The US Capitol. (Wikipedia / Ingfbruno)

It’s beginning to look a lot like 1995, with Congress again bringing the country perilously close to a government shutdown. Despite the House Republicans’ quixotic attempt to tie the funding of basic services to the repeal of Obamacare, Karl Rove himself calling such a tactic “ill-conceived,” and, finally, last week’s pointless exhibition of endurance by Ted Cruz’s bladder, it appears the Republican Party is about to crown itself with the highly dubious distinction of having once again dragged the US government to a new low of impotence, paralysis and dysfunction.

That is not an accidental consequence of “divided government…unable to settle its differences,” as one reporter suggested, noting the 1995 parallel. Rather, dramatizing the supposed precariousness of public services by forcing their arbitrary cessation makes it easier for conservatives to argue that the market alone should determine the proper distribution of wealth, goods, and services in American society. There is no smaller government than none at all. As the radical political philosopher Sheldon Wolin argued in a remarkable 1996 essay in The Nation, “Democracy and the Counterrevolution,” the effort “to stop or reconstitute government in order to extract sweeping policy concessions amounts to an attempted coup d’état.” Wolin’s brilliant essay reminds us how shutdowns and austerity economics fit within the broader Republican philosophy of governance—or lack thereof—and how that philosophy is antithetical to the defining principle of democracy: rule by the people.

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Last winter’s government shutdown, contrary to media reports, was not about innocent bystanders—government workers, recipients of benefits or tourists—however genuine their hardships. It was about the broad scheme of power in the nation. Under what was dismissed as posturing, serious political changes were being tested. If we ask, “What kind of authority could justify disrupting and holding an allegedly democratic system hostage in the name of ‘a balanced budget in seven years’ and then attempt to dictate the precise kind and amount of government services that are to be permitted to resume?” the answer is not: “The authority of officials elected to run the government.” Deliberately paralyzing an elected government is far different from the ordinary partisanship that attends appropriations.

The shutdown was, instead, a direct challenge to the principle that in a democracy the government belongs to the people. It is theirs either to reconstitute by prescribed means, such as the amending process, or to halt by resistance or disobedience if it governs tyrannically. For the President or Congress to undertake to stop or reconstitute government in order to extract sweeping policy concessions amounts to an attempted coup d’état by what The Federalist (normally the political bible of Gingrich and other self-styled conservatives) would have condemned as a “temporary majority.”

Media observers suggested hopefully that the confrontation between Democratic President and Republican Congress might usefully be carried forward to November when “the people” could decide whether they wanted an interventionist or a greatly reduced government. That very formulation implied yet another potentially dangerous conception: that national elections should not be primarily about choosing leaders or expressing party preferences but should serve to focus a Great Issue and force a crucial turning point. The correct name for that conception is “plebiscitary democracy,” and it represents an outlook that is profoundly anti-democratic. Consider what social and economic forces would frame the terms of the plebiscite, or the level of debate that would take place, or the inflated mandate that the victors would claim or the implications of such an event for reinforcing the idea of the citizen as a spectator ready to salivate at the mention of tax cuts. Unfortunately, plebiscitary democracy is not a farfetched notion but a short, highly cost-effective step from the “democracy” quadrennially produced by those who organize, finance and orchestrate elections. Given what elections have become, the effect of national plebiscites on the fundamental shape of government should give pause to anyone who cares about the prospects of democracy.

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A vote on the role of government appears in an ominous light if we recall that when the Congressional Republicans announced their determination to “shut down Washington” and democracy’s government was nearly paralyzed, there was no mass protest, no million-citizen march on Washington, no demand to reclaim what is guaranteed by the Constitution. At a meeting of freshman Republican Representatives, someone reportedly asked, “Anybody got problems back home with the fact that the government’s shut down?” Not a hand was raised.

The lack of response testifies to the truly terrifying pace at which depoliticization is being promoted and the depths of the alienation separating citizens from their government. Each national election serves to deepen the contempt of voters for a system that they know is corrupt, and they doubt it can be remedied by requiring lobbyists to register. Despair is rooted in powerlessness, and powerlessness is not an unintended but a calculated consequence of the system, of which cash bribes to encourage poor African-Americans of New Jersey not to vote—a Republican campaign strategy in 1993 boasted about by Christine Todd Whitman’s campaign manager, Ed Rollins—supplied a crude instance. “Balancing the budget” is not simply about forcing government to live within its means “like the rest of us.” The projected cuts in education, social services and health care strike at the political power of ordinary Americans as well as their standard of living.

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The complete text of Wolin’s 1996 essay can be found here. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.