What happens to American politics if we default? Hello, third party.

Journalist Jeff Greenfield issues a surprising verdict against both parties

Jan. 20, 2013: He took his hand off the Bible, extended it to Chief Justice John Roberts, waited for the 21-gun salute and began to shake his head — but stopped himself, conscious of the TV cameras surrounding him. He still found it impossible to believe what was happening; then again, he found it just as hard to imagine the event that had brought him to this moment. Nobody believed it would occur — until it did.

Maybe the last-minute agreement would have worked if there had been more time, a week or two, to persuade, cajole, threaten and beg recalcitrant legislators into backing the jury-rigged deficit-debt-ceiling deal. Maybe if there hadn’t been so many lines drawn in the sand, such a long history of treating every political dispute as Armageddon.

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But on Sunday night, July 31, 2011, decades of toxic politics exploded. In the House Republican Caucus, freshman members of the Tea Party Caucus, threatened with primary challenges over insufficient budget-cutting zeal, joined with Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota in opposition to the deal. Among Democrats, virtually all 80 members of the Progressive Caucus lined up solidly against it. Even as they gathered for the critical vote, with its outcome in doubt, Fox News and MSNBC were both airing one-hour specials titled “Sellout!”

And with the measure five votes short as the count neared the end, several lawmakers signaled their intentions to switch their votes to no (“I’ll be damned,” said one, “if I’ll commit political suicide for a vote that’s going to lose anyway”).

At 2:30 on Monday morning, Aug. 1, 2011, the clerk of the House announced that the motion had failed. Within 24 hours, the government of the United States would be unable to pay its debts.

The political recriminations were as swift and ferocious as the economic fallout, which the hastily contrived debt-ceiling fix three days later did nothing to soften. The 1,400-point drop in the Dow, Moody’s move to downgrade the rating of federal debt, the fever spike in interest rates for mortgages and business loans, the delays in paying federal contractors, the impending layoffs — all had been predicted months before the debt limit was breached.

And the first wave of public reaction was equally predictable: Congress’s job-approval rating fell into the low teens, while President Obama’s dropped into the mid-20s. Nine in 10 Americans surveyed said they thought the country was on the wrong track (“The 10th one is in a coma,” Conan O’Brien quipped).

But then something else began to happen to American politics, something that turned a long-standing political fantasy into a reality. In election season after election season, the results had been blithely ascribed to the electorate’s powerful “anti-incumbent mood.” Yet, no matter how angry they became, voters never punished incumbents of both parties. In 1980, 1994 and 2010, they voted Democrats out — and virtually every Republican was left standing. In 1974, 2006 and 2008, they turned against Republicans — and just about every Democrat returned to office.

This one-sided targeting endured despite the dissatisfaction with the two parties that had been brewing for years. Twenty years earlier, nearly one in five American voters cast ballots to put the power of the presidency into the hands of Ross Perot. By July 2010, about four in 10voters called themselves independent, and a majority said they would welcome an alternative to Democrats and Republicans. But as a practical matter, such dissatisfaction had never seriously threatened the two-party dominance.

Until now, when the two-party system had failed at one of the government’s most basic jobs: protecting the full faith and credit of the country’s obligations. The persistent, low-level discontent with Republicans and Democrats suddenly became a tidal wave sweeping across ideological lines, encapsulated by one tweetable, postable, share-able word: “Enough!”

From Mom-and-Pop proprietors to middle-management drones to Business Roundtable grandees, the business community had long allied itself with the Republican Party. But now, thanks in good measure to the most fervent voices in that party, credit was frozen, the housing industry was headed for collapse again, and retailers from one end of Main Street to the other were facing empty stores. How was this good for business?

The labor movement had provided the foot soldiers and the financial fuel for the Democratic Party for decades, But now, thanks in good measure to the most “progressive” members of that party, there was no work for the men and women who built houses, maintained roads or worked for contractors whose invoices the government could not pay. How was this good for labor?

“We must return to bipartisanship!” the political class thundered. And from countless corners of the country came this question: Just what had bipartisanship done for us lately? In the 1990s, the Clinton White House and the Republican Congress jointly embraced the explosion of so-called innovative financial instruments, free of regulation, that within a decade had trashed the economy, wiping out millions of jobs and trillions of dollars’ worth of savings. A few years later, a Republican president gained the support of prominent Democrats as he led the country into a disastrous war.

“When 2 parties are gridlocked — disaster,” read one widely circulated tweet. “When 2 parties work together — disaster. Enough!”

Then came two House special elections in late October 2011. In a heavily Democratic congressional district in California, a 55-year-old school administrator — running as an independent with the slogan “Enough!” — routed her Republican and Democratic opponents with nearly 60 percent of the vote. And in an Ohio district that had been voting Republican since the Civil War, an unemployed factory hand, running with the same slogan, trounced his major-party rivals. Within two days after that second vote, hundreds of Facebook pages and Web sites had emerged, all working off the “Enough!” theme.

But the most consequential event of all involved a 19th-century tool of communication: When the governor of one state, a member of one party, picked up the phone and called a colleague of another party half a continent away.

“I want you to listen to me for three minutes,” he said. “If you haven’t hung up the phone by the time I’m finished, then maybe you don’t think I’ve gone off the deep end.”

On March 21, 2012, with the effects of the temporary default still battering the economy, the two governors announced their intention to run on an independent ticket. It was, Washington insiders assured one another, a passing fever, certain to fade just as every other independent bid had. But when the campaign brought in $13 million on the Web within 90 minutes of the announcement, the assurances were replaced by concern, which led to panic after the first debate, which led to resigned acceptance well before Election Day confirmed what everyone knew would happen.

The chief justice stepped away, and the new president walked to the lectern. He would not be the first president to warn of hard choices and tough years ahead. But he would be the first who had won the office not just because of the stark evidence of what had gone wrong, but because voters had finally rendered a harsh but long-overdue verdict: A plague on both your houses.

jgreenfield64@gmail.com

Jeff Greenfield, a former network correspondent for ABC, CNN and CBS, is the author of “Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan.” Follow him on Twitter: @greenfield64.

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