|Backward to utopia!|
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
For 16 days this month, conservatives in Congress deliberately shut down the federal government and threatened to default on the national debt, thereby destroying the world economy, in an attempt to force Democrats to repeal Obamacare and accede to their entire economic agenda. How do conservatives justify such shockingly irresponsible and ruthless tactics? There are three basic defenses they give and, like so much of American discourse, they revolve around the question of the proper relationship between the citizenry and the political elite. That is, who really represents the people?
Conservatives loudly answer, “We do!” In the first defense of their tactical radicalism conservatives claim to represent a majority of American opinion, a majority that hates Obamacare, big government and the size of the federal debt. Call this the populist defense. Conservatives represent the people against a governing elite that has become an unresponsive ruling class, a technocratic, snobbish, culturally alien aristocracy, imposing heavy regulations and stiff taxes on a public it disdains, while exempting its cronies and contributors. In this view the American people are noble and the government, captive to special interests, fails to channel that nobility. Obamacare is merely the most recent and most egregious liberal imposition. In fact, it’s so onerous and so indicative of the further horrors waiting to leap out of the liberal imagination onto the backs of the American people that anything is justified in trying to stop it.
But the populist defense just fails. Public opinion polls do show a majority opposed to Obamacare, but it’s a slim majority, and a sizeable part of the opposition comes from the left, from those who wish the government was more involved in health care, either through a public option or a single payer plan. Also, individual parts of the law are quite popular. Most Americans do agree in theory that both the federal government and the federal debt are too big. But those anti-government convictions evaporate in the harsh sun of majority support for particular government programs like Social Security and Medicare, programs so popular that most Americans would rather raise taxes than modify them or reduce their benefits. The 2012 Republican candidate for president promised to cancel Obamacare on his first day in office; he lost decisively. Democrats retained control of the Senate, and Republicans lost the national popular vote for the House of Representatives (but held the House because of misrepresentative districting). And most importantly, most Americans explicitly condemn the confrontational tactics conservative have employed. The majority supports neither conservative ends nor conservative means. Indeed, conservatives know this all too well; it was recognition of public disfavor that convinced GOP leaders to surrender.
The second conservative defense is less easily dismissed. It admits that conservatives are a minority (albeit a sizeable one) and that conservatives did in fact lose last year’s elections. But, it demands relief from the impositions of big government – Obamacare in particular – on the basis of respect for minority rights. Call this the libertarian defense. Conservatives bravely stand for the principle that no one, conservative or otherwise, should be coerced with individual mandates, excessive regulations, high taxes, or any other unwelcome control from the government, even a majority controlled one. John Hayward of RedState.com (his italics):
The only way to prevent power from building to a dangerously explosive pressure is to install a relief valve in the political system: the right of meaningful dissent, which means the right of refusal. The majority wants to do something I disagree with? Fine, knock yourselves out. Let me know how it goes. You might even persuade me to get on board, one of these days.
The populist defense claims that the people want to be left alone. The libertarian defense claims they have a right to be left alone. In the libertarian view the American people are something of a menace, a thoughtless mob using the blunt instrument of the federal government to oppress resistant minorities. Government fails because it’s too expansive; it interferes and intrudes more than it should, much more, definitely, than the Founders wished, more than the Constitution allows. The Constitution was explicitly created to preclude modern liberal paternalism and conservatives are therefore permitted to override it (for example, by putting the national credit in question or enforcing Senatorial supermajorities) in order to protect it. They’re also justified in generously amending it to return it to its original purpose of outlawing modern liberalism. Radicalism in the service of tradition seems to be a way of life for this crop of conservatives.
Does the Constitution prohibit the welfare/regulatory state? This is much too big a question for this small essay, but decades of Supreme Court decisions, going back to 1937, answer in the negative. Even Obamacare’s mandate that individuals purchase health insurance under threat of a tax penalty has been deemed constitutional by a conservative Supreme Court presided over by a conservative Chief Justice. The libertarian principle, that there are individual rights which no legislature may infringe, is a vitally important principle, one which we violate at our peril. But it’s not obvious that one shouldn’t be coerced into supporting a health insurance system that sooner or later one will come to rely upon. Everyone pays taxes for public schools, even people without children. The libertarian defense is not an obvious sham like the populist defense, but unless one is an anarchist absolutist who believes no coercion is ever justified, it’s not so self-evidently compelling as to justify the radical confrontationalism of early October.
The third conservative defense is similar to the populist defense, in that it sees Obamacare as the imposition of a non-representative ruling class, but it makes no pretense of speaking for a majority. It charges that Obamacare lacks moral legitimacy because of how it was passed. For one thing, it was passed without any Republican votes; as noted conservative writer Charles Krauthammer puts it:
From Social Security to civil rights to Medicaid to Medicare, never in the modern history of the country has major social legislation been enacted on a straight party-line vote. Never.
And it was passed through non-standard legislative procedures, using budgetary rules to avoid a Republican filibuster. Red State columnist Daniel Horowitz wrote on October 4th:
Obamacare was passed through budget reconciliation. So when they felt it was convenient for them to inject Obamacare into the budget process; namely, for the purpose of avoiding the 60-vote threshold, they were more than happy to do so. Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Now that we have approached the implementation date, which coincides with the budget deadline, it’s time to use that same process to uproot a law that is unworkable and unpopular.
When in the middle of the 2010 Congressional healthcare debate, the very blue state of Massachusetts sent a Republican to the Senate expressly to stop Obamacare, Democrats overrode this “unmistakable message of popular opposition.” Democrats started this game of flouting legislative and democratic norms; when Republicans play grand obstructionists they are just responding in kind. Call this the hardball defense. In the hardball view the parties are ruthless gangs and the American people are the turf they fight over. (The hardball defense, of course, does nothing to defend the conservative debt ceiling demand to enact their entire economic program; it can, at best, justify extraordinary measures only for stopping Obamacare itself.) To Krauthammer, Democratic legislative chicanery was so dismissive of dissident views and so ruthless in its determination that it more that justifies the angry, combative Tea Party response it provoked:
It’s the Democrats who gave life to a spontaneous, authentic, small-government opposition — a.k.a. the tea party — with their unilateral imposition of a transformational agenda during the brief interval when they held a monopoly of power. That interval is over. The current unrest is the residue of that hubris.
The hardball defense, in effect, accuses Democrats of acting like Leninists. Yes, Leninists; but in a particular way. Vladimir Lenin redirected Russian Marxism from a broad-based, democratic, trade union movement into a small, dedicated, aggressive vanguard party which alone perceived and expressed true proletarian class consciousness. He believed the workers as a whole could never fully grasp their objective situation and could not become the basis of the coming socialist utopia without the strict direction of such a vanguard. Lenin’s primary contribution to political theory is the notion that an ideologically enlightened cadre can understand and represent the people better than they can themselves. And when an unlikely procession of historical events led to the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the raising of the red flag over St. Petersburg, Lenin used that seizure of state power to impose a Communist transformation upon an unwilling society. What Krauthammer, Horowitz, etc. are saying is that modern liberals feel justified in imposing Obamacare and other big government social programs because they believe they understand the economic interests of working people better than those working people themselves. The Democrats won complete control of the federal government in 2009 and 2010 only because of the unlikely combination of revulsion against the outgoing Republican president plus the celebratory appeal of a black presidential candidate plus a terrible financial collapse; they used that power to force their centrally-controlled medical insurance scheme upon a people who’d made it clear they didn’t want it. Liberals are convinced, because of their technocratic arrogance and their over-educated sanctimony, of their right to act in the interests of the little people.
Of the three defenses, this is the only compelling one. After all, Democratic criticism of recent Republican brinksmanship is procedural; no one disputes their right to oppose Obamacare or negotiate over the budget, only whether they should do so by shutting down the government or threatening a default. And Democratic procedures for enacting Obamacare would not make a shining example for a civics textbook. But neither were they as unsavory as conservatives portray. Obamacare was one of the main planks of Obama’s 2008 election platform, an election he won by a substantial 7 point margin. That same year, Democrats increased their Senate majority to 59 out of 100 seats and their House majority to 257 out 435 seats (having received 56% of the vote). After passing economic stimulus in February of 2009, Democrats turned to healthcare. And Krauthammer dismisses the notion that Democrats genuinely tried to be bipartisan about it:
The Democrats insist they welcomed contributing ideas from Republicans. Rubbish. Republicans proposed that insurance be purchasable across state lines. They got nothing. They sought serious tort reform. They got nothing.
But failure to include two (seriously flawed) policy proposals does not constitute Leninism. Democrats spent months negotiating with more tractable Republicans Senators like Mike Enzi, Charles Grassley, Orrin Hatch and Olympia Snowe, trying to get them on board by suggesting less generous and more market-centered plans. Many Democrats, possibly including Obama, might have preferred Medicare for all, but they refrained from pushing that because of resistance from within their own caucus (not much of a Leninist monolith there), even though single payer has garnered majority support in some polls. And yes, only Democrats voted for Obamacare, but that was because Republicans boycotted it as part of a deliberate political ploy to deny it bipartisan legitimacy. They did negotiate with Democrats at first, but it’s hard not to conclude they did so in simple bad faith with the deliberate intention of delaying the bill’s passage in order to discredit it in the public mind. Historically, major social legislation won support in both parties because historically the parties were not ideologically consistent. Before the great post-60’s political realignment there were liberals and conservatives in both parties. Consider Krauthammer’s list of major social legislation: Social Security, Civil Rights, Medicare, Medicaid. He seems to celebrate them, but he neglects one very interesting point: they were all liberal initiatives that are tremendously popular now that were strenuously opposed by conservatives at the time. Indeed, opposition to such initiatives was what defined them as conservative! In 1961 Ronald Reagan, then a famous actor and aspiring conservative activist, famously predicted the enactment of Medicare would mean the death of freedom, a stance that might deepen the confusion of present-day Tea Partiers holding signs reading “Keep government out of my Medicare!” If liberals waited for conservative support no important social legislation would ever be passed.
And why should Democrats have been forced to reach Horowitz’s 60 vote threshold? He’s referring to the filibuster, a Senate rule which requires 60 or more Senators to allow a bill to come to a vote. (Forgive the following short walk through the weeds of legislative process, but it’s necessary to clarify a point important enough that Tea Partiers claim it justifies their aggressive tactics.) Historically the filibuster was invoked infrequently, but after 2000 it began to be used more and more until now it has almost come to be considered part of the normal functioning of the Senate. This violates the spirit (if not the letter) of the Constitution, which demands super-majorities for specific votes (such as ratification of foreign treaties) and requires nothing more than simple majorities for most votes. The Democrats had 60 votes after the defection of Arlen Specter in April of 2009 and passed their version of Obamacare in the Senate in December. But they lost the 60th vote on January 19, 2010 when Republican Scott Brown won the special election to fill the seat emptied by the death of Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion. Brown had indeed campaigned with the promise of maintaining the filibuster against Obamacare and thereby preventing its passage. The House of Representatives had passed its own version in November, but Brown’s election and promise of filibuster meant the House and Senate bills could not be negotiated through normal procedure. Democrats, determined to pass universal health care after decades of effort, decided the House would simply pass the Senate bill as it was and make any desired changes through supplementary legislation passed in the Senate via the budget reconciliation process, which doesn’t require 60 votes. It’s only the passing of this smaller accompanying act (which contained only budgetary changes to the main bill) that Horowitz is complaining about, not the passage of Obamacare itself. If conservatives were justified in using an extra-Constitutional device like the filibuster to block Obamacare in a repudiation of huge Democratic electoral victories, why were Democrats so unjustified in using budget reconciliation to pass minor changes?
There’s a word for ruthlessly using technicalities to win on policy: hardball. But hardball is not the same as Leninism. On the other hand, parties tend to employ hardball when they lack broad popular support. Was that true of Democrats and Obamacare? The Democrats had won the presidency and large majorities in both houses of Congress by running on – among other things – universal healthcare. But wait: “among other things.” People vote for all sorts of reasons and not everyone that voted Democrat did so to enact Obamacare; though, by the same token, probably not everyone who voted Republican did so to block it. If there was overwhelming popular support for Obamacare – as there had been for Social Security, Medicare, etc. – it would have been quite hard for Republican members of Congress to vote against it. The final Senate version passed in the House by only 219 to 212; 34 Democrats voted no, hardly an overwhelming acclamation. This is where Krauthammer’s charge of Democratic partisanship has some validity.
The last decades have seen increasing polarization, and a relatively small majority supported universal healthcare while a sizeable minority vehemently opposed it. Democrats did try to mollify that polarization by modeling their healthcare legislation upon moderate proposals by the two most important conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and touted by Newt Gingrich and other Congressional conservatives, and passed into law by the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Conservatives responded with legislative stonewalling, some even conceding that they had never seriously meant their own proposals but only pretended so to undercut liberal plans. Indeed, over the course of the healthcare debate, liberals reached out to conservatives and were repeatedly rebuffed. Most of that rebuff was political and cynical – more hardball – but some of it was based upon honest differences over the role of government in a free society. That is, by 2009 polarization had grown to the point that, reasonably or not, conservatives honestly wanted no universal healthcare to pass. When the Democrats passed genuinely contentious legislation in such a polarized atmosphere and through such unorthodox methods it was bound to exacerbate polarization and partisan bitterness. It’s true that much of that polarization before the passage of Obamacare was part of a deliberate conservative strategy designed to increase polarization, but Democrats need not have responded in kind. Hardball against your opponents may be appropriate revenge for the hardball you’ve endured, but, contra Krauthammer, Leninism as retribution for Leninism is not so glibly justified. And when Democrats used hardball to overcome lack of popular support it was a genuine example of the Leninist attitude. But the most objectionable example of Democratic Leninism was the dismissal of Scott Brown’s election. When such a blue state replaced its longtime very liberal Senator with a Republican expressly for the purpose of blocking Democratic legislation, it constituted an unmistakable loss of popular confidence. When Democrats determined to pass Obamacare anyway it expressed greater trust in its own ideological analysis than in public opinion.
But Republicans have been guilty of the Leninist attitude as well, and more systematically and to a greater degree. George W. Bush acquired the presidency with less than 48% of the popular vote, but he governed as if he’d won a broad conservative mandate. From the Bush era to the present, conservatives have consistently pushed for upper end tax cuts, claiming to represent widespread populist demand for them; there isn’t any. Even during the Great Recession, conservatives have anguished over the debt in the name of a public that is actually much more concerned about jobs. But the real problem of conservative Leninism is that it’s baked right into the cake of conservative populism. Consider again the conservative defenses of this month’s confrontationalism. The populist defense claims conservatives represent a majority when they clearly don’t. Seems like everyday political deceit; but is there something more? The libertarian defense claims, in effect, that conservatives should be exempt from certain government actions, even those democratically passed and duly adjudicated. And as we saw, hardball tactics typically indicate lack of popular support, and October’s hardball conservatism seems to lack all scruples about thwarting popular will. Do conservatives feel themselves in possession of some alternative to a numerical majority that conveys comparable, or even superior, authority?
It’s a mainstay of conservative folklore that Republicans loose presidential elections when they nominate mushy moderates, like John McCain and Mitt Romney, and win with full-fledged, reliable conservatives, like Ronald Reagan (he may constitute that entire list). They really seem to believe, against all evidence, that the American heart belongs to them and can be made to beat vibrantly again at the entreaties of a true-blue conservative savior-statesman. That is, conservatives believe they understand the American essence in a way non-conservatives just cannot. Only they appreciate the almost perfect constellation of cultural and political institutions – a free market, a religious and temperate populace, and divided and limited government – bequeathed by the Founders; and only they feel the appropriate urgency of freeing ourselves of liberal corruption and returning to that original bliss. That’s what it means to be conservative! This inside knowledge of the true American cultural essence is what endows conservatives with the moral-political authority to override mere numerical majorities. This is conservative cultural Leninism: the belief that all true Americans are conservative beneath the skin, and if not, then they aren’t true Americans and they’re views need not be respected. This attitude is widespread, habitual and fundamental on the American right. And it’s this minority populist arrogance which is the true justification for the shockingly hardball conservative strategy of shutdown and debt threat, a strategy that constitutes the single most egregious act of Leninism in generations.
All political movements, even democratic ones, must have leaders and experts; in a word: elites. There are subtle and complex issues that much of the public – actually living private lives detached from the inside baseball of modern government – simply doesn’t appreciate. Consider that the citizenry wishes to not raise the debt ceiling. They are correct in thinking that raising it allows the government to acquire more debt, but they don’t seem to understand that it allows the government to acquire more debt in order to pay for government spending that Congress and the president have already agreed upon and are legally committed to spend. Failure to raise it would prevent the government from paying its already existing debts, which the world financial system rests upon; such failure would likely lead to global economic Armageddon. This is a simple matter of fact upon which the public is simply wrong. Congressmen, Federal Reserve governors, department heads, news professionals, academics, advisors and bureaucrats understand this issue in ways that much of the public does not and probably never will. That’s not a slam against anyone. The American people generally display reasonable and balanced judgment; they have good instincts. Consider their reaction to recent Republican extremist tactics. But it’s not the job of private citizens to be informed on every aspect of fiscal policy. Responsible, informed, prudent elites are as necessary to a functioning democracy as is a free and responsible populace.
Of course, not all elites are responsible. During the debate over Obamacare, Republicans filled the public discourse will all sorts of dishonest accusations: death panels, socialized medicine, government takeover, etc.; such lies continue now in the implementation phase. The public, with its own ideological inclinations and its less-than-perfect knowledge of the issues can be too susceptible to propaganda and obfuscation. That susceptibility helps explain much of the change in opinion on healthcare between Obama’s election and Scott Brown’s. This is one of the inescapable limitations of democracy. (Sometimes the elite falls prey to its own propaganda: apparently several Republican Congressmen seem to think a default would actually be beneficial! But what’s forgivable in the general public is unbearably shameful in a public servant.)
Acknowledging the people’s imperfections opens one up to the very charge of Leninism, a charge that can be quite powerful in a country with such a deep populist tradition. Such accusations arise, for example, whenever a party tries to explain its own electoral failure. In a democracy you’re obligated to believe that your side loses (either from messaging failure, but that’s the lamest copout there is, or) out of ignorance; i.e. the people don’t realize how wrong they are. Conservatives believe people vote liberal for the free government goodies; they are morally weak and don’t appreciate the moral satisfaction of economic independence and personal responsibility. Liberals believe people vote conservative out of mistaken beliefs about the moral nature of capitalist outcomes. They believe that big government humanizes capitalism and makes it work for everyone rather than just the rich; when working people vote against liberalism it must be that devious conservatives are manipulating their cultural and racial fears. Obama famously said in 2008 (in a closed-door meeting) that when working people feel the economic squeeze, “it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” But Leninism does not consist in believing the people are mistaken or limited; it consists in believing one is justified, based upon one’s possession of special ideological truth, to act on important issues against the public’s clear wishes. Democracy is necessary because without accountability elites run the system for their own benefit. If democracy without elites becomes a mob ripe for demagoguery, elites without popular control become an aristocracy. Leninism is an alibi for an aspiring aristocracy.
But even liberals at their Leninist worst, as when passing unpopular transformational legislation, or conservatives at their even worse Leninist worst, as when threatening to blow up the world economy unless their losing economic agenda is enacted in full, are radically different from historical Marxist-Leninists in one very important way: neither one is a small, purely intellectual movement. Both liberalism and conservatism are broad-based popular movements. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are small “d” democratic parties in that the grass roots of each party has enormous influence over its policy. Indeed, the Republican establishment and business leaders lament how powerful the Tea Party insurgency has become within the GOP. The actual Lenin led his vanguard party to violent revolution and totalitarian control and no reasonable person fears those things in America in the foreseeable future. But the Leninist attitude is a serious threat to national comity and unity; it exacerbates polarization; it makes people angry; it robs them of their pragmatism and generosity; it makes them less receptive to reason and compromise and more susceptible to propaganda and demagoguery. And there is one other very important and quite fortunate difference between Lenin’s red October of 1917 and the red state Tea Party insurrection we just endured: Our red October failed. Thank goodness. And thank the good sense of the America people.
Friday, October 4, 2013
|South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, father of minority obstruction.|
How have we come to such an impasse? Conservative Republicans in Congress will fund the federal government only if Democrats agree to delay or prevent the implementation of Obamacare. And they will not raise the debt ceiling unless the government enacts their entire economic agenda, including a one-year delay of Obamacare, tax reform based upon GOP Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s regressive tax plan, their entire energy policy (including the Keystone Pipeline and offshore drilling), regulatory repeal, further reductions in government spending, means testing of Medicare, restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits, plus a host of other conservative policy wishes. What the hell is going on here? How did we get to the point where one faction of one branch of government feels justified in threatening to trash the government’s credit, and with it, the world economy? As Jonathan Chait put it:
The fact that a major party could even propose anything like this is a display of astonishing contempt for democratic norms. Republicans ran on this plan and lost by 5 million votes. They also lost the Senate and received a million fewer votes in the House but held control owing to favorable district lines. Is there an example in American history of a losing party issuing threats to force the majority party to implement its rejected agenda?
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers suggests an answer:
There is an obvious example: the election and subsequent secession crisis of 1860. The southern Democrats were quite clear with their threats to secede from the Union should Lincoln be elected.
Prompting Sullivan to employ the wonderful phrase, “Cold Civil War”:
Seeing the Obama presidency as a Cold Civil War of the South against a Northern president does help explain the splenetic rage, and the obvious belief in the illegitimacy of the elected president because of the policies he ran on and won with.
The geographical base of present-day conservatism is indeed in the South, a region which has historically threatened filibuster, nullification, massive resistance, and even secession when the federal government enacted policies it found intolerable. But it’s quite unfair to compare forcing a government debt default to destroying the union to maintain slavery, even though an actual debt default would be devastating. But there is the stench of something like civil war in the air: the smell of fundamental, implacable polarization. America is splitting in two ideologically, and government shutdowns and the debt defaults (and much else of our ongoing political dysfunction) are manifestations of the ruthlessness, tenacity and desperation of the losing side. Welcome to the Cold Lost Cause.
But where most observers see irrational, unjustified intransigence, conservatives see the GOP finally fighting back. Ever since its inception in the 1950’s the modern conservative movement has had a strained relationship with the Republican Party. Conservatives were quite disappointed with Eisenhower’s accommodation to the New Deal, and they began the search for a conservative savior to cast out the moderates and liberals and remake the party in their own image. In conservative lore, Joe McCarthy was beaten down by the liberal establishment, Barry Goldwater was undermined by liberals in his own party, and Richard Nixon campaigned like a conservative but governed like a liberal. But they were finally saved by the sainted Ronald Reagan, whose pure heart and steadfast, simple moralism righted the country for as long as presidential term-limits allowed. But most of post-Eisenhower history of the Republican Party has been a great disappointment to conservatives; they’ve perceived it as craven acceptance of the ever-growing big government liberals have foisted upon a quiescent American public. For sixty years they’ve wanted a showdown they’re not about to let the present fiscal crisis slip away. Even now, as much of the Congressional party seems eager to jump off the cliff of economic and fiscal insanity, any movement back from the brink brings fervid denunciation:
Conservatives have finally realized that, as it’s currently constituted, they have no home in the Republican party, which is the Washington Generals to the Democrats’ Harlem Globetrotters, the designated losers who nevertheless are rewarded handsomely for their sham opposition.
They hate their own establishment almost as much as they hate liberals:
The Republican Party, as it is and as it has been, is an utter embarrassment to those who vote for them. The guys up top – Boehner, McConnell (ESPECIALLY MCCONNELL), Cantor, Cornyn and the rest – listen to money, lobbyists and, strangely, Democrats, for guidance on what to do next. The little guy, you and I and the rest of the electorate, have no say in what they want.
But – dare we hope? – aspiring saviors walk among us. Texas Senator Ted Cruz is auditioning for that role, with his stubborn refusal against funding for Obamacare in the form of a self-congratulatory semi-filibuster. He angers not just liberals, but his more pragmatic Republican colleagues; and that is the point: the party must be purified before it can become the instrument of national salvation.
And that’s where the Tea Party comes in. The whole point of the Tea Party is to make the Republican Party the perfect vessel of crusading, un-pragmatic, uncompromising conservatism:
Conservatives understand that rather than form a third party, their only hope is to seize control of the corrupt, rotting hulk of the GOP, which they now can do with the help of a reinvigorated Tea Party.
The Tea Party represents the final chapter of the modern American conservative movement: the rising of the conservative populace. Conservative hunger for a savior arises out of the deepest conservative conviction: that all correct policy flows naturally from righteous character, which itself is an expression of hard-won conformity to the moral order of the universe. Only the good man knows good policy. But Tea Party fervor expresses the belief that decent, small-town Christian folk, as the only true representatives of American idealism, are themselves the saviors. This is what all that talk about “taking back America” means: insurrection of the good men, by the good men, for the good men. Evil men and women in both parties, duped by the false idols of sobriety, pragmatism and compromise have diluted our shining truth long enough. As Daniel Horowitz of Red State – ground zero for apocalypse lust – puts it: “There is no such thing as lukewarm hell.” Compromising right and wrong only pollutes right. Wrong need only be defeated with the eager belligerence that flows from the certainty of folkish cultural truth. This is the purest of Puritan populism; the righteous shall inherit the Earth. The true believer both dreads and dreams of the final reckoning between good and evil, between true American freedom and foreign, socialist tyranny. We are being subjected to the modern politicized expression of Puritan apocalypticism. May God save us!
But what is it they’re so opposed to? Is it Obamacare in particular? One conservative columnist considers Obamacare to be, “primarily a symbol of a Congress unaccountable to the voters.” But most conservative commentators don’t see Obamacare as a symbol, but as the latest and most egregious example of government meddling in our lives, as possibly the thin wedge of Stalinism! For liberals, universal healthcare – even in Obamacare’s thoroughly market-friendly version – was the last large missing piece of the American welfare state; its passage marks the substantial completion of the New Deal. For conservatives it represents the very same thing. But conservatives have been working for 60 years to repeal (or at least radically reduce) the welfare state. Reagan won twice and was succeeded by his Vice President, Gingrich took Congress, George W. Bush won twice and presided over Republican control of all three branches of government, but after all that we’re no nearer to repealing the welfare state. Indeed, the Obamacare disaster demonstrates just how relentlessly it grows. The Democrats railroaded Obamacare through Congress and Republicans took over the House in 2010 and still Obamacare stands. A supposedly conservative Supreme Court, led by a supposedly conservative Chief Justice, declared it constitutional. The 2012 GOP nominee promised to repeal it on his first day in office but he was not elected. Impossibly, it stands! If conservatives can’t even slay such a legislative and constitutional monster, how can they possibly subdue the bureaucratic and institutional menagerie created by 80 years of socialism? Obamacare is indeed a symbol, but not a symbol of Congressional irresponsiveness; it’s primarily a symbol of the failure of the conservative dream, a dream that has so often seemed on the verge of fulfillment but has so often been bitterly disappointed. That’s why it hurts them so much and that’s why they’re willing to do everything in their power to stop it. If it becomes an accepted part of American society, then they have lost their last battle.
And to conservatives the definitive victory of the welfare state would be a terrible tragedy. They see the liberal welfare state as not merely bad policy, but as a violation of the fundamental moral and political principles of our system. They believe that the Constitution was designed to prevent just such things as individual health insurance mandates. Sociologists and technocrats, with their longitudinal studies and their misleading statistics and their snooty manners, can’t understand what everyday people perceive directly in their unschooled moral simplicity: the free market rewards virtue and punishes vice and interference by the state undermines that moral enforcement. The Founders, thankfully, understood this perfectly and they wrote the Constitution specifically to maintain our moral, economic and political purity, to specifically prevent just such liberal corruption. But conservatives see their fellow Americans exchanging their freedom for medical care, selling their birthright for a few shiny baubles. To them, Obama is Madison’s worst nightmare.
The irony is that these self-proclaimed “constitutional conservatives” constitute our system’s most radical subverters. The Founders wanted the government to be consensual, not fractured, compromising and pragmatic and reasoned, not hateful and incendiary. By holding Obamacare hostage to budget negotiations, conservatives are, as Chris Matthews said on last Sunday’s Meet the Press, demanding an extra-Constitutional hurdle for passing controversial legislation:
Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, had been passed by the House, by the Senate, signed by the president, reviewed by the Supreme Court. And then the president got reelected on that very issue. Senator Cruz talks as if there should be a final test that you have to get through before a law goes into effect. In other words, a final vote, whether it's on debt ceiling or whatever, or on the shutdown of the government, sort of a final look at the law and say, “Well, should we really let it go into effect even before it’s set to go into effect?”
Republicans are, in the incisive and frightening words of Matt Yglesias, “essentially asking for an end to constitutional government in the United States and its replacement by a wholly novel system.” He mentions the way the British House of Commons – over the course of a few centuries, with much political wrangling, and a few civil wars and a few revolutions – used its power of taxation to become the only political institution with any real power. If current conservative shutdown and debt ceiling plans succeed then the House of Representatives would be well on its way to becoming the dominant institution in what would essentially be an American parliamentary system.
Now parliamentary systems, as found in Britain and all of Europe and much of the world, are quite good at responding to democratic will. Indeed, a single and popularly elected legislative body cannot avoid accountability the way the branches of our divided system can. Consider how Republicans blame Obama’s policies for our continued economic difficulties while Obama blames Republicans for blocking those policies; separation of powers allows both claims to seem plausible. And parliaments can easily avoid the constitutional obstruction and dysfunction we now endure. If the tea-drunk GOP controlled an American House of Commons it would just slash the welfare state and wait for the next election to see if the public approved. But parliamentary systems, specifically because of their heightened democratic responsiveness and their concentration of power into one majority-controlled body are not always as good at protecting the rights of minorities. If conservatives make over the House into our pre-eminent political body they would be enabling the very majoritarian tyranny they claim to be working so hard to avoid.
But of course, what they really wish to establish is a kind of tyranny of the minority. In the 2012 Republicans failed to take the Senate (despite the ongoing Republican advantage of many small, rural, conservative states), received fewer votes for the House of Representatives than Democrats (they control the House because of unrepresentative districting), and failed to unseat President Obama, despite a laggard economy and an unhappy electorate. Most Americans view presidential elections, not Congressional elections, as the national moment of ideological decision. When the Great Depression shook people’s faith in laissez-faire they voted in Franklin Roosevelt; when they thought liberals were exacerbating racial strife they voted for Nixon; when big government seemed to be hurting the economy they voted in Reagan; and when conservatism proved incompetent at both foreign and economic policy they voted for Obama. Republicans are, in effect, trying to change the rules after they’ve lost.
When the British House of Commons slowly seized control of the government it did so as an expression of the democratic hopes of rising middle and working classes. They only disenfranchised an unaccountable monarchy and aristocracy; today’s extra-Constitutional GOP radicals cannot credibly make such democratic claims. Conservatives are close to half the population and their views should be respected and they should, as part of normal budget negotiations, contribute to policy. But they shouldn’t dominate outright, absurdly out of proportion to their numeric representation and minority status. How do they, even in their own minds, justify such a ruthless power grab? Demography and ideology are moving away from them, and they know it. They may not represent a numerical majority, but in their minds they represent a genuine but embattled cultural majority. Their deeper apprehension of the American essence grants them an authority that no mere numerical majority can endow. They are, by virtue of their moral and political values the only real Americans and only their values should inform policy. To conservatives, liberal government is a mockery of the real America, it is illegitimate, morally, culturally and constitutionally, and it deserves no respect. It must be defeated, not accommodated. “There is no such thing as lukewarm hell.”
Not all conservatives feel just these impulses so unalloyed by pragmatism or generosity. But the shutdown and debt default – and the polarization that underlie them – descend upon us to the extent that those impulses dominate; they are those impulses made manifest. But maybe those crises, and the tragedy they promise, can be avoided by appealing to contrary conservative values: comity, stability, prudence. Reasonable people understand that earthly versions of hell and heaven are always varying degrees of lukewarm. And respect for popular government demands accommodation for opposing opinions, particularly electorally expressed majority opinions. But such broader-minded, Burkean attitudes may be hard to rouse in the Puritan-populist ferment that constitutes the present-day conservative mind; too many conservatives seem to have concluded that those attitudes are what led America to its present self-evident degradation. What can we – liberals, moderates, pragmatists – do when our countrymen have been gripped by such implacable irrationality? No doubt we must do what’s necessary and legitimate to stop them in their destruction. The president must not acquiesce to threats to our fiscal health and to obstruction of duly enacted legislation, particularly such undemocratic and unjustifiable threats. But we must do more than simply stop conservatives; we must appeal to their better natures. We must honor their conviction, even as we abhor its content. We must listen to their arguments, even as we forthrightly dispute them. We must hope that reason and friendship can still reach them. And we must not forget that they are our fellow countrymen, even if they seem to have forgotten that we are theirs.