October 4, 2013, is probably not December 23, 1776:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly…
Thomas Paine was on a roll there. The “crisis” was that we simply had to toss the British out and start our own country or all was lost – not one of us would ever be a free man. The issues really weren’t political either, having to do with this policy or that, or even military. This was about every citizen’s very soul. Either you’re all-in or you’ve just given up and have chosen to be no more than a slave, or at least a useless fool – but if you have a soul at all, if you’re not just an unthinking tool of some feckless tyrant, this was the time to prove it, because this was the time your soul itself would be tested. These times don’t come along every day. In fact, Paine seems to argue that there had never, ever, been a time anything like this ever before.
Paine was brilliant in his way, and for his time, but his contention was dubious. Countless polemicists have argued the same thing, telling us that the time in which we find ourselves is that one unique time of crisis, like no other, and everyone should choose sides, and choose the right side, to save their very soul, and the nation, and the world. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck say such things all the time, and the Tea Party crowd quotes Paine all the time – they tell us we’re at one of those moments again, that one ultimate and unique crisis – but there’s nothing new there. The John Birch Society said the crisis was various local and state governments agreeing with the American Dental Association that it was probably a good idea to add trace amounts of fluoride to the water supply. It was. There was less tooth decay. There was Ronald Reagan on the horror of Medicare too – “We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
That was a great line, worthy of Thomas Paine, but now most of that angry Tea Party crowd consists of outraged old white folks who have been on Medicare for years, holding up signs demanding the government keeps its hands off “their” Medicare. They proudly and loudly consider themselves free in spite of Medicare, or even because of it, so somebody got it wrong. There was no crisis in the first place, and as for Thomas Paine, Britain is now our closest ally, and these days Americans swoon over the doings of the royal family in a way most Brits find rather embarrassing. Crises tend to evaporate.
There’s no matching crisis mentality on the other side, or there hasn’t been one since the sixties with all the civil rights stuff and our massive Vietnam mistake. There was plenty of apocalyptic talk from the Black Panthers and the white-bread long-haired radicals, and talk of revolution, but Democrats and liberals and progressives generally don’t frame much of anything as a crisis. They just don’t think that way. If something isn’t working, or is appallingly unfair, you fix it, and if the fix doesn’t work just right, you make changes and adjustments as necessary. It’s never the end of the world as we know it. There are only difficult problems to be solved, which can be solved thoughtfully and methodically, eventually – an attitude which drives everyone on the right crazy. Over there it’s always the end of the world. These are always the times that try men’s souls.
This makes governing the country impossible, and this also goes a long way in explaining why we’re in the fourth day of a government shutdown over Obamacare. To recap, Republicans didn’t have the votes to stop the Affordable Care Act from passing in 2010. They didn’t have the votes to repeal it in 2011. They didn’t have the votes to win the presidency and the Senate by campaigning against it in 2012, explicitly. The law was passed fair and square, long ago, by both houses of Congress, and survived a Supreme Court challenge too. The rules of the system were followed, scrupulously, and there are explicit rules for repealing a law. You find the votes to pass something else in its place. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes – but this time the Republicans have been willing to shut down the government, crippling the economy, and will soon force the United States unto default, collapsing the world’s economy for a generation or two, unless the Affordable Care Act, already being implemented, is defunded or delayed for a year, or two, or three or forever. This is that important. This is that crisis.
It’s a Thomas Paine kind of thing. Those absurd Democrats, who cannot see an existential crisis right there in front of them, one that actually tries men’s souls, have devised a way for thirty or forty million more Americans to have the chance to buy low-cost subsidized health insurance from private-sector parties, and then got that passed into actual law – and that’s somehow the end of the world.
Democrats just don’t see it. This was just a problem to be solved and they found a way to solve it, even if getting it right will take a bit of backtracking here and there, and lots of tinkering. What’s the problem? The Republicans have never offered their solution to all these uninsured millions, clogging the emergency rooms and driving up everyone else’s healthcare costs, giving us a healthcare system that spends twice as much per capita on healthcare than any other nation on earth, with outcomes that have us ranking thirty-seventh in the world or something. There’s a problem, a serious one. Obamacare was one solution.
The Republicans say they’ll come up with a solution soon, their own comprehensive healthcare plan, but they’ve been saying that for many years now. They did come up with RomneyCare in Massachusetts a few years back, which works just fine, but that was the model for Obamacare – they’re just about the same thing – so they don’t like to talk about that. Mitt Romney, when he ran against Obama, repeatedly tied himself up in knots trying to explain that what he pushed through in Massachusetts was a good thing, a wonderful accomplishment, but the federal government should try no such thing, ever, because that would be the end of the world for America, or something or other. No one knew what he was talking about, but that sort of describes his whole campaign. He was the Republican candidate. He had to talk about the end of the world. It comes with the territory.
Maybe it’s time to explore that territory, and a Democratic group headed by Stan Greenberg and James Carville has just put out this report on their recent focus group discussions with Republican voters, explaining why the Tea Party’s power keeps growing. The Tea Party crowd did pussy-whip John Boehner after all, forcing him to go all-in for a government shutdown, after he had spent the first six months of this year saying he didn’t want one, that the whole idea was stupid. He couldn’t stop them, even if they’re a small part of his caucus.
That is curious, but Greenberg and Carville show us the ultimate end-of-the-world array of current Republican voters, and Andrew Sullivan, having reviewed the report and the supporting detail, offers this summary:
The base Republican voters in these focus groups view themselves as besieged by minorities seeking free benefits, and see Obama as the Pied Piper of those hoping to abuse the system. They are not explicitly racist about the president or about the beneficiaries of the new goodies (though they had no such qualms during Bush’s Medicare D entitlement). But they believe they are losing an America that a Roanoke evangelical describes like this:
“Everybody is above average. Everybody is happy. Everybody is white. Everybody is middle class, whether or not they really are. Everybody looks that way. Everybody goes to the same pool. Everybody goes – there’s one library, one post office – very homogeneous.”
That’s the America they think they’re losing. Everybody is happy. Everybody is white – not that they’re racist or anything. They’ll say they have many black friends. Some of their best friends are black. They just miss the good old days, and they certainly feel something is being taken away from them, given these quotes Sullivan highlights:
“The government’s giving in to a minority, to push an agenda, as far as getting the votes for the next time”. (Evangelical man, Roanoke)
“There’s so much of the electorate in those groups that Democrats are going to take every time because they’ve been on the rolls of the government their entire lives. They don’t know better.” (Tea Party man, Raleigh)
Their sense of loss seems to be overwhelming, and Greenberg and Carville show us that nothing makes them angrier than Obamacare:
When Evangelicals talk about what is wrong in the country, Obamacare is first on their list and they see it as the embodiment of what is wrong in both the economy and American politics. In fact, when asked what she talks about most, one woman in Colorado replied, “Obamacare, hands down, around our house.” In Roanoke, it was the first thing mentioned when asked “what’s the hot topic in your world?”
To participants in these groups, Obamacare “just looks like a wave’s coming, that we’re all going to get screwed very soon.” (Evangelical woman, Colorado Springs)
“Obamacare’s just another intrusion on the Constitution … And I just – I’m appalled. I’m appalled by what’s going on in our country.”(Evangelical man, Roanoke)
“It’s putting us at the mercy of the government again.” (Tea Party woman, Roanoke)
“[Our rights] are slowly being taken away… like health care.” (Tea Party woman, Roanoke)
Sullivan sees this report as seminal in explaining the shutdown and much more:
I’ve long argued that you have to see the bigger cultural and religious picture when analyzing what has happened to American conservatism these past two decades or so.
The bewildering economic and social and demographic changes have created a cultural and existential panic among those most heavily concentrated in those districts whose members are threatening to tear down the global economy as revenge for losing two presidential elections in a row. They feel they have already lost and have nothing to gain from any constructive engagement with a president they regard as pretty close to the anti-Christ of parasitic minorities. They feel isolated in a more multi-cultural country. They feel spied upon and condescended to. They have shut out any news sources apart from Fox. It does not occur to them, for example, that Obamacare might actually help them. And you get no actual specifics on policies they like or dislike. It is all abstractions based on impressions.
These are the folks who would have taken Thomas Paine seriously, because they take Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck seriously. These are the times that try men’s souls, and Sullivan notes that’s why they now won’t take John Boehner and his stupid Republican Party seriously:
They identify more strongly with the Tea Party or Evangelical groups or Fox News than the GOP. On social issues, the defining issue is homosexuality – not abortion. That intransigence will alienate them even further from the future mainstream. Their next big issue: denying climate change. Right now, I see no way to integrate these groups and people into the broader body politic or conversation. Their alienation is so deep it is close to unbridgeable. And further defeats will make their isolation worse, not better, their anger more, not less, intense.
Paine spoke of the crisis we all faced at the time and Sullivan sees a different sort of crisis here:
Without strong economic growth, it is hard to see how it can be ameliorated in the near future. Perhaps if moderate Republicans – a mere quarter of the whole – jumped ship to the Democrats, then the electoral losses would be so great as to demand some kind of reform. But the center is not holding. And I fear it will get even worse than this until it gets better.
Except it’s hard to imagine political dysfunction getting worse than risking the first ever default by the Treasury of the United States because a key minority feels “disrespected.”
Thomas Paine has a lot to answer for, and these folks don’t even know their losing, as Chuck Todd and his team at First Read explain here:
Despite polls showing that more Americans are blaming Republicans than Democrats for the shutdown, and despite establishment Republicans admitting they aren’t winning this fight, conservatives aren’t backing down. In fact, they feel they have survived the fallout from the first few days. Case in point is Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) admission in that hot-mic moment that “We’re gonna win this, I think.”
Is that the reality of this standoff? Or it is simply due to the conservative echo chamber? After all, one of the major differences between the last shutdown (in 1995-1996) and now is the rise of FOX News, Drudge, and Breitbart News. As the New York Times recently wrote, “a fervent group of conservatives – bloggers, pundits, activists and even members of Congress – is harnessing the power of the Internet, determined to tell the story of the current budget showdown on its terms.”
This explains why conservatives aren’t as convinced as many others are that this will do significant damage to the party.
Daniel Larison sees a pattern here:
Some Republicans are making all of the same mistakes that they made when they ignored all of the evidence suggesting that the GOP was likely to lose in 2012. Most of the time, the echo chamber hurts conservatives and Republicans by making them oblivious to inconvenient facts and ideas, but in this case it is leading them to believe in an alternate political reality with its own set of rules.
That alternate political reality is the world of perpetual soul-trying crises, one after the other. It’s a special way of thinking, but in the New York Times, Sam Tanenhaus argues it’s not ineffective:
If the government shutdown has shown us anything, it’s that the 80 or so House Republicans driving the crisis have emerged as the most unified force in politics: tightly organized, highly disciplined and ideologically firm.
But wasn’t their plan to make the budget a vehicle for defunding President Obama’s health care legislation doomed from the start? And even if this small band has the backing of voters in their safely drawn “red” districts, as well as Tea Party support, haven’t their unyielding tactics antagonized a majority of the public?
Yeah, Obamacare is rolling out on schedule, and all the polling shows most Americans think this crowd is a bunch of jerks, so they’re losing, big time, but Tanenhaus argues that they’re not really losing at all:
In fact, this minority faction – the “suicide caucus,” as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has called it – may be less shortsighted and self-defeating than it appears. At a time when so many officials in both parties still invoke the virtues of compromise and perpetuate the ideal of common ground on which “conservative pragmatists” can meet “moderate Democrats,” these more combative Republicans may be in the vanguard of a new post-consensus politics.
Tanenhaus explains this new post-consensus politics this way:
Consider the warnings of many – including some in the conservative establishment – the shutdown will rebound against the party. As evidence they cite the shutdown of 1995. The winner then was President Bill Clinton, who deftly used the episode to right his wobbly presidency and then coasted to a second term in 1996.
But Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who helped set the stage for the conflict, has offered a different interpretation. Those prophesying ruin “need to go back and read their history books a little more closely” regarding 1995, he said on Laura Ingraham’s radio show in July. “In the next election, 1996, Republicans held on to the majority in the House, the first time Republicans had done that since 1930, in 66 years,” Mr. Cruz pointed out. “We lost a total of nine seats in the House. In the Senate, we gained two seats.”
Mr. Cruz, in other words, was calculating the odds of success in terms of the Congressional, rather than presidential, outcome.
That’s where the action is now, and Tanenhaus cites a traditional conservative, Michael Gerson, insisting that Cruz and his allies are mounting a “revolt against reality” – implying that Gerson is simply looking at a different playing field, and at the wrong pool of potential voters:
As America becomes more diverse, another population has come more clearly into view: the alienated and disenchanted. These people have embraced a libertarian and anti-government outlook and have little use for what they see as the compromised, impure “big government” conservatism of the Reagan and Bush years.
To this constituency, the Republican who will go as far as he can – taking one last crack at undoing Mr. Obama’s health care reform or voting later this month not to raise the debt ceiling – is not an obstructionist but a politician of principle, a rebel with a cause.
If it’s always the end of the world, that classic Paine-crisis, then all bets are off. Nothing is off-limits, and what works is what matters:
Recent victories that Republicans have won – for instance on gun control – have come not through compromise but by out-organizing and outspending their opponents. The hallowed idea of consensus, and the dream of building a majority, has given way to a survival strategy.
The most striking example of Republican opposition is the revival of the doctrine of states’ rights, historically associated with slavery and Jim Crow. There are unmistakable overtones of this past in the anti-Obamacare movement in some of the 26 states, especially in the Deep South, that have rejected the Medicaid expansion.
But the states’ rights argument has a pedigree that long predates slavery and has often grown out of tax disputes, going back to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. The most ingenious theorist of states’ rights, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the great antebellum defender of slavery, originally formulated his nullification arguments not in support of slavery but against the policy of protective tariffs that favored the industrial North over the agricultural South.
It’s not just Thomas Paine, as Calhoun has returned from the dead too:
The states’ rights doctrine was center stage at the Liberty Political Action Conference, held in Chantilly, Va., in September and sponsored by the Campaign for Liberty, a group created in 2008 by Ron Paul, in some respects the godfather of post-consensus politics.
Speakers and attendees praised the 10th Amendment, as one would expect. Several also criticized the 17th, which allowed for the direct popular election of senators, who had previously been chosen by state legislatures.
Why would libertarians – many of them Tea Party-aligned – object to giving voters more say in choosing their senators? Because, as a young, Harvard-trained law professor at the event told me, the amendment diminished the authority of state lawmakers.
This is the perspective of a self-conscious minority that seeks not to build consensus but to rally the likeminded. We see it as well in the anti-tax pledges promoted by conservative groups and in the fielding of right-wing challengers to ideologically suspect Republicans.
It’s all about rallying the likeminded, what Samuel Adams called the “irate, tireless minority” – which is presumably a good thing. Tanenhaus mentions that Ron Paul quotes Samuel Adams on that quite a bit.
Rally the likeminded. Everybody is happy. Everybody is white. Everybody is middle class, whether or not they really are. Everybody looks that way. Then find a few post-consensus politicians who will make sure things stay that way. These are the times that try men’s souls, after all.
No they’re not. There are no such times. There are only problems to be solved, as best we can solve them, for now – and we keep working on them, ironing out the difficulties they arise.
That not very exciting, and maybe that’s the problem. Anyone can see why Paine’s 1776 pamphlet was so stirring. His words were exciting, but they were also deceptive. No one’s soul was on the line. We wanted our own country, which was the immediate problem, and we solved that particular problem, eventually, sort of – we’re still working out what that country should be. It’s a work in progress, like everything. Those who think otherwise took Paine far too seriously.