Just as they did in October of 2013, the media are uniformly calling the selective starving of government by Republicans in Congress a “government shutdown.” It is anything but. The term “government shutdown” gives the public the false impression that the entire government is being shut down, when in reality, only a small percentage of the government gets shut down—and for starkly ideological reasons.
What we are really facing is a liberal government shutdown—which is to say programs designed to help the vulnerable and poor are gutted, while institutions designed to serve the rich and powerful remain unscathed.
If the last “shutdown” is any guide, the military, Trump’s luxurious vacations, soft power, our bombing of seven Muslim-majority countries, NSA bulk surveillance, agencies that prop up the oil and gas industry, the CIA’s arming and funding of Syrian rebels, and the FBI’s entrapment regime will remain entirely untouched. The parts of government that serve the poor and working class, however, will be first on the chopping block: libraries, tax collection, national parks, labor and safety regulators, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (which oversees the derivatives market), environmental regulators, financial regulators, welfare, and WIC will all be axed. Indeed, the one time the government got remotely close to undermining, even briefly, a pillar of the right-wing state, the powers that be arbitrarily decided to leave the Defense Department virtually untouched.
In principle, the criteria of what is and isn’t “essential” is determined by unelected agency and department heads using guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget based on a Department of Justice opinion authored in 1980 by then–Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti. That determination, according to McClatchy, defines “essential” activities as those that “protect life and property”—a fundamentally reactionary (and curiously unexamined) criterion that elevates property over justice, feeding people, and protecting the vulnerable.
At the height of the 2013 (manufactured) crisis, the DOJ and NSA used the “shutdown” to justify delaying work on civil-rights cases and post-Snowden reforms. When “property” is at stake, boutique, trivial concerns like combating racism and civil liberties are apparently expendable, while the urgent needs of the deep state and police state chug along. A breakdown of what was “shut down” by The Washington Post at the time put it best: “Although agencies like the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency will continue their operations, the Justice Department will suspend many civil cases for as long as the government is shut down.”
Funny how that works. Enough money to sting Muslims and low-level drug dealers but not enough to combat civil-rights violations.
When Congress passed laws over the past decades to feed the poor, educate people, and create public spaces, it didn’t mark these efforts as “nonessential.” This distinction is simply an extra-legal assertion by the government that’s been mindlessly accepted by the media and internalized by the broader public. But what is and isn’t “essential” isn’t a determination made by some objective bureaucrat simply calling balls and strikes; it’s the entire framework for how this right-wing administration and Congress will remake government in its image—all without input from the public.
As we build toward another choreographed, deliberate starvation of liberal government by the GOP, the media should think critically about finding other words for what’s taking place. A more precise term would be to call it a “soft right-wing coup” or simply a “right-wing coup.” If that seems too loaded, “Republican government starvation” or “attacks on liberal programs” would suffice. All of these terms are, by their very nature, fraught with subjective input, but so is “government shutdown”—a label that necessarily creates a tiered system of “essential” and “nonessential” functions based on the reactionary principle that “property” is an axiomatic good.
There’s the broader ideological coup as well. As Michael Zuckerman noted in The Atlantic in 2013, by calling it a “government shutdown” the left runs the risks that many Americans will not notice their lives change in a clear way as the months roll on. The ROI, or “return on investment,” of liberal government–education, science, children’s health–are not noticeable in an immediate and demonstrable way. Each day the “government shutdown” rolls on is another day the far right achieves another propaganda victory by giving the public the impression that government must not be very important if its wholesale closure has no impact on people’s lives.
If the Carpenters Local 926 union decided not to show up for work one day, would we call it a general strike? Of course we wouldn’t. Targeted and specific assaults on the government should be labeled as such, if not in the interest of properly informing the reader as to the animating forces behind it, at least in the interest of accuracy. Starving liberal institutions by triaging programs on ideological grounds without input from the public isn’t a “shutdown”; it’s a coup by another name. The media should start calling it one.