So here we are. The federal government has been shut down.
The shutdown was not the result of a failure to reach a compromise between our two political parties. The shutdown was orchestrated entirely by the Tea Party, a minority wing of the Republican party. It was abetted by the remainder of the Republicans in Congress, who apparently do not have the fortitude to stand up to their extreme right flank.
Let’s be clear. A shutdown was the goal of the Tea Party from the very beginning. As I tweeted the other day:
“There is no debate over the shutdown. A majority of both houses would vote to end it today…if the House were allowed to vote on it……the ONLY issue is Tea-Party representatives wanting to use a shutdown as a means to extort a defunding of Obamacare.”
“When your opponents pass a bill and the bill withstands four years of repeated congressional and legal challenges…including the Supreme Court…what do you do? Admit that it’s time to move on? Not if you’re a Republican. Nope, you blackmail to shut down the government unless you get your way.”
Actually, it may be even worse than that. While Tea Partiers would have welcomed a Democratic concession to dismantle Obamacare, I believe most of them in Congress (although perhaps not their supporters at home) understood that this would never happen prior to a shutdown. Obama and the Democrats would never agree to such blatant extortion. So, instead, the Tea Party aimed to carry out a shutdown as the most likely way to achieve their goals. The potential destructive effects to the country would be acceptable collateral damage.
The idea that the Republicans and Democrats are playing some game of chicken, that both sides are equally to blame would be laughable if it were not repeated so often in the media. As @WillMcAvoyACN said on Twitter:
“Why is the debt ceiling a negotiating point? Why is paying our bills something Republicans think we should compromise for?”
I provided my own analogy to make the same point:
“If Democrats threatened to shut down the government unless all Republicans resigned from Congress…would the media criticize Republicans for an unwillingness to compromise? I mean…couldn’t Republicans at least consider a compromise where only half of them resign?”
Or, as Brian Tashman put it:
“…these notions of ‘compromise’ are based on the absurd premise that simply funding the government is itself a concession on the part of Republicans, and Democrats now should return the favor by agreeing to their objective of undermining the health care reform law.”
The totality of this is still hard for me to fathom. What is so terrible about offering the chance of health care to millions of uninsured Americans that makes it worth the risk of wrecking our economy, while breaking almost every accepted boundary of good governance, in an attempt to stop it? The word “crazy” keeps popping up.
The bigger question is: How did such a small minority wind up with the power to do this in the first place? How did our democracy get so derailed?
The answer can be found in a confluence of several shifts in our political landscape, shifts that have been building for decades:
• The increased willingness of some in Congress to use any routine function of government, from passing budgets to raising the debt ceiling to continuing funding, as a means to extort political gain. The result is a never-ending crisis, where the rest of what Congress should be doing is left to languish.
• The increased use of the veto in the Senate, especially by Republicans, to the point where majority rule no longer exists.
• The continuing polarization of political parties to the point where the most leftist Republicans are still to the right of the most right-leaning Democrats.
• The ability of corporations and rich individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, thanks to the Supreme Court.
• The increased gerrymandering of voting districts to an extreme that leaves most congressmen in “safe” districts where winning their primary guarantees their election to office.
• The rise of right-wing talk radio, Fox News and other extremist media (on both sides) that wall people off from ever hearing opinions that differ from their entrenched biases. Rather, it serves to confirm and inflame their biases.
• The increased acceptance of “truthiness” in news and in political ads, where fiction is claimed as fact and is left unchallenged.
• The increased cowardice of the general media, to the point where every political debate gets reported as “he said, she said” with equal blame assigned to both sides even when no such equality exists.
And more. The end result is a serious threat to the foundations of our democracy. I know this sounds alarmist. It seems every day someone claims that something is destroying our country. It makes such claims easy to dismiss as “the sky is falling” hyperbole. I can only hope this turns out to be true here. But I fear not.
Don’t believe me? I’ll conclude with excerpts from what several others (with more credentials and authority than myself) have written on this subject in the past few days:
The Shutdown and “He Said-She Said” Reporting by Joshua Holland
“This showdown is by far the most dangerous of a series of fiscal ‘crises’ that have been contrived during the Obama presidency.
Beltway reporters who see their professed neutrality as a higher ground bear an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance. With a few notable exceptions, the media have framed what Jonathan Chait called ‘a kind of quasi-impeachment’ in typical he said-she said fashion, obscuring the fact that the basic norms that govern Congress have been thrown out the window by a small cabal of tea party-endorsed legislators from overwhelmingly Republican districts. The media treat unprecedented legislative extortion as typical partisan negotiations, and in doing so they normalize it.
But it’s not normal. Republicans are demanding that Democrats unwind their signature achievement – a piece of legislation that took 18 months to pass, survived a Supreme Court challenge and a presidential election – in exchange for a stopgap budget resolution. On Saturday, they tacked on a provision that would limit access to contraceptives.
The second reason the standard-issue Beltway framing is wrong is it doesn’t capture the nature of the so-called ‘negotiation.’ A negotiation is between two parties that want different things and come to some compromise. Nobody should want a shutdown or a default and passing budgets and paying the federal government’s debts aren’t Democratic priorities. Rather, what we are seeing now is a ‘negotiation’ in which Republicans are demanding a lot and offering absolutely nothing in return.”
Our Democracy Is at Stake by Thomas Friedman
This time is different. What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule. President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking — not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.
What we’re seeing here is how three structural changes that have been building in American politics have now, together, reached a tipping point — creating a world in which a small minority in Congress can not only hold up their own party but the whole government. And this is the really scary part: The lawmakers doing this can do so with high confidence that they personally will not be politically punished, and may, in fact, be rewarded.
The Reign of Morons Is Here by Charles Pierce
“There has never been in a single Congress — or, more precisely, in a single House of the Congress — a more lethal combination of political ambition, political stupidity, and political vainglory than exists in this one, which has arranged to shut down the federal government because it disapproves of a law passed by a previous Congress, signed by the president, and upheld by the Supreme Court, a law that does nothing more than extend the possibility of health insurance to the millions of Americans who do not presently have it, a law based on a proposal from a conservative think-tank and taken out on the test track in Massachusetts by a Republican governor who also happens to have been the party’s 2012 nominee for president of the United States. That is why the government of the United States is, in large measure, closed this morning.
We did this. We looked at our great legacy of self-government and we handed ourselves over to the reign of morons. This is what they came to Washington to do — to break the government of the United States.
What is there to be done? The first and most important thing is to recognize how we came to this pass. Both sides did not do this. Both sides are not to blame. There is no compromise to be had here that will leave the current structure of the government intact. There can be no reward for this behavior. I am less sanguine than are many people that this whole thing will redound to the credit of the Democratic party. For that to happen, the country would have to make a nuanced judgment over who is to blame that, I believe, will be discouraged by the courtier press of the Beltway and that, in any case, the country has not shown itself capable of making. For that to happen, the Democratic party would have to be demonstrably ruthless enough to risk its own political standing to make the point, which the Democratic party never has shown itself capable of doing. With the vandals tucked away in safe, gerrymandered districts, and their control over state governments probably unshaken by events in Washington, there will be no great wave election that sweeps them out of power. I do not see profound political consequences for enough of them to change the character of a Congress gone delusional. The only real consequences will be felt by the millions of people affected by what this Congress has forced upon the nation, which was the whole point all along.”