Shutdown Follies

Minority Government At Work –Why don’t we call these people nihilists?

Is the phrase “government shutdown” actually an oxymoron? 

By the time you read this, the government shutdown may or may not be over, and it may or may not matter to you personally, and it may or may not matter to the country – depending on the criteria you use to assess it. Those who say it’s not actually a “government shutdown” are correct in an obvious way – it’s actually only a partial executive and judicial branch shutdown, with Congress very much alive, well, and dysfunctional as ever.

A real government shutdown would bring the troops home from their dozens  (hundreds?) of foreign postings; it would free all the prisoners at Guantanamo and other prisons (or, alternatively, leave them locked up to starve); it would leave our privacy unmolested by the dozens of federal spy agencies (but not state or local ones); it would prevent the Supreme Court from further eroding personal liberty (leaving it to the states to protect); and so on, as the sky failed to fall, but got a lot closer to the ground.

A real government shutdown would effectively take us back to a state of nature, or at least to an eighteenth century, pre-constitutional governmental structure, enhanced by all the modern conveniences we could keep working without Washington’s help. That might provoke a new constitutional convention, which is what a busy minority has been after for a long time, and maybe that’s the point of all this, but we’re not there yet.

OK, so this is a fight based on “principles” that no one can state persuasively?

The impasse of early October is relatively simple in its essence.  The Congressional majority (all Democrats) passed a law, the President signed it, and the Supreme Court ratified it (with adjustments). That’s the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that is not well understood and is also in the early stages of implementation, so no one knows for sure how well or poorly it may work, but the absolute certainly of predictions that is will be purgatory or nirvana is easy to come by, at least from people whose job it is to persuade you they know what they’re talking about (never mind how wrong they were on the last two or three or four important national issues).

The Obamacare food fight is bogus at a deeper level as well, starting with the reality that it never had a chance to be the single payer system just about every honest broker acknowledges would best serve the American people.  Democrats don’t do that any more (seek to serve the American people), but they like to maintain the illusion, so the party brought in insurance professionals to craft a health insurance bill that would benefit the insurance industry in perpetuity and, with luck, would also improve the health care prospects of some of the millions of Americans currently without health insurance, but not all of them (that would be too much like all the other advanced countries in the world and we have our exceptionalism to protect).

Democrats defending their own work poses no mystery.  And it makes sense that the public seems mostly muddled about a program that may or may not do them much good, a program that is way complicated and under-explained, and about which the lies have ranged from the predictable to the spectacular. A large proportion of the public is opposed to Obamacare because people want a better health care system than the one that’s coming at them. Republican opposition makes sense only as part of a fundamentalist belief system in which the role of government is divorced[ from any effort to promote the common good (or in this case from a program that might promote the common good, even if that’s not its primary goal).

What do you do when you can’t win within the system? 

The implacable minority opposing Obamacare has exhausted its normal constitutional means of opposing the law, either repealing or amending or postponing it, because they don’t have the votes.  And they won’t have the votes before 2015 at the earliest (and even then, they’re unlikely to have the votes to override a presidential veto).  And from the opponents’ perspective, the supporters of Obamacare refuse to negotiate (by which is meant surrender), so their next best option was a government shutdown, even though its impact on Obamacare is next to nil.

Freshman House Republican Tom Cotton, 36, a lawyer from Arkansas with degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, explained his party’s dilemma with apparent sincerity this way on the House floor (and C-SPAN):

“The House Republicans have acted reasonably and responsibly to act on simple principles: the government should be funded and the American people should get relief from Obamacare.

“We have repeatedly made reasonable and responsible compromises. We couldn’t repeal Obamacare, so we offered to defund it. We offered to delay it for one year when the President has delayed so many parts of it himself. Yet the Senate rejected every one of those compromises.”  [emphasis added]

“Hey, who you calling a wacko bird, you idiotic lemming?”

Rep. Cotton went on in these remarks to accuse Democratic Senators of putting their personal self-interest ahead of the country’s interest.  As insults go these days, it was pretty mild.  Months ago, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona referred to his more adamant Republican colleagues as “wacko birds,” and more recent insults for the same cohort have included “morons,” lemmings,” “idiots,” “dishonest,” “stupid,” “irresponsible,” “dead-enders,” “crazy,” and in a New York Daily News headline: “House of Turds.”

At a more intense level, this group has been called:

•     “anarchists” (Sen. Harry Reid, D-NV; New York Times)

•     “saboteurs”  (Pres. Obama; Jonathan Chait)

•     “extortionists and hostage takers” (Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY)

•     “legislative arsonists” (Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-CA)

•     “murderers”  (Sen. Angus King, I-ME)

•     “terrorists” (White House aide Dan Pfeiffer; Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL; Al Gore )

•      “lemmings with suicide vests”  (Rep. David Nunes, R-CA)

•     “traitors” (Robert Reich; Scott Galindez)

•     “morally and politically correct”  (Forbes)

And then there’s the hard to top rant by Charles Pierce in Esquire:

We have elected an ungovernable collection of snake-handlers, Bible-bangers, ignorami, bagmen and outright frauds, a collection so ungovernable that it insists the nation be ungovernable, too. We have elected people to govern us who do not believe in government.

“Disapproval” is what the American people have long felt about congressional Republicans according to some polls (70% of public in Quinnipiac polls since 2011; 80% of public in Gallup polls since 2009).

Entertaining as they may be, none of these personal insults contribute anything to the debate, such as it is. They are just ad hominem attacks with no value as logical arguments. And they shed no useful light on how we arrived at this moment in our national politics, or how we might get beyond it.

Arguably, this government shutdown is one more spasm in the internecine political struggle that poses a genuine existential threat to the United States as we know it. The opposing philosophies have been at odds for a long time, perhaps since the founding of the country, but the struggle has intensified during the fast four decades and is crystallized in the well-know line from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural (1981):

“… government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Judging by his record, Reagan didn’t really believe that, but he knew it was the Kool-Aid the faithful wanted to drink, so he kept pouring.  Meanwhile, his presidency tripled the national debt, enlarged the federal government, and took the United States from being the world’s largest creditor nation to being the world’s largest debtor nation.  On second thought, maybe his government was the problem – or at least the beginning of a problem tradition carried on by his successors.

In any case, the idea of government-as-problem has persisted and gathered strength. Partly that’s an inherent result of having any government at all, since governments never function perfectly and almost everyone gets more annoyed by their bad experiences with their governments than they feel grateful for all the things that governments get right. Despite that near-universal, reflexive annoyance, most people aren’t ready to abolish governments.  But some are, or think they are, as activist Grover Norquist has so vividly expressed it:

“I don’t want to abolish government.

“I simply want to reduce it to the size

“where I can drag it into the bathroom

“and drown it in the bathtub.”

That is an expression of pure political nihilism: the belief that government has no objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.

The political nihilist is focused on pure governmenticide, on getting rid of government by any means necessary. The idea is simply to eliminate government, with no stated plan for anything to come after government.  And even though the nihilists want to get rid of government, there’s no hint they want to get rid of power.

That leaves us in a parlous situation, with no visible, reliable opponents of the nihilists.  In effect, we are looking at a forced choice that is really no choice at all:

to repeal government, by ceding the power to govern to a dedicated band of radicals – or to compromise with them and defund government.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.