Friday, October 4, 2013

The Cold Lost Cause

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.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, Tom! Well-reasoned and well-written, as always. I am particularly struck by your argument that the Tea Party's aims are, in direct contrast to their claims, anti-democratic, anti-Constitutional and, thus, anti-American. Perhaps this is the rationale that Democrats and moderate Republicans need to be presenting to the American public in explaining what should and should not be negotiated.