Destroying the government

Having run out of ideas on how to govern, the American right has turned against the very concept of governing.

Many "red states" get more money from the federal government than they pay in taxes, notes author [AFP]

“Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us.You will rule or ruin in all events.”

Abraham Lincoln, addressing the Southern people in his Cooper Union Address, February 27, 1860.

The Republican Party still likes to fancy itself “the Party of Lincoln”, so Lincoln’s words in his Cooper Union Address are a particularly apt rebuke, especially since they’ve been talking about shutting down the government since before the 2010 mid-term elections, but now want to pin the blame on President Barack Obama and the Democrats, whom they now complain will not negotiate or compromise with them.

This is quite rich, since budgets passed both houses of Congress months ago, but Republicans repeatedly refused to appoint conference committee members so that a compromise could be struck, which is the way that budgets are normally passed in the US. Refusing to go to conference is how Republicans created the crisis in the first place, and now Republicans want to blame Democrats for not going to conference!

We should note that both houses have agreed to the same discretionary spending level – $986bn annually. This gives House Republicans 90 percent of what they want, and severly hampers the pace of economic recovery. No one’s even arguing over that. Obama’s 2014 budget called for spending $1.15tn, compared to $966bn in the GOP House budget.

Blame game

He’s aleady given away the store, yet Republicans continue to falsely accuse the president of refusing to compromise because he won’t also agree to destroy – or at least undermine – his signature piece of legislation, Obamacare, just as it was about to go public. The American people are against it, the GOP rails at him – without noting that only about one-third of the country opposes the law for being too liberal, as a May 17-18 CNN poll showed, while roughly half that many oppose the law for not being liberal enough. This is one of but many ways in which they delude themselves into thinking they represent a majority that simply does not exist, as they head down their path of destruction. Which is why you need to quote Abraham Lincoln to condemn them. Nobody else can do it quite like him.

That’s because destroying the government has now become the GOP’s main purpose – in direct opposition to everything that Lincoln stood for. They stumbled onto it under Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, but it proved so wildly unpopular that they had to bring in George W Bush and his “compassionate conservatism” to scramble back into power. But they proved so inept in governing – huge deficits, pointless wars, financial collapse, etc. – that they found themselves out of power once again, which only made them hate government all the more: If I can’t have her, then no one can! The political party as ultimate creepy stalker. That’s what the Grand Old Party of Lincoln has finally fallen to these days.

Destroying the government has now become the GOP’s main purpose – in direct opposition to everything that Lincoln stood for.

Things can move quickly in such situations, so the shutdown may be over by the time you read this, but the drive behind it will still be there. If we’re lucky, the GOP will have botched things so badly that they abandon plans for their next hostage crisis – the mid-October one involving the debt ceiling, which could threaten the entire global economy.

But even if we do avoid that disaster, the US is still stuck in what engineers call a “failure mode”, a characteristic way in which machinery fails to operate as intended. In their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein offer one analysis of this failure mode – parliamentary-style polarisation in a non-parliamentary political system, with the GOP leading the way in a process of asymmetrical polarisation.

Demonising outgroups

Their analysis makes sense as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go to the heart of what’s driving the polarisation. That is, quite simply, the failure of American conservative thought, which is perennially engaged in defending the power of privileged classes and individuals, and demonising designated outgroups – women, minorities and immigrants most notably in recent elections, along with presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” who don’t pay federal income taxes and the 47 million Americans who receive food stamps from the government.

As long as the designated outgroups are isolated and powerless enough, this may seem like a successful political strategy, but as the outgroups grow larger and larger, its political viability has crumbled. Which is, why, for example, Republicans lost the national popular vote in the House of Representatives by almost two million votes, even though extreme gerrymandering kept them in power – but unable to govern.

Beside that, demonising outgroups has never been sound social policy, even when it does win elections. It’s not just inherently corrosive to democracy, it’s also based on misunderstanding how society works. At its seemingly most rational, demonisation focuses on individual characteristics that really are problematic, and employs narratives of personal responsibility to place all the blame for society’s woes on the most powerless among us. In doing so, Republicans go beyond turning their backs on Lincoln, they turn their backs on Jesus, who said: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”. (Matthew 25:40)

On September 25, choreographer Kyle Abraham was awarded a MacArthur “genius award”. A typical starving artist, Abraham turned to food stamps in 2009, as the Huffington Post noted:

“For less than a year Abraham received about $200 a month. According to the government’s most recent report on dynamics of participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, brief stints are common. “From 2004 to 2006, half of all new participants received SNAP benefits for 10 months or less,” the report said.

People’s fortunes rise and fall, and all of us benefit when we break the fall of those who are most in need. Society is not just a collection of atomised individuals, and cannot be understood in purely individual terms.

Abraham is not alone. Harry Potter author J K Rowling was on welfare in the 1990s. “When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s government, was there to break the fall,” Rowling said, as one of two reasons why she remains a British citizen, paying her full share of taxes, rather than fleeing to some tax haven.

Welfare state: a conservative idea?

Rowling and Abraham may be exceptional – but they were still both on the dole, as were millions of other hard-working members of society in welfare states across the globe. Their quite visible level of success illustrates a broader point – that people’s fortunes rise and fall, and all of us benefit when we break the fall of those who are most in need. Society is not just a collection of atomised individuals, and cannot be understood in purely individual terms.

That’s why welfare states exist in the first place. American conservatives may not know it, but the first modern welfare state was a conservative creation – by Otto von Bismarck  in Germany in the 1880s. Bismarck was responding to the electoral challenge of socialists, but he gained the support of industrialists who realised that universal health-care, disability insurance and old-age pensions would combine to provide the most productive workforce they could hope for.

The US is only just now catching up with 1880s Germany, and it’s driving US conservatives crazy. They are obsessed with the notion that any form of welfare whatsoever creates dependency and “traps” people – leading them, in the extreme, to compare health-care to slavery. But health-care isn’t slavery, nor is food. And neither Kyle Abraham nor J K Rowling were trapped by getting help when they needed it. And the same is true for the vast majority of welfare state benefit recipients.

The fear of dependency is obviously a powerful motivator for conservatives. But that hardly means they are free of dependency themselves. Quite the opposite. The majority of “red states” get more money from the federal government than they contribute in taxes, while the opposite is true for the majority of “blue states”. Moreover, Republicans have spent the last several years defending massive corporate welfare for the richest companies on earth – oil giants like Exxon-Mobil and BP. If dependency were such a great evil, why in the world would they be doing that, particularly if ending such subsidies could help to cut the deficit?

The issue, you see, is not dependency. It is who is deemed “worthy”, and who is not. Just as Obama is deemed not worthy to be president, leading to an endless parade of birther nonsense from conservatives, they have passed similar judgments against everyone who is not like them – women, minorities, immigrants, gays and lesbians, people without health insurance. And now – surprise! surprise! – they find themselves incapable of winning a national election, and deeply puzzled as to why.

To everyone outside their bubble there’s no mystery at all. The only real question is just how many others they will drag down with them – the rest of the US? The rest of the world? And what will it take to finally stop them?

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.