Holiday in Washington

Tinted lights, location unknown, n.d.

It finally happened. The US government has shut itself down for the first time since 1996. If you’re concerned about what this means, I recommend the article that Brad Plumer has written in The Washington Post, which discusses the shutdown’s effect in full. Personally, I’m most concerned with the long-term effects that this particular brand of politics has on American democracy.

First, readers may be confused about what exactly this fight is about, since it is occurring simultaneous to the fallout of the Budget Control Act. That act was passed after tense negotiations which narrowly prevented the United States from entering sovereign default by raising the debt-ceiling. Since the core debates around deficit reduction, and particularly tax hikes on the wealthy, could not be solved in mid-2011, legislators essentially opted to delay its resolution, which led to the fiscal-cliff scenarios of sequestration. These are ongoing, and will likely lead to another political battle in mid-October, when the debt-ceiling is reached once again.

This particular showdown, which is projected to cost the country at least $55 billion, is about the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare.”) House Republicans are pressing for additional cuts, and delays, to the law, which they have notoriously repealed 44 times. These were essentially acts of protest, since they would need to pass the Senate, and be signed by President Obama, to actually do anything. The timing of this specific protest, which may force Obama’s hand, is tied to how October 1st marks the beginning of the fiscal year, and the health-care exchange. Frustratingly, Obamacare provisions aren’t even affected by the federal shutdown, but this confrontation is occurring anyway because the exchange is a key enough step in Obamacare’s implementation that further pushes against it will be made extremely difficult.

House Republicans are once again using procedural formalities as a stage for this dissent, focusing this time on the stopgap budget bill that needed to be renewed with the end of Fiscal Year 2013 last night. The United States has technically operated without a proper budget since 2009 due to Congressional division, and President Obama has been forced to use this temporary measure in order to keep the federal government functioning. It finally stopped working.

But I am not all too worried about the immediate effects of this shutdown, though its effects on welfare, particularly with the WIC program, are a source of legitimate concern. The United States has gone through this before, and many agencies do have contingency plans for even non-essential functions such as the processing of passports. As far as pay is concerned, it can be implemented retroactively for most government workers. What makes me uneasy is the social effect of these prolonged games: both on the national psyche, and the future of American politics.

Even by American standards, people are weary with politics. The prevalence of simplified terms like “finger pointing,” and “the nation is maxing out its credit card,” in media coverage has robbed many Americans of the ability to navigate what is going on. The result is that Congressional tensions are merely qualifying as childish squabbles, rather than the results of failed policies that date back to Ronald Reagan. Helpless exhaustion is a pervading, and heavily circulated, emotion, particularly as it is linked to discourse on American decline. That dejection opens up some very good possibilities, which push for greater democratization, but also a host of bad ones, such as being more vulnerable to campaigns of fear and intimidation.

Obamacare protest art, location unknown, 28 August 2009.
Obamacare protest art. US, August 2009.

And for me, that vulnerability finds a highly volatile partner in the degrading ability of the United States Congress to adequately reform its own government. Right-wing elements in the US have successfully created a situation where any incremental challenge to the status-quo qualifies as a revolutionary act (accompanied by those exhausting declarations of “Obama is a socialist!”) They’ve bolstered this agenda in the Republican Party by paying lip-service to fundamentalisms that have not entered public discourse explicitly since the 1960s, such as the birther conspiracy theories.

The result is that things that need to be changed institutionally don’t. The massive political war over single-payer options in Obamacare is a perfect example, in addition to other stipulations of the bill that had to be negotiated away before its passage. American political discourse has become too rigidly sectarian for other possibilities, especially with the retreat of effective unions and other leftist forces.

This has prevented President Obama from persuing governmental reforms in a meaningfully reformist way for his entire presidency. The result of such hardline approaches is that Obama’s widely-praised centrism ends up producing minor variants on already failed policies. This is especially true when the artificially established tent-poles for acceptable American congressional discussions rest between those leaning to the right, and an increasingly bold far-right, with occasional left-wing outliers such as Bernie Sanders.

I am troubled by the possibility that American politics could see these behaviors institutionalized. Some of my friends believe that much of this theater is linked to President Obama himself. But what if it becomes an endemic feature of American economic crises? I am especially concerned with this since a sluggish job market, deep cuts to the welfare state, student loan crises, and other realities, all seem to be signs that another financial crash is coming sooner rather than later. Especially since Wall Street stocks, and an uneven housing market, seem to be supernaturally elevated above the fiscal prospects of the country which hosts them.

And if that happens, with reform and negotiation becoming more necessary than ever before, then how will Congress respond, if it is this willing to deny Americans the benefits of an already passed bill? And if Congress doesn’t respond properly, then how will Americans themselves come to behave, especially when it comes to politics, in a time of prolonged crisis?


Photographs courtesy of  Don Solo  and  Brett Tatman. Published with a Creative Commons License.

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