The Shutdown and America’s Post-Democratic Era

The ongoing government shutdown and Congressional stalemate over the government’s ability to fund its programs has highlighted an essential element of contemporary American Zeitgeist.  Financial backing for the Affordable Care Act, which was passed into law in March 2010, has run aground while facing opposition from a very vocal Republican minority within the House of Representatives. The anti-healthcare contingent has demonstrated that it has no qualms about doing wide-rangvoiling damage to the government of the United States or the American citizenry in order to divert national attention to their agenda. Despite the fact that Obamacare remains a fait accompli, the far-right remains convinced that by obstructing the continued operation of the federal government, they will achieve their goals. Welcome, everyone, to the post-democratic era of American politics.

The shutdown has come as the manifestation of an increasingly stagnant legislature that has produced record levels of dissatisfaction among constituents. Aggregated across multiple polling efforts, Congressional approval ratings are currently peaking  just a fraction above 10%. As discontent with Congressional intransigence continues to swell, especially among disaffected Millenials, the age-old American myth of unadulterated self-reliance has been given a new lease on life. An excellent example of this, if you’ll remember, was the Romney presidential campaign’s attempt to decontextualize the ‘If you have a business: You didn’t build that’ soundbyte from a July 2012 speech by the President. While it remains blatantly obvious to any casual observer (or, in fact, anyone who bothers to read the line in context) that the president was not suggesting than an omnipotent central government was responsible for the success of small-business entrepreneurs in America, that did not stop the GOP from pushing their agenda of finger-pointing and birther-esque slander. Indeed, an appallingly cynical conception of America’s working poor and the willingness of Tea Party politicians to regurgitate an abundance of boldfaced lies have combined with the enduring American tradition of governmental distrust to foster a disconcerting base of support for those committed to the anti-government cause.

The very nation’s commitment to “exceptionalism” at the expense of popular welfare has produced, in its latest manifestation, a detrimental legacy of disregard for the marginalised sectors of society. This tradition of neglect forms an oft-ignored subtext that underscores the increasingly prominent return of rhetoric that fetishizes notions of ‘rugged individualism’ and a disdain for the working poor. Despite the disastrous results of the President Herbert Hoover’s trust in the virtues of self-reliance to guide the country through the burgeoning Great Depression and the absurdity of Reagan’s ‘by your bootsraps’ convictions (we’re still waiting for that wealth to trickle down…), high profile Republicans and Libertarians continue to deliver lines that would make Ayn Rand beam with pride.

Once responsible for fostering the immigrant-friendly ‘melting pot’ culture that attracted the world’s greatest scientific and academic minds, America’s fascination with individualism and self-determination forms an integral part of the national spirit (not to mention the second passage of the Declaration of Independence). Today’s ‘Boostrap revival’ efforts, however, have perverted the egalitarian and anti-bourgeoisie aspirations apparent in the spirit of America’s inception. In an ironic move that has pitted the ‘populists’ against the population, shutdown-era radicals of the far-right equate future lower and middle-class prosperity with the eradication of government assistance to those very same groups. We have to look no further than the mid-September bill pushed through the House of Representatives by the GOP majority. The proposed legislation features deep cuts to federal programs that provide assistance (namely ‘food stamps’, which increasingly come in the form of debit-style electronic cards) to those who otherwise cannot afford to eat.

The Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act, which features over $40 billion in cuts over the next 10 years to the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP), was labelled ‘one of the most heartless bills I have ever seen‘ by Democratic Representative James McGovern from Massachusetts. The Republicans, for their part, have an entirely different perspective. House Speaker (and shutdown celebrity) John Boehner claimed that the bill would make ‘getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs’. This sentiment, as well as the bill’s lofty title, would lead you to believe that the bill contains some sort of pro-labor provision that would work to help soften the blow of slashed government benefits to the poor. This, however, is far from the case.

When viewing the Act’s contents, any allusions of GOP sympathy for impoverished Americans are quickly dispelled. Boehner’s description of the bill’s utility as a tool in expediting the unemployed masses’ return to work is wildly disingenuous. In place of any remotely proactive initiatives exist a series of draconian measures that highlight the elimination of ‘state performance bonuses’, ‘increas[ed] oversight of SNAP programs for the homeless, elderly, and disabled’, and the consent of the federal government for states to ‘conduct drug testing on SNAP applicants as a condition for receiving benefits’.  Voilà, ça y est. Today’s Republicans care little about reinvigorating the working-class foundation of the domestic economy, and much more about preventing the President’s health care bill from coming into effect.

The third item of  the aforementioned list has featured heavily in recent conservative agendas. The push to mandate drug testing for SNAP recipients does little to discourage the perpetuation of the caustic and bigoted ‘welfare queen’ mythology. It has become increasingly clear that the modern libertarian equates poverty with sloth and unemployment with apathy. The drug testing initiative, in addition to being ethically and morally objectionable, has been shown to make little economic sense. Florida conservatives were temporarily successful in launching a new law that resulted in a four month period of testing in 2012. In a deeply ironic twist, the examinations produced a failure rest of just 2.8%, which resulted in a cost to the state of $118,140. The program, which cost the state more than the expense of the potential benefits to the 2.8% of drug-using welfare-recipients, was deemed likely to have been a ‘constitutional infringement’ by a Federal District Court who discontinued the testing via temporary injunction.

The unsurprising results of the Floridian experiment have done little to deter the right wing’s push to further marginalize the American lower classes. Regardless of the matter at hand, be it food stamps or healthcare, it is clear that the anti-government contingent of the GOP will stop at nothing to see the income disparity widen and the downtrodden fall increasingly underfoot. The most recent manifestation of this desire, the government shutdown, has only pushed their pursuit further into the international spotlight. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the far-right is far less concerned with implementing alternative routes towards American prosperity than they are to obstructing ideologically undesirable legislation and attempting to annihilate the reputation of Democratic presidents.

 

madhouse of reps
Star Tribune/Cagle Cartoons

 

The unflattering rightward shift of the political spectrum in the United States has coincided with a growing disparity between the privileged few and the disenchanted masses, with the lower echelons of society inheriting the lion’s share of the resulting burden. The contingent of anti-welfare extremist Republicans in the House of Representatives referred to as the ‘Anarchy Gang’ by Senator Elizabeth Warren and their constituents have achieved an overwhelming level of success. President Jimmy Carter recently remarked that:

The disparity between rich people and poor people in America has increased dramatically since when we started… The middle class has become more like poor people than they were 30 years ago.

Adding insult to injury, the push to disenfranchise (see: the recent fight over voter registration laws) and marginalize the American masses is exacerbated by a declining education system. The de-funding of public schools fits neatly into the far-right’s program to comprehensively privatize American life. It also, not-so-coincidentally, functions to inhibit the upward mobility of citizens and abolishes any prospect of ‘bootstrap’-style salvation. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has quantified the decline of American academic prowess. A BBC article on the report remarked that the United States represented ‘an education superpower of a previous generation’, where younger generations are increasingly less educated than their parents. This downward spiral has had tangible effects beyond the general ignorance of the population, with the number of ‘highest-skilled’ professionals in the US falling from 42% to 28%.

The reality, however, has remained almost entirely irrelevant to the far right. Plummeting levels of education and unprecedented levels of poverty Practicalities do not represent any significant impediment to the GOP’s pursuit of unabashedly ideologically-driven agenda. If anything, the downward trend in education enables the radical right’s pursuit of all things anti-science and anti-modern. Equally, it simply does not matter that  their ‘small government’ rhetoric runs completely contrary to drug testing for welfare recipients that costs the state exorbitant sums. The fact that Obamacare is based largely on conservative designs and represents a significant step forward for the American population is equally irrelevant. The commitment to antagonism at the expensive of reason has spawned claims about the Affordable Care Act that cross a line drawn far beyond absurdity and extend well into the realm of nauseating obscenity. The legislation, which functions to expand healthcare provisions to significant swathes of previously-uninsured Americans, has been labelled ‘a law as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850‘ by Republican Representative Bill O’Brien. Tea Party leader and architect of the ‘not-quite-filibuster’ Senator Ted Cruz has led the charge among the minority of Republicans committed to a protracted shuttering of the government. In his opinion, the President and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are responsible for grinding the government to a half over their unwillingness to ‘compromise’ on Obamacare. The reality, in stark contrast to the Tea Party Senator’s remarks, is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed through both houses of Congress, was upheld by the Supreme Court, and was reaffirmed by the election of Obama (in lieu of Mitt Romney, whose promise to ‘repeal Obamacare’ formed the basis of his entire presidential campaign) to a second term.

While the  shutdown has come as a shock to many, American and non-American alike, it is really far from surprising when viewed from a wider perspective. The current situation has come as a simple product of cause-and-effect. There can be no reasonable expectation of responsibility when ideologues are voted into government. It is not an event that comes without repercussion. It seems especially silly to except the smooth operation of Congress from Representatives that campaign on a platform of anti-government values. When politicians are more committed to the partisan pursuit of destroying the legacy of an incumbent President than they are to providing for the well-being of their fellow countrymen, it becomes absurd to expect a positive result.

It is dangerous, though, to think of the Congressional deadlock as the problem, and not a symptom. The shutdown (and possible upcoming default) has come as a direct consequence of the mainstream acceptance of Tea Party politicians and the dangerous extremes that they represent. Most recently, an individual appeared at the anti-Obama protests in front of the White House accompanied by a Confederate flag. This wildly inappropriate gesture in many ways embodies the senselessness and misguided nature of the government shutdown as well as contemporary American politics at large. Despite impassioned cries of protesters, galvanized by an appearance of Tea Party celebrities Sarah Palin and Senator Ted Cruz, the truth that emerged undeterred. In today’s political arena, the reality has taken a back seat to reactionary fervor. Fear and moralizing partisanship have overtaken the practical considerations of governing, and politics has been reduced to a game of who can behave in the most petulant manner. The reckless brinkmanship is well represented in the recent remarks of President Obama, who has continually affirmed that he ‘will not negotiate’ over things like ‘the full faith and credit of the United States’ or ‘whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations’. However, it remains quite difficult not to mentally substitute the latter half of that phrase with its more conventional conclusion.

In response to the flag-bearer’s breach of decorum, Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked that ‘If a patriot can stand in front of the White House brandishing the Confederate flag, then the word ‘patriot’ has no meaning’. In addition to the immediate significance, the sentiment is especially poignant in considering the contemporary distortion of traditional GOP priorities. Gone are the days when practical economic considerations drove policy within the Republican Party. While it’s very likely that Congress will conjure up a last-minute compromise to avoid a cataclysmic breech of the debt ceiling, it will not be because any minds were changed. No compromises will be struck, because today’s Conservatives are uninterested in doing so. Pragmatism, like bipartisanship, is a relic of the old GOP.  The new Republican party is willing to be defined by a small minority of Tea Party extremists who are,  by and large, more concerned with portraying the President as a litany of increasingly laughable evils than they are with improving the country, or, as the previous weeks have demonstrated, even allowing it to function.