Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Defunding and Democratic Despair, Again

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

Well, we know where the New York Daily News stands today in regards to the current government debacle. As for me, well, I'm afraid I find myself thinking pretty much the exact same thing I thought back in 2011, the last time that the electoral structures which produce the incentives that give us the Congress (and, particularly, the Republican side of the House of Representatives) we currently have resulted in a series of pointless acts of gamesmanship that left our government unable to get anything as basic as paying for the services which the government has already approved done. Here's how I put it then:

This whole debate strikes me as having been taken over by two utterly maddening realities. First, there is a contorted and self-serving reading of the fiduciary responsibilities which the federal government is granted under that Constitution which is, from what appears to me to be any kind of sound accounting perspective, absolutely bonkers. Second, there is a game of political chicken driven by the mutual incomprehension possessed by two entirely distinct types of parties: the first, the one led by President Obama, being a historically normal American political party, with all its usual problems and dynamics, while the second, the one being led by Speaker of the House Boehner (if he is really in control, which ultimately may not be the case; some Republicans may simply have gotten to the point where they lack "the emotional capacity to accept any bargain that isn't a humiliation for Obama") that has apparently committed itself to an fiscal ideology that is, at the very best, seriously half-baked.

Of course, things aren't exactly the same as they were two years and two months ago, so perhaps I should amend the above sentiments a little bit. I'll try to keep myself to two points:

1) Speaker Boehner, it is more obvious than ever, absolutely is not in control of his own party, or his own branch of Congress; certainly he's in even less control than he was in 2011. I'll admit that the hand he's been dealt is a lousy one. After all, the government in Washington DC has not been able to come up with an actual budget since 2009 (or maybe, depending on how you define these things, 1997), and so with a government operating solely off continuing resolutions and various stopgap spending bills, it's not at all difficult to imagine that certain impassioned, Affordable-Care-Act-and-President-Obama-hating radicals (mostly associated with the Tea Party) could see this as good a moment as any to whip the Republican majority into refusing to vote on the Senate's multiple spending bills, and instead keep sending the Senate resolutions that offer to keep the government paying its bills for a year, or for 60 days, or for something, along as not a dime is spent on the Affordable Care Act. Which, of course, is impossible, because like Social Security (which, thankfully, will go forward during the government shutdown, unlike national parks and the Centers of Disease Control and salaries for our diplomats and State Department employees, etc.), the funding is fully protected by law. So, yes, I feel sympathy for him--but not too much. Because he could do the responsible thing: accept any one of the Senate compromises which have been sent his way in recent days (all of which are essentially austerity budgets, as they all have included dramatic cuts in the the levels of government spending from what President Obama and the Senate Democratic majority originally wanted), chuck the nonsense Hastert Rule, allow the non-Tea-Party-addled Republicans to vote along with the 200 Democratic members of the House, and thereby allow the damn government to pay for what it has already approved paying for. But of course, it is almost assuredly the case that Boehner's political self-preservation (like most of the rest of House, but particularly those diving overboard in the name of venting their spleen against a health care law they hate, he has managed to gerrymander himself into a conservative and white and wealthy enough Congressional district that more votes are likely to be won by ideological grandstanding than actual governing) will trump any such concerns over the common good.

2) During an earlier era of governing paralysis--the Clinton/Gingrich wars of the mid-1990s--the political theorist Sheldon Wolin made some important observations in an essay for The Nation, "Democracy and Counterrevolution":

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 an other 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.

Arguably little has changed, both substantively and procedurally, between the two parties since then. Bill Clinton was product of the Democratic Leadership Council, the archetypical modern figure of neoliberal triangulation; this Wall Street-friendly dance on the corpse of the New Deal coalition has continued for twenty years within the Democratic party, and Barack Obama, contrary to the never-ending and paranoid accusations of "socialism" lodged at him, has only continued it. The Republican party, meanwhile, has followed the path Newt Gingrich charted, embracing an updated culture war template for Nixonian "Silent Majority" populism that laid the groundwork of the uninformed constitutionalism of the Tea Party. More importantly, as they have seen the demographics which most generally support conservative causes shrink, they have effectively pursued means of popular persuasion through redistricting, through the ideological capturing of political primaries, through undeniably effective media campaigns, through working through the courts to ensure their place at the table, even as their party's own general popularity plummets. That is, they have done all of this outside to the existing practices and structures of our constitutional system, or at least such as they have existed since the Progressive era.

On one level, I admire this, I truly do. Our "existing practices and structures" suited party coalitions and a political culture much more regional, much less disconnected, and much less ideological than America became through the 20th century. We are a more alienated, more globalized, more diverse, and generally more "winner-take-all" country than we used to be, for reasons both economic and social and cultural. For all those reasons, and more, I would be delighted to see radical changes in our constitutional system; I'd like to see us become more federal, more parliamentary, and more participatory. But as Wolin astutely observed, the constitutional fetishism practiced by part of one of our parties doesn't contribute to that kind of radical, foundational thinking; on the contrary, it points us in a "plebiscitarian" direction, in which each and every legislative debate is subsumed under a grand ideological narrative, the climax of which is a bitter--and apparently eternally delayed, so as to continue endlessly--contest between the leaders of unified party machines.

Party unity isn't to be discredited, to be sure; while the progressive solutions to the problems of a century ago may have been appropriate, today we can see the unfortunate consequences of candidate-centered campaign all around us, and a return to effective party precincts that can truly enlist people in contributing to unifying political movements which they can in turn hold accountable would be a good thing. But Boehner--and, for that matter, Obama as well, despite the hopes of many of his supporters, including to a degree myself--isn't contributing to that kind of unity. Instead, by caving in to the Tea Party, anti-ACA caucus, he is giving that much more legitimacy to the idea that "popular government" really just means endless elite plebiscitary contestation, without any interest in building real common accountability and democratic practice. Instead it all becomes a show, played out far above us--or at least far above those expecting WIC payments, or those expecting to be able to visit national parks, or those who need to obtain a passport, and so forth--seeking only the occasional validation through polls and electoral pluralities. Which, of course, thanks to gerrymandering, the culprits are pretty much guaranteed of. And thus is are polity pushed (or lured) even farther down a path away from genuine responsible democracy, and towards mere spectatorship.

Some people have more confidence in our system than I; they're just hoping that the Republicans will be able to marginalize the Obamacare-hating dead-enders and get back to compromising, as they believe our system was designed to encourage. I think we've traveled beyond that; the incentives which induced our elected representatives to compromise across party lines have been significantly reduced, and with every election cycle (especially post-Citizens United) are further structured out of existence. The plebiscitarian path we are on is likely to continue, I fear; much as I'd like to believe otherwise, it may well be that someday this particular shutdown won't be considered just routine mismanagement, but will be seen as one more step in our country's decline. But maybe I should wait until the upcoming repeat crisis about the debt ceiling to be sure about that.

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