Proposing the Alternative to Constitutional Democracy

When the president takes that oath of office, when members of Congress take their oaths of office, they swear to defend the Constitution. The oath isn’t about any particular public policy position – treating the poor or unlucky a certain way, or the rich, or even about defending the country. One assumes they’ll do their best to defend the country from all enemies foreign and domestic, one way or another. That’s not the main point. The main point is getting them on record regarding the basic rules we’ve agreed to follow, which is a contract, really, and the structure of all we are. America isn’t geography. We started out as thirteen states and reached fifty in the middle of the last century, and may one day add Puerto Rico, or not. It’s not a unified culture and a set of specific traditions either – all that changes, all the time. We assimilated lots of different cultures, and the greeting card companies invented all sorts of new traditions over the years. America is actually no more than an idea of how things should be done.

That’s it. That’s all. America is a complex system of checks and balances, where the people, all of them if possible, get to decide what gets done, and what doesn’t. That’s not how it works of course – direct democracy is impossible with a population of over three hundred million and growing. Everyone can’t vote on every single thing, nor would they want to, so we have a representative democracy. We elect those we trust to decide what gets done, and what doesn’t, and leave it to them. If enough people think they’ve screwed up, which happens, we vote someone else into office next time around, and hope for the best, again. But we do make everyone agree to play by the basic rules. There are rules about how laws get passed and wars get started and stopped and all the rest. Elections matter – they do change the course of things – but the system matters even more. If you don’t like the results of an election, and what changed because of it, you don’t have the option of blowing up the system. You took the oath. You’ll play by the rules.

It seems that the Republicans, who pride themselves on being the true defenders of the constitution, have forgotten that, but that began long before the current spat about Obamacare. When Sharron Angle was running against Harry Reid out in Nevada a few years ago she said this:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every twenty years.

I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

It sounded like she was calling for the assassination of Harry Reid, but she was actually just calling for armed insurrection if Congress keeps doing stupid stuff – and she seemed to have had Obamacare in mind. It was pretty simple. In a representative democracy, if a majority of the duly-elected representatives of the people vote for what those who put them in office pretty much told them to vote for, and what the majority passes into law is, in your opinion, wrong, then you have those Second Amendment remedies – get your gun and change the government. You do that if you believe in democracy – or maybe if you believe that what you see as freedom is far more important than majority-rule democracy. Sharron Angle lost that election, but this was a pretty consistent theme in all the Tea Party talk.

They wanted their country back, but then it wasn’t really their country. They weren’t the majority, and they weren’t even the majority in the Republican Party, just its most riled-up bloc, but now they’re even less than that:

As Washington braces for another budget showdown, this time with the threat of defunding the new healthcare law in the mix, the key political force pushing for conservative policies sees diminished popular support. Fewer Americans now describe themselves as supporters of the Tea Party movement than did at the height of the movement in 2010, or even at the start of 2012. Today’s 22% support nearly matches the record low found two years ago….

Opponents of the Tea Party now outnumber supporters 27% to 22%, which is similar to their edge in 2012….

They are a shrinking minority of a minority, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog says that may not mean much:

There aren’t a lot of big (or even moderately sized) tea party demonstrations these days. Tea party types aren’t shutting down congressional town halls. People identified as tea party members aren’t all over Fox News. The mainstream press is no longer running its “what is this gosh-darn tea party thing anyway” stories, with tales of plucky grassroots-y types turned seasoned operators.

To those of us who regularly follow political news, “tea party” is still the shorthand term for a certain type of conservative, mainly because “tea party” rolls off the tongue more smoothly that “barking-mad extremist who’d rather shut down the government and let the country go into default than compromise with other democratically elected government officials.” Thus, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are seen as “tea party” guys, even though you rarely see them surrounded by actually tea party crowds.

The survey data is meaningless, you see. The name means nothing. It’s the blow-up-the-system methodology that matters, and the Republican Party is still trying to deal with that:

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) came to the Senate floor Thursday to lambast his conservative colleagues, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT), for not agreeing to a request by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to move up a cloture vote on a continuing resolution funding the government from Friday to Thursday evening.

Corker argued that the Senate should act as soon as possible in order to give their House colleagues more time to avert a government shutdown, criticizing Cruz for putting on a “show” meant to attract attention instead.

“It’s my understanding again, relative to this vote tonight happening tomorrow instead, is that my two colleagues, who I respect, have sent out e-mails around the world and turned this into a show possibly, and, therefore, they want people around the world to watch maybe them and others on the Senate floor,” Corker said, with Cruz and Lee present on the floor.

“And that is taking priority over getting legislation back to the House so they can take action before the country’s government shuts down and, by the way, causing them possibly to put in place again some other good policies,” he added.

In short, let’s not blow up the system. Let’s get something done. Let’s play by the rules everyone agreed to when they took their oath of office, and of course that got this response:

Moments after the heated exchange, the vice president of government affairs at the conservative Club for Growth tweeted that Corker sounded like a Democrat…

Republicans get what they want through sabotage. That word comes by way of the Netherlands in the fifteenth century, when workers would throw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the wooden gears of the textile looms to break the cogs. They feared those automated looms would soon make human workers obsolete. What was going on in the Senate was much like that, with the issue being Obamacare, making something these folks cherish but can’t quite define obsolete, and the gears being the gears of government. The wooden shoes were the endless words that tumbled from the mouth of Ted Cruz. The point was to jam the gears. By the way, the Industrial Revolution happened anyway.

The gears did turn for Obamacare, no matter what they did, and Ezra Klein summed up the situation well:

Behind all this is a simple fact: The GOP has lost on Obamacare. They didn’t have the votes to stop it 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. And they really have no way to stop it in 2013.

Now it’s going into effect, and once it goes into effect and begins delivering health insurance to tens of millions of people, it’s pretty much here to stay.

But conservatives don’t want to believe they’ve lost on Obamacare, and the rest of the Republican Party is scared to admit they’ve lost on Obamacare. So as their situation becomes more desperate their tactics become more desperate, too.

That’s when you turn to sabotage. Unless Obama agrees to defund and dismantle all of the Affordable Care Act they will shut down the government – the House passed their version of a continuing resolution that funds everything but Obamacare, keeping the government running for a few more months. In spite of Ted Cruz, the Senate eventually will amend that bill, taking out the bit about defunding Obamacare, and send the amended bill back to the House. The House will not pass that. They’re locked into their position on this, and the government will shut down, until John Boehner eats crow, because Obama isn’t going to agree to any such thing – 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. A minority of a minority, with their wooden shoes, doesn’t get to stop what the majority enacted.

The Republicans have ceased to believe that:

With no serious negotiations in sight, a disorderly and divided Congress slipped closer to a double-barreled fiscal crisis on Thursday as House Republican leaders tried to shift the budget dispute to a fight over raising the government’s borrowing limit.

Trying to round up votes from a reluctant rank and file, House Republicans said they would agree to increase the debt limit to avert a mid-October default only if Democrats accepted a list of Republican priorities, including a one-year delay of the health care law, a tax overhaul and a broad rollback of environmental regulations.

At the same time, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio signaled he was not ready to abandon a spending fight that could shut down the federal government as soon as Tuesday. Asked whether he would put a stopgap spending bill to a vote free of Republican policy prescriptions, he answered, “I do not see that happening.”

President Obama, who has faced three years of down-to-the-wire standoffs that have nearly ended in default or shutdowns a half-dozen times, fired back with a broadside of his own.

“No Congress before this one has ever, ever, in history, been irresponsible enough to threaten default, to threaten an economic shutdown, to suggest America not pay its bills, just to try to blackmail a president into giving them some concessions on issues that have nothing to do with a budget,” Mr. Obama said before a friendly audience in suburban Washington.

These really were issues that had nothing to do with the budget. This was a precise list of everything Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan ran on in 2012 – when they lost by five million votes:

The legislation would also roll back regulations on coal ash, block new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gas production, eliminate a $23 billion fund to ensure the orderly dissolution of failed major banks, eliminate mandatory contributions to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, limit medical malpractice lawsuits and increase means testing for Medicare, among other provisions.

Even with that legislative Christmas tree, many Republican backbenchers balked. After introducing the measure to his divided troops, a sheepish speaker of the House faced the press with a grimace. “Oh, this ought to be a blast,” Mr. Boehner sighed as he opened a news conference for questions.

Of course he looked sheepish. They’re proposing to nullify that election:

Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, encouraged Democrats to come to the table.

“We call on the president to sit down with us, Harry Reid to sit down with us, and let’s resolve this problem,” he said.

The problem is that they lost that election. The people spoke, so they seem to be arguing that what the people said doesn’t matter, or that the wrong people voted, or a whole lot of people shouldn’t have been allowed to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is in play again, with the Supreme Court this June saying that old thing might have been a good idea, at the time, but now it’s just quaint, and has to go – so from North Carolina to Texas to Florida a whole lot of minority folks, and the young, and the elderly who depend on the social safety net, such as it is, are going to find it damned hard to ever vote again. The Republican National Committee has mounted a state-by-state effort to make sure of that – but that’s for future elections. The last one is the problem for them.

Sabotage may be the only answer here, although they may not get their way:

A senior White House adviser on Thursday compared House Republicans threatening to hold the debt limit hostage to “people with a bomb strapped to their chest.”

“What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” Dan Pfeiffer told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “We’re not going to do that.”

Dan Pfeiffer should have talked about wooden shoes, but then the bomb-strapped-to-the-chest thing may be closer to the facts of the matter.

Ezra Klein is simply amazed at the scope of the new Republican demands:

In return for a one-year suspension of the debt ceiling, House Republicans are demanding a yearlong delay of Obamacare, Rep. Paul Ryan’s tax reform plan, the Keystone XL pipeline, more offshore oil drilling, more drilling on federally protected lands, rewriting of ash coal regulations, a suspension of the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate carbon emissions, more power over the regulatory process in general, reform of the federal employee retirement program, an overhaul of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, more power over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s budget, repeal of the Social Services Block Grant, more means-testing in Medicare, repeal of the Public Health trust fund, and more.

Andrew Sullivan is appalled by the new list:

Why not demand president Obama’s resignation while they’re at it?

What the sheer gob-smacking scale of these demands means is that the GOP effectively wants to nullify the last election entirely (except of course for their gerrymandered, no-popular vote House majority). The staggering thing about this party as it now exists is that it views the governance of the other party as always effectively illegitimate. Elections do not matter. Only their agenda matters. No compromise is possible, even when this kind of catastrophic default is hanging over our heads. In fact, the danger of catastrophic default is something they relish in order to undo the basic principles of democratic government.

This is not a bargaining position; they already voted for the budget that requires us to raise the debt ceiling. It is a bald attempt to reverse elections as the mark of a democracy and replace them with endless blackmail until they get their way. This isn’t conservatism. It’s pure constitutional vandalism.

Derek Thompson sees the same thing:

Give us everything we want or else we’ll destroy the country!

That is the sort of demand that only a broken party inside a broken system could possibly hope to make.

The debt ceiling should not exist and the rules of the Senate and House shouldn’t allow a minority to repeatedly extort the majority, but, well, you go to debtmageddon with the government you got. Republicans, inching away from shutdown, are all in on an apocalyptic strategy to trade the full faith and credit of the country for their agenda.

At Business Insider, Josh Barro points to the obvious:

America’s constitutional system only works if the divided branches of government are willing to work together to make consensual agreements about running the government. Republicans are showing themselves to be too irresponsible to make the American constitutional system work.

Jonathan Chait sees something unique here:

The fact that a major party could even propose anything like this is a display of astonishing contempt for democratic norms. Republicans ran on this plan and lost by five million votes. They also lost the Senate and received a million fewer votes in the House but held control owing to favorable district lines. Is there an example in American history of a losing party issuing threats to force the majority party to implement its rejected agenda?

Ah, no… this is unique, and at National Affairs, Jon Rauch discusses norms:

Playing hardball in politics is not unhealthy. Hardball is often necessary and important, and many who complain about it should pay more attention to getting better at it. Madison’s framework does not require or desire that individuals should all be moderates. But to valorize hardball for its own sake is unhealthy, and even more unhealthy is to veto a compromise simply because it is a compromise. There is no contradiction between compromise and political principle, or at least no necessary contradiction. Nor is compromise at odds with constitutional principle. Just the reverse: Compromise is the most essential principle of our constitutional system. Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.

No one is saying, of course, that anyone should support anything only because it is a compromise, any more than that he should oppose something only because it is a compromise. The point, rather, is that compromise is a republican virtue. It endows the constitutional order with stability and dynamism. It not only tempers the worst in us; it often brings out the best. It is patriotic, not pathetic, and it deserves to be trumpeted as such.

That would mean the current crop of Republicans are not only not the true defenders of the Constitution, they don’t even believe in democracy – or they’re just fools.

At the Economist, Matt Steinglass wonders about symmetry:

If either party can take advantage of this sort of doomsday threat, it should be clear that neither can. To underline that fact, Mr Obama ought to counter the Republican threat not to raise the debt ceiling, with a threat of his own to veto a raise in the debt ceiling. Republicans may demand the postponement of Obamacare in exchange for a debt-ceiling hike. Mr Obama can demand passage of an immigration-reform bill including a path to citizenship in exchange for a debt-ceiling hike. …

The whole idea that Mr Obama would threaten to tank America’s credit rating and the global economy in order to achieve his legislative agenda is just nuts. Whereas Republicans, well, you just have to expect them to pull that sort of stunt, because… because why again?

That would be because they’re a broken party inside a broken system, where to reverse elections is the mark of a democracy. The new system is endless blackmail, where the minority rules. It’s the new alternative to constitutional democracy. Yeah, that one is going to require a new oath of office – or a few more elections where we vote someone else into office next time around, and hope for the best, again. Some of us do want our country back – the real one.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Proposing the Alternative to Constitutional Democracy

  1. Rick says:

    Hold everything! Time out! Reset!

    I think we’ve been approaching all this all wrong. We’ve been talking about the Republicans as if they’re such fools that they don’t realize the fact that they are doomed to lose. In fact, I’m now convinced they’re not as dumb as we think, that they’ll probably win, and that they’re probably playing the rest of us for fools.

    “What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” Dan Pfeiffer told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “We’re not going to do that.”

    Yes, that’s been the working analogy all along, but it’s becoming more and more clear, at least to me, that it’s probably wrong. The Republicans have not strapped the bomb to their own chest, they’ve attached it to Obama’s.

    And by the way, are they doing all this just to get rid of Obamacare? No.

    Obamacare seems to be just a ruse — political theatre on the way to a bigger victory than merely overturning Obamacare. In fact, with this huge honking list of demands they’ve added to the mix, it’s become clear this has nothing, or virtually nothing, to do with Obamacare. Obamacare is just a diversion.

    The Republicans, being conservatives, think government does too much, and spends too much doing it, and because they can’t find ways to do this with votes, are constantly — like pigs digging their noses in the dirt in the pursuit of truffles — trying to dig up ways to cut government spending down to size. They actually got their way with the sequester (and even managed to blame Obama for coming up with the idea, but otherwise without fanfare, that might give away their game), and they are about to maybe succeed with a government shutdown (and once again, also claiming that it’s the Democrats who “hunger” for a shutdown so as to use it later as an election issue).

    And just over the horizon, they’ll hit the grand slam, by refusing to raise the debt limit, maybe threatening to put the nation into default, while once again blaming the Democrats for not taking the final action to avert it.

    In fact, although we don’t listen to them very much when they talk about it, the people threatening to not raise the debt limit do NOT see this as causing default!

    Why? Because if the limit isn’t raised, Obama will have to “prioritize” spending, but he wouldn’t DARE not pay at least the interest on our bonds, lest it destroy the world economy. They know this, and so does he.

    Okay, you’d think, but can’t he at least prioritize by refusing to pay for the things that Republicans like, such as the military? Not likely. If he did that, there’d be a huge howl throughout the country, since the military has major support on both sides of the aisle. After all, Democrats really don’t want to get into the discussion of whether to put national security at risk, much less not “supporting the troops”.

    In fact, about the only things he could get away with cutting are those programs that only his own supporters like, which, not coincidentally, are the same ones already hit by the sequestration — mostly programs for the poor, maybe scientific research, safety regulation, and other things conservatives would love to do away with by statute, but can’t. And the beauty of this is, as Obama cuts popular programs that Republicans hate, they will still blame Obama for the cuts.

    As for Economist’s Matt Steinglass: “The whole idea that Mr Obama would threaten to tank America’s credit rating and the global economy in order to achieve his legislative agenda is just nuts. Whereas Republicans, well, you just have to expect them to pull that sort of stunt, because… because why again?”

    Why? I’ll tell you why! Because they WANT IT! The worst thing Obama could do would be to threaten to do something that would actually give the Republicans something they secretly want but refuse to admit, which would be a repeat of his earlier mistaken assumption that Republicans would fear sequestration as much as Democrats would.

    An illustration (Forgive me if I’ve used this example before. I probably did.):

    Remember that story from the Old South, about Br’er Rabbit getting captured by Br’er Fox, who tried to figure out how to punish him for hassling him all the time?

    “Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please,” said Brer Rabbit. “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

    Brer Fox then hurls the bunny into the briar patch. As it turns out, of course, Brer Rabbit was born and raised in that briar patch, so that’s exactly what he wanted Brer Fox to do.

    Just like the Republicans and this debt limit business.

    While there might or might not be a government shutdown in the short term — which is small potatoes, especially since, at some point, government will reopen again, and all those checks will be paid retroactively, as if nothing happened. No, the GOP’s real goal lies ahead — shutting off the ability of the country to borrow — which is precisely why they’re saving that list of all their most poisonous poison pills for the debt limit fight. They want to leave nothing to chance that the Democrats will “call their bluff.”

    The problem, of course, is they’re not bluffing. The White House and Democrats are operating on the belief that they are, and that they don’t want to be thrown into that briar patch.

    What can the Democrats do about this? I can think of something, but first, it might be worth considering what was said by National Affairs’s Jon Rauch, above:

    “Playing hardball in politics is not unhealthy. Hardball is often necessary and important, and many who complain about it should pay more attention to getting better at it. Madison’s framework does not require or desire that individuals should all be moderates.”

    Yes and no.

    First of all, I think he’s wrong about Madison, who was on record both before his Constitutional Convention got started, and also afterward in the Federalist Papers #10, arguing that whatever shortcomings we’d expect to find in small republics, the very fact that this new nation will be large should be protection against factionalism and ensure a measure of moderation. Madison thought the design of this new system would mitigate against wackiness.

    But second, I think he may have a point about us getting better at hardball.

    After all, by foregoing the necessity of subjecting their unpopular agenda to up-and-down votes in a legislative body, since that would be a losing strategy for them, opting instead for employing extra-Constitutional means to get their way, the Republicans (ironically, given that they call themselves “Republicans”) have become an existential threat to our Republic. Their power to block the Republic’s ability to borrow money to operate, a quirk in the law that indeed need not exist, is the weapon of choice that they could use to override the will of the people for everything they want to do.

    One thing Obama may want to reconsider is something he rejected out of hand when the suggestion came up back in 2011, and that would be to, based on the 14th amendment, just declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional, and then ignore it. Although the folks at the White House back then didn’t want to take a chance, lots of smart people like law professors and legal scholars, along with Bill Clinton, argued that he could get away with it. And given the fact that the Republican lawmakers of today seem to think they’ve found a way to bypass the Constitution that they swore to defend, the time may have come to give it a shot.

    What’s important is that we stop misrepresenting the nature of what’s going on here as a game of “chicken”, in which two hotrods are driving straight at each other. It’s not a game of “chicken” if one of the players is looking forward to the crash.


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