Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) speaks at the Voters Values Summit. (Gage Skidmore)
The Republican government shutdown is sending America a clear message – and it isn’t one we’re prepared to hear.
“Our founders wanted government to be dysfunctional,” wrote Stephanie Arje in internal memos published Wednesday by crooksandliars.com. “Once things are reorganized and on course it will be time to get back to being dysfunctional.”
Arje isn’t writing memos for some fringe anarchist gang or terrorist cell. She’s writing for Groundswell, a mainstream Republican organization “seeking to fundamentally transform the nation” – and that counts among its members Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife Ginni Thomas, former UN ambassador John Bolton, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, and a whole contingent of Republican congressional aides.
Americans continue to engage with Republicans as sporting participants operating within the orthodox bounds and norms of constitutional democracy. That’s a fatal mistake, and there’s only one way to fight back.
Stages of grief
“Democrats have said to Republicans, we’re happy to negotiate and talk to you about anything,” President Barack Obama said in an interview with news anchor Rick Williams Wednesday. “Just don’t shut down the government to try to get your way.”
After years of denial and anger, Americans have finally reached the third stage of grief: bargaining.
Republicans openly celebrate the shutdown. They trivialize the catastrophic potential of a national debt default. And they brag about their plan to use both as leverage to destroy more government programs.
Yet Americans still cling to the hope of a “grand bargain” that will end the very dysfunction Republicans are trying to create. That is the false hope of the Obama Presidency: that he would succeed, as he put it on the campaign trail, in getting Republicans to “join in the work of remaking this nation”; that “we are not as divided as our politics suggest.”
The next stage of grief is going to be a hard one for Americans who want a bargain. We harbor a sentimental attachment to idealistic politics: pluralistic compromise, rationalistic debate, parliamentary order, democratic candidacy, and so on. The tragedy of American politics is that the right – having abandoned these ideals in a ruthless grab for power – will force the rest of us to abandon them as well.
That’s extraordinarily depressing. The fourth stage of grief always is.
Destroying the social contract
Consider the debt ceiling and shutdown crisis, for instance – problems deliberately engineered by Republicans, as demonstrated by their own public statements and private records.
The scheme isn’t just a ploy for negotiating leverage. It has other consequences as well – direct, and deliberate. Republicans have immediately cut off funds to the federal government and jeopardized its ability to secure funding in the future. And by protracting the standoff, Republicans have successfully undermined public confidence in the government.
This isn’t participation in the social contract; it’s an attack on the social contract. Unable to win in the arena of American democracy by the ordinary rules of American politics, Republicans have decided, as Arje put it, that “the arena and the rules must change.”
“The overall American political community collectively assumes with vacant laziness that everyone plays the same game for the same stakes,” DC-based blogger Dr. Leo Strauss writes.
“What we call…the Movement within the conservative base always plays a different game for a different prize,” Strauss writes. “The Movement may speak in normal political talking points from ‘Republican’ institutions. Yet it is not committed to Dahl-esque pluralistic politics. It has never sought compromise or ‘moderation’. That’s because for the Movement, politics is existential warfare. Compromise is defeat.”
The Republican endgame is to incapacitate the state until it can no longer check their historically entrenched power and privilege. And their strategy is to bend rules of governance – not to successfully govern, but so that the rules, having bent, will eventually break.
A trillion dollar coin
“Everything I have seen from Obama suggests he understands that he cannot repeat the blunder of 2011, when he mistook the GOP’s debt-ceiling threat for an invitation to engage in normal fiscal bargaining,” Jonathan Chait writes.
Obama, to his credit, seems to have recognized that the right can’t just be managed from crisis to crisis; Democrats must achieve a long-term victory.
But his solution – refusing to negotiate and threatening a veto – fails to confront the underlying logic driving Republican brinksmanship. They may no longer be able to win concessions with funding gambits, but they can still withhold the funds; by radically interpreting the law and transforming parliamentary formalities, the right has weaponized state procedures against the state.
There are better solutions. I prefer the most bizarre: Obama should mint a trillion-dollar coin.
Congress may claim the power of the purse, but legally – as several economists and policy analysts have established at length, and with some amusement – they actually gave it up long ago. An obscure 1995 bill reforming the government sale of commemorative coins grants that “the Secretary of the Treasury may mint and issue platinum coins in such quantity and of such variety as the Secretary determines to be appropriate.”
Obviously that law was not intended as a blank check to the executive branch – but that’s exactly what it is. And by minting a trillion dollar coin, Obama could end these fiscal crises tomorrow.
“[Using] crazier loopholes like coin seignorage would be signs of the utter failure of the US political system and civil society,” financial journalist Felix Salmon argues. Salmon echoes a running theme among the idea’s critics: the strategy, though legal, brazenly finesses the normal political process.
But that’s precisely the point. Minting the coin would warn the right that they aren’t the only ones capable of bending the law. It would demonstrate that there’s nothing to be gained by abusing the social contract – that indeed Republicans must rely on it as protection from the unchecked exercise of Democratic power. It would end the impasse, it would end the siege of the government, and most importantly, it would break the spine of the right’s intransigent sociopathy.
Machiavelli, writing nearly five hundred years ago, gave timeless advice for governing the ungovernable.
“A wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer,” he writes.
Or as he might write today: Obama, when your opponents openly admit that they want the government to be dysfunctional, it’s time to mint the coin.
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.