The Man Who Sold the World (Live & Loud) - Nirvana
In a stable system of legislative democracy, all parties need some basic buy-in to the idea that the continued operation of government is intrinsically valuable. It is the background against which negotiations take place.
However, this is not an absolute principle. There is a space for actions, like the one currently being conducted by the House GOP, that challenge the premise of basic functioning. However, we need to be exceptionally clear about what such actions mean. They are not part of the normal operations, where parties or factions or interest groups struggle to exercise influence over the decisions of the government. Instead, they are exceptions to those normal operations. What you declare when you step outside of that normal consensus is that the current structure of political power is so wildly out of whack that it needs to be reset.
This is, in effect, a revolution. It’ a revolution even though the mechanism by which it is conducted takes place entirely within the constitutional structure. Which is an important point that can generate a lot of confusion. Many people will observe this and say ‘they’re just exercising their power within a system of checks and balances.’ Or, even if they’re not that sympathetic they may still feel that some blame has to fall on the Democratic side. After all, they’re also a part of the process.
But this misses the essentially distinct nature of what the Republicans are doing. Their position is that the continued function of government must be hostage to their substantive goals. They are standing astride the function of the system insisting that they will blow it up unless they get their way. Such a position simply can’t be negotiated away. If you make concessions, you simply invite another crisis in two weeks when the debt ceiling hits. Where once again they will hold us hostage for their wishes. And they will do it again for the next budget. And again for the next debt ceiling hike. And so forth. No concession can ever meet their desire because their desire is not simply to tip policy outcomes slightly in their favor; their desire is to completely delegitimize their political enemies.
However, it is again important to be clear here. What they are doing is not illegal, nor is it outside the structure of our system. And while it seems dangerous, there is a very good reason why such legal-but-revolutionary mechanisms ought to be a part of the system. In fact, the availability of such measures is part of the uniqueness of liberal democracy – and is a unique strength of liberal democracy in my mind. What they do is create outlets that are semi-formal and mostly non-violent through which intense political dissension may be organized. That is: they create a mechanism that channels such anger into reformulation of political structures, rather than the dismantling of them. After all, if they win this fight, they will simply be taking ownership of a mostly-intact infrastructure. It will have been altered in some significant ways, of course, but on the whole it permits a coup that need not rely on Leninist revolution.
This only works, though, if everyone is clear about what’s happening. It’s not an unconstitutional act, but neither is it business-as-usual. What we are watching is a very specific type of political ploy. The far right faction of the Republican Party is currently stating that they no longer have an interest in continuing the game as it has been played.
Again, I want to be clear that the simple fact of failing to reach a budget deal is not what I’m talking about. ’Shutdowns’ of that sort are not really normal, but they’re also not unprecedented – and there is even some value to the system of budgeting via shutdown. The bigger problem is the debt ceiling – which really is a loaded gun waiting to go off, and which would rip apart our financial system. But even more than that, the essence of their current maneuvering is simply to always demand more. It’s the trend of government-by-crisis in which we’ve been stuck for several years, and the looming threat that this time we’ll actually go through with it.
Think of it like going ‘all-in’ in a poker game. They are betting all of their chips that this is the winning hand. If they are right, then they don’t just win this hand; they win the whole game. Effectively, they get to write the new rules for how things will work.
But the corollary to that is that if they lose this hand, they are out.
This is why it is tremendously important for the American people to really understand what’s going on here. You can’t just sit back and watch this play out. YOU are the chips at stake in this question. If you find the Republican position persuasive, if you want to join them on the hill they are defending, then you can do so. And the Cruzians will have effectively established a new norm for governmental procedure.
But if you do not agree with this position, you need to communicate in no uncertain terms that putting the viability of our government on the line has repercussions.
This is an issue that exceeds partisan loyalties in a way that very few things do. For example, for all that I believe in the importance of reproductive choice (which is a lot!), if the Democratic Party began to threaten governmental shutdown and debt default in service of that principle, I would be strongly against it.
Of course, there are some issues where conscience may very well trump our continued fidelity to the basic structure. In the name of Abolitionism, for example, I think it would be perfectly legitimate to threaten catastrophe. The same goes for Jim Crow. And I would even say that something like the Vietnam War could very easily rise to that threshold. So to reiterate: the effort to wrest control using Constitutional means is NOT categorically forbidden. Such actions may well be legitimate, but only if they can obtain the collective support of the population. Which means: if your conscience compels you, make the case. But if you lose, then you really do lose. Because you have chosen to not simply litigate the arguments themselves but rather to assert that you are so right that you no longer consider the normal procedures binding. Such an argument raises the stakes to the level of ‘win or go home.’
So the responsibility of the American people (and the media which speaks to them) is to recognize that this is what is going on. On matters such as these there are no sidelines. You either stand with the normal functioning of government, or you stand with the revolutionaries. This is a real choice, and it’s one that you can’t simply wish away by blaming both sides.
The absolute worst thing that can happen in cases like these is for the side seeking revolution to be accepted as simply the normal operations of governance. If it becomes possible to gamble in this fashion without serious consequences, that really will pose a serious danger to the sustainability of our democratic structure.
I suppose I should include a caveat here: while the far right has committed rather completely to the all-or-nothing approach, I still think it’s pretty likely that the ‘mainstream’ branch of the Republican caucus does not see themselves as conducting that sort of political maneuver. I think that they have convinced themselves that they are making fairly small demands (to appease their more far right brethren) which the Democrats are unreasonably refusing to entertain.
In some ways that makes them more viable negotiating partners, but in other ways it makes them far WORSE negotiating partners. This is because they have decided that they’re not really holding the government hostage, because they don’t actually want to ruin things. The problem here is that it presumes an absolute unity in the caucus and a degree of control in the leadership that simply doesn’t exist. This means that Boehner is able to convincingly sell the perspective of a guy who just wants negotiations, but can’t admit that those negotiations are coming at the barrel of a gun.
This is a place where public pressure is tremendously important. It needs to be made clear that the extreme position is toxic – and that the folks on the right who want a conversation simply cannot ever achieve that conversation while they are beholden to the tactical maneuvers of their radical wing.