While the immediate crisis brought about by the Republican shutdown of the federal government and the threat of default is over for now, this is no time to exhale and relax. The GOP’s grudging accommodation with Democrats and the White House extends life support to the Government for merely another three months. Then, to paraphrase Arnold Schwarzenegger, they’ll be back.
This begs the question of what to make of the slow-motion suicide of the present-day Republican party and, in particular, what to make of its tea-party contingent in the House of Representatives that is driving the agenda of confrontation and the steady, lemming-like march to the cliff’s edge. It’s not just an expression of conservatism, because these people are beyond conservative; they’re radical bridge burners willing to burn down the country as well.
The Christian rightists among them, Michele Bachmann and company, appear to visualize the imminent arrival of a fundamentalist End Time in which God’s wrath will terminate a soiled, degraded, “socialist” world and spirit the minority of right-thinking (in both senses of the word) worthies to Heaven. This partly explains the fanatical willingness to damn the torpedoes and race full-speed ahead — into oblivion. If the end is coming, there’s nothing left to lose.
There’s also a geographical component at work. As I’ve suggested in an earlier column, tea-party Republicans are what could almost be called neo-Confederates. In early October, the New York Times profiled 20 of the 80-member House group’s most reactionary partisans, leaders in the manic crusade against the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Over half were from the South, principally Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia.
These folks evidently yearn for a reconstituted pre-1960 Southern society where white, conservative states-rights rule was the norm. The fact that the South as a region gets far more from Washington than it contributes in taxes, that the South is in some ways a ward of the federal government, cuts no ice with this crowd; they feel an overpowering need to bite the hand that feeds them.
Immigration plays a part in the tea-party dysfunction as well. The radical Right is a movement of older white Americans who are aghast at the changes the country is undergoing, changes that will shortly render those of European ancestry another minority in a “majority-minority” country. To people accustomed since the nation’s founding to running things, this is understandably traumatic, but the response is irrational.
For starters, the prime impetus for accelerated immigration over the past several decades has been the business community, a core Republican constituency, ever in search of cheap surplus labor and anxious to put downward pressure on wage rates. Tea partiers should by rights be venting their rage at Wall Street and corporate America, not at Obama and the Democrats. To this can be added the supreme irony that their anointed leader, Rafael “Ted” Cruz, is himself an immigrant born in Canada, the son of a Cuban father who became a naturalized American citizen. The birther element in the Republican party should take note, but apparently a white Rafael trumps a black Barack.
To hear the congressional hostage takers of the GOP tell it, of course, the entire exercise of shutting down the Government as a prelude to blowing it up was all about Obamacare. In reality, Obamacare serves as a convenient bogeyman for the hot Right, a symbolic stand-in for what really bothers them: government in general. It used to be that Republicans accepted (or, at least, tolerated) government and agreed to make it work. Republicans, it was thought, just had a different view than Democrats of how to carry this out; Democrats would enact programs to improve society, while the GOP would make them more efficient and less intrusive.
The new breed of Republicans, however, flat-out hate government and want to dismantle it; they are nihilists, not conservatives. President Obama’s great mistake has been to naively believe he is dealing with old-fashioned Republicans, Bob Dole and Dick Lugar types open to eventual compromise. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s GOP more closely resembles Germany’s Nazi party of the 1930s, which took parliamentary power through democratic elections in order to destroy Parliament and end democratic elections.
H.L. Mencken, America’s political philosopher of the dark side, may have described today’s tea-party Republicans best almost a century ago: “The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and human. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.” What we are witnessing now is the fanatics on top. They can’t be reasoned with; they can only be resisted and put down. That’s the mission for Democrats in 2014.
It’s also the mission of American voters, assuming they want to end our rolling political impasse. If next year’s off-year elections produce a Republican victory, or are inconclusive, what transpired in 2013 will be a regular feature of our political life. Expect Government shutdowns or defaults every few months, a slow degrading of public programs and services, and a dysfunctional Congress and powerless executive branch able to accomplish nothing meaningful — in short, the US as the Western world’s laughingstock.
Regrettably, Democrats are not entirely blameless. From the 2010 elections until very recently, appeasement had been the Obama administration’s signature response to its opposition’s extortion. The Government shutdown and the near-default remain front and center in public consciousness, but budget sequestration (“the sequester”), enacted during the debt-ceiling fight of late 2011 when the President signed the Budget Control Act, already mandates a decade’s worth of across-the-board spending cuts that began last March with an $85 billion down payment. So the government Democrats managed to reopen will operate under a draconian austerity budget they themselves endorsed two years ago under the delusion it would force the GOP to negotiate a fiscal “grand bargain,” but that Republicans clearly love.
Make no mistake, the near catastrophe that consumed Washington for weeks is the responsibility of the GOP; it created it and is permanently branded by the fallout. But, sad to say, stupidity is bipartisan. Even if the twin specters of shutdown and default do not make a reappearance in the new year, we’re still faced with the brain-dead sequester, the next worst thing.
Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.
From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2013
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