WHEN the tail wags the dog we often have a problem.
When that dog is the democratic governance of the most important country and economy on Earth the problem is global, material and real. We have that problem right now.
The impasse on the United States government budget process has led to the shutdown of “non-essential” government services across the country.
One faction of the Republican party in one house of one branch of the governing democracy (Tea Party adherents in the House of Representatives) is holding the whole country hostage in pursuit of zealotry around the role of government and serious unhealthy enmity for their president.
One of the absurdities of this self- induced budget crisis is that it’s not even about the budget. Tea Party Republicans are not satisfied with the huge spending cuts they have already exacted, with the last three years seeing the largest cuts to federal spending since the drawdown of the Korean War.
Their real beef is the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – which will expand healthcare access to millions of Americans. This was passed by Congress, signed into law by the president in 2010, and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012. So, as the law was set to go into effect, not satisfied that they couldn’t overturn it legislatively, House Republicans shut the government down.
It’s not just the 800,000 government employees who have been put on unpaid leave (imagine the anxiety), although that is horrific. The laws of unintended consequences apply: 109 of the 115 employees of the domestic nuclear detection agency have been sent home, leaving six people on the job. At the other extreme, parks are closed and families are scaling fences to entertain the kids.
How to justify? “We’re not going to be disrespected,” was the view of Representative Marlin Stutzman from Indiana. “We’ve got to get something out of this and I don’t even know what that is.” Well, that’s fine then. You’re grandstanding, locking down the country and you don’t even know the end game. Partisan, craven, short-term politics in its rawest form.
And, of course, if this carries on and the US is unable to raise its self-imposed ceiling on the amount of debt it can issue into the markets then the risk of sovereign default and panic for the global economy is not fanciful. Welfare and living standards everywhere could be hit, and hard.
And all of this is driven by an extreme faction of a bigger party that only controls one half of one arm of government but is misusing that power wantonly.
There are parallels and lessons to be learned here for all parties all of the time, and the UK Conservatives in particular as they run to the right in fear of the growth of Ukip. Leaders are elected to lead, and they should. And the electorate should punish with ruthless efficiency those who would play politics with people’s jobs, services and living standards.
So don’t, I suggest, allow yourself to think or be told that this is just two sets of feuding politicians who can’t or won’t agree with one another. This is a constitutional crisis brought on by extraordinary misjudgment on the part of the leaders of the “Grand Old Party”, who should have the strength to squash extremism and put the long-term interests of their country and party (which ought to coincide) first.
The last thought to have or emotion to feel when we observe this phenomenon is “a plague on both your houses” or “all politicians are the same”. That serves only those who want to diminish the positive role and influence of government and democracy – and, yes, such people exist in powerful places.
One of the other unintended consequences, of course, may be that people in the US and elsewhere are reminded in real time of just what government does on their behalf and what it feels like when those certainties we all complain about are put at existential risk.
The futile, pompous populism of bar room bores drives the politics of any country to the margins and the consequences for real lives is grave. When insubstantial, irresponsible politicians are allowed too close to the levers of power, the end game is too often chaos.
If voters don’t engage and exercise their choices then they reap the whirlwind of their own apathy and inaction, because the passions of minority zealots get too much access to power.
That is the core lesson of this sorry episode, and the rest of the world can only pray that the substantial leaders of American politics step up in the interests of their nation and the world. The times are too serious and there is too much reform required across all of our institutions and our democracies. We need grounded people of substance who are able to unify countries behind hard choices and progress. And the responsibility to ensure that the right dogs are in charge of the tails they wag is on all of our shoulders all of the time. «