The U.S. media has a curious way of covering the government shutdown. Fearful that viewers and readers will see them as taking sides if they accurately describe what has occurred, writers and talking heads are obsessed with “balance” to a point that distorts the truth.
Take this CNN story, which is typical in its bone-headedness: “Listen to Democrats, and the government shutdown is a tale of recklessly stubborn Republicans driving the country into a chasm. Listen to Republicans, and it’s a story of cleverly dogmatic Democrats who would rather see calamity than make a deal. But listen to many voters and you’ll hear a question: How is it possible that both parties have failed so badly in the relatively simple task of keeping the federal government open for business? ‘If I don’t perform at my job, then I don’t get paid’, Michael, the canyon-stranded groom says. ‘That should hold true for other people’”.
Let’s begin unpacking that.
When Democrats were furious with George W Bush for his prosecution of an illegal war, his regressive social policies, and his deadly program of deregulation, they did not use the fact that they controlled both branches of Congress after the 2006 election to plunge the country into crisis to get their way. They recognised that there are rules, and that if you’re being responsible, you don’t sabotage the process.
The Republican Party’s representatives are fundamentally different. In spite of the fact that the healthcare law was passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court, and in the face of their drubbing in the 2012 election—wherein the President and Democratic House and Senate candidates received more votes than Republicans who were running against the Affordable Care Act—the Republican Party has decided that playing by the rules and seeking the public’s endorsement wasn’t fun anymore.
Better, they decided, to simply sabotage the whole process. There is virtually no chance—our President perhaps having found his spine as he wearily rummaged around to find a copy of his birth certificate to show the foaming carnival barkers in the GOP—that the Republican Party will be able to repeal the healthcare law, but because their goal is to create inefficiency in government to erode trust in government, they are taking advantage of this opportunity to engineer a state of chaos and disorder in our country.
And yet the media persists in treating the two sides as though they are equally culpable. Not all opinions and views merit equal treatment. If an interviewer was confronted with one person who said the earth was flat and another who maintained it was round, would the two receive equal respect? If one person said that George Washington died over 200 years ago, and another person said they saw him at a Tea Party meeting just last week, would they be equally credible?
Republicans are quick to exploit the media’s bumbling ineptitude and inaccuracy. Republican Representative Peter King is working to convince House colleagues to dump their primal obsession with the healthcare law and get on with the business of governing, calling Ted Cruz a “fraud”. But he also sought to perpetuate the myth that Democrats are bound to engage with the feral fundamentalists in the House. King said on CNN, “It’s time for President Obama to get engaged...this is his government, and whether it’s our fault or not, the Republican Party’s fault or not, he’s the president, he’s got to come into this, he can’t just stand back and let this go forward, so I’m calling on him to get involved...it’s time for the president to get engaged”.
I disagree. This might very well be an unpopular thing to say, but I think that for the same reasons a warmonger like Peter King says we shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, we shouldn’t negotiate with Republican hostage-takers. The principle is similar. The reason governments dislike negotiating with “terrorists” is that they are people who have chosen to do destructive things by circumventing the process and refusing to play by the rules. In many cases, “terrorists” can’t win power legitimately, and so they resort to a kind of sabotage, often violent. The logic is that negotiating with them would legitimate their strategy and send a message that their strategy works.
The same is true of the economic and religious fundamentalists in the House of Representatives or the Senate. Why should the President, who got the healthcare law passed, who beat them in an election, whose party won more votes than them in both houses of Congress in that election, and who is playing by the rules, waste his time negotiating with people intent on sabotaging the process, because that sabotage helps them to realise their end?
What would be achieved by the President “getting engaged”? He would do the country a disservice if he gave the Republican Party the message that every time it didn’t get its way it could simply engineer a breakdown in our system of governance. Why should one half of one branch of government get to dictate terms? The small group of fundamentalists who have the Speaker dancing to their tune are not likely to be persuaded to suddenly drop the issue.
I think that the ball is in the GOP’s court. If the party wants to remain a legitimate actor in our process, its leadership needs to settle its own civil war instead of dragging the country into its internal battle between old-fashioned proponents of trickle-down and corporate welfare who know when they’ve lost a battle, and the feral fundamentalists.
The latter, as I wrote yesterday, are trying to bring the lie that is at the heart of their policies to life. That lie is that “Government” doesn’t work. That’s untrue. “Government”, inasmuch as it’s a “thing”, works pretty well (whether we agree with everything it does is an entirely separate question): people get their social security checks; the EPA monitors water and air quality; if you write a letter it gets delivered; national parks are maintained for the use of the public; we have functioning public schools and universities; if a building catches on fire, a fire truck shows up; if you dial 911, there’s someone on the other end; and so on.
Because their primary contention is based on a lie, the fundamentalists—with Ted Cruz looking like he’ll be in the driver’s seat of the clown car this time around—have to do their best to make it true by engineering a failure of government. There is no equivalency between their behaviour and that of Democrats, and there is nothing to be gained by negotiating with the minority in the House—because make no mistake, there are plenty of their colleagues who are not marching out of any conviction, but simply because they’re afraid to be the first to disrupt the rhythm of the jackboots—who have decided to make the failure of our system of government their primary goal.