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.”