As Default-on-Our-Debt Day creeps ever closer, America’s two major political parties have embarked on a round of ideological redefinition. Republicans have subordinated even the appearance of concern for many of their historic priorities — reducing deficits and the debt, maintaining a passable system of roads, even reducing Medicare and Social Security payouts — to the single goal of blocking any tax increase on anyone ever again. Taking the adage that “that government is best that governs least” to an extreme, at least some seem to view a government shutdown as a consummation devoutly to be wished. GOP presidential candidate and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is running ads hailing the shutdown of his state’s government, the result of the same kind of political impasse that threatens to shutter the feds’ doors.
If it was possible to give libertarianism a bad name, today’s Republicans would be doing just that.
On the Democratic side, President Obama has moved so far to the right that he has picked up many of the ideals the Republicans have jettisoned and embraced them as his own. It’s Obama who’s now the deficit-and-debt hawk and who has proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Congressional Democrats oppose the president’s proposed entitlement cuts, but in fact they’ve already voted to reduce Medicare spending (though not benefits) by passing health-care reform, and, as part of the current budget negotiations, have agreed to major cuts in domestic as well as military spending.
In Obama’s defense, the Republicans he has to deal with have moved so far right that they make even the Gingrich-era GOP with which Bill Clinton grappled look like the Berkeley City Council. The fiscal constraints on his presidency far exceed those Clinton confronted, too. But if the factors that have pushed Obama rightward are at least intelligible, those that have prompted the Republicans to winnow their agenda to one-note opposition to taxes and spending are nowhere so obvious.
For one thing, federal tax revenue as a percentage of the gross domestic product is at its lowest level since 1950. The correlation between low federal taxes and job creation looks more inverse than direct. The economy generated far more net new jobs during the ’90s (approximately 22 million during Clinton’s presidency alone), before the Bush tax cuts, than it has since (approximately zero). Yet in opposing any tax increases on the rich as part of a debt-reduction deal, House Speaker John Boehner vowed Monday that “the House cannot pass a bill that raises taxes on job creators.”
Job creators? What job creators? Over the past two months, according to employment statistics, we seem to have completely run out of job creators, though American multinational corporations are having no trouble creating jobs in the cheap-labor nations of Asia. Small businesses, however, cannot expand until American consumers start buying more, and American consumers can’t start buying more until they work their way out of the debt they incurred during the recent decades of pervasive income stagnation.
The Republicans, that is, have embraced market libertarianism at the very moment that America’s market capitalism is functioning worse than at any time since the Great Depression. Their timing is so perverse that we have to seek explanations for their radicalism that go beyond those of economic philosophy.
Republicans, to be sure, have long waged a war on government, but only now has it become an apocalyptic and total war. At its root, I suspect, is the fear and loathing that rank-and-file right-wingers feel toward what their government, and their nation, is inexorably becoming: multiracial, multicultural, cosmopolitan and now headed by a president who personifies those qualities. That America is also downwardly mobile is a challenge for us all, but for the right, the anxiety our economy understandably evokes is augmented by the politics of racial resentment and the fury that the country is no longer only theirs. That’s not a country whose government they want to pay for — and if the apocalypse befalls us, they seem to have concluded, so much the better.
Most Americans, thankfully, don’t share the right’s romance with cataclysm — something then-Senate Republican leader Bob Dole realized when he called off the shutdown of 1996, something that current Senate GOP chief Mitch McConnell realized Tuesday when he unveiled a cynical and circuitous plan to back off from the impending smash-up. Dole persuaded his fellow Republicans to stand down. It’s not clear, given the furies that possess today’s Republicans, that McConnell can do the same.