on his part. Indeed, Brooks helpfully offered a number of policy proposals he suggested would do the trick if the President would but listen.

            I want here to argue that each of these points obscures more than it reveals and that, in any case, Brooks and his peers either fail to understand or refuse to acknowledge and criticize the radical ideology now prevailing in the Republican Party concerning governance. The GOP partisans responsible for the current governance debacle neither wish to govern in any traditional understanding of that term, nor, taking their claims at face value, care very deeply about the continuing legitimacy of the institutions they have sworn to protect and serve. I will briefly address each of these concerns.

            First, it should be apparent to Brooks, normally a clear-eyed observer, that the Tea Party caucus now regnant in the House GOP despite its relatively small number is uninterested in governance. That group is not fighting for smaller government or a government differently organized. The Tea Party caucus instead represents the logical culmination of more than three decades of GOP efforts to attack not only specific public initiatives at all scales, but also the very idea of the legitimacy of popular government itself. Adherents of this ideology have condemned all manner of public action as per se illegitimate, including virtually any regulation of market institutions or property, taxation itself, or efforts to address the nation’s rapidly crumbling infrastructure. These ideologues, for radical ideologues they are, have meanwhile routinely de facto argued that markets should displace the representative of the popular sovereign as society’s principal organizing form. But markets are neither democratically representative, nor legitimate nor organized to govern, so however superficially alluring, the claim is empty as stated. It also deliberately and profoundly misleads the citizens at whom it is directed and is, in consequence, morally repugnant. Our recurring governance crises are not occurring because some GOP House members want to argue for limited government, but because these have shown themselves willing to risk the public weal and nation’s standing to gain their partisan aims rather than negotiate or compromise with others who do not share their perspective or zeal.

            Second, whatever criticisms one might offer of the Democratic party, and like others I could offer my share, those partisans in Congress were not responsible for engineering a needless and artificial “crisis” concerning the nation’s debt ceiling that resulted in a reduction in the country’s credit rating, did not create the so-called “fiscal cliff” fiasco and are not responsible for the GOP’s choice not to bargain currently to redress the present sequestration failure. These choices collectively represent an ignominious miscarriage of constitutional responsibility. Contrary to Brooks’ and other commentators’ contentions, our recurring governance crises are not the product of bi-partisan failure, but of the ideology-driven choices of one party’s extremists. The consequences of their actions now loom large for our polity, from risking its credit standing to demands for errant fiscal policies (large reductions in expenditures in the face of ongoing economic weakness) on purely ideological grounds to continuing efforts to ensure that enacted laws that do not meet an ideological litmus test go unimplemented.

            Finally, contrary to Brooks’ claims, it seems clear that neither the President nor the House’s own leadership can control the GOP caucus in its persistent efforts to attack the legitimacy of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in addition to other major federal programs, even though each of these is supported by the majority of the American people. Given this reality, House Republican partisans have been arguing, using the present debt and deficit scenario as a cudgel, that our nation’s financial circumstances now require eliminating or profoundly rethinking these programs. But neither the country’s current accounts deficit nor its debt situation is the product of these initiatives. So to argue is to mislead knowingly to gain one’s policy preferences when these are not otherwise supported by a majority of the voting population. Overall then, given the ideological ardor and absolutism of the GOP House caucus and its members’ ongoing knee-jerk efforts to block, on partisan grounds, virtually every presidential initiative brought before them, I find it difficult to contend that the current governance mess could magically be addressed by stronger leadership by President Obama, whatever the mix of policy proposals he might offer. The present situation is not the fault of the President failing to do this or that, but of one party and its partisans being absolutely unwilling to compromise to ensure more effective governance.

            Our current continuing series of governance crises are not necessary. Let me be very clear: these scenarios are not the result of classic partisan conflict or posturing. They are instead the result of one party’s members’ failure to address their constitutional responsibilities. Sadly, there is no easy redress for this pass, as I have argued in previous columns. One may only hope, and it is hope against hope I fear, that enough Americans will demand change that those responsible for this shameful and increasingly dangerous situation will begin to behave with at least a modicum of prudence and deliberation.