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Liberals May Be in Danger of Finding GOP Politicians Not Guilty

Brendan Smialowski/Getty

Today is the day that Salon’s excellent columnist Alex Pareene and The New York Times’ Tom Friedman-y columnist Tom Friedman agree. The subject: The government shutdown, and who or what is to blame. The answer, according to both: A “what” rather than a “who”—a governmental and media structure that incentivizes radical Republicans to stop the government in order to try to claw back a settled law.

Pareene wants us to look beyond the House “suicide caucus” and Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee to the structure of government our founders bequeathed us. He writes, “We’ve since declared these creaky compromises to be evidence of political genius—an elegant separation of powers! checks and balances!—but the nearly 100 percent failure rate for other countries with true “Presidential systems” is a hint that it’s a mess.” He goes through the laundry list of structural reforms we should undertake but haven’t—eliminating the filibuster, instituting the National Popular Vote for presidential elections, nonpartisan district drawing, campaign finance reform—and concludes, “The reason we’re in permanent crisis mode isn’t ‘extremism,’ but a system of government that guarantees political brinkmanship.” It isn’t really possible to refute this.

Friedman lays off the Founders in his 900 words, but not the House gerrymandering, the unlimited outside spending, and the right-wing echo chamber that together create an atmosphere in which “there is little risk of political punishment for the Tea Party members now holding the country hostage”—and, in fact, every reason for those members to do exactly that.

I speak not to disprove what they spoke. But here I am to speak something else I do know: Nobody forced any of these men (and women, although 76 of the 80 “suicide caucus” members are men) to run for office. A focus on structural reforms is crucial, because they really are important, and go a long way toward explaining what enables and incentivizes these sociopathic Republican strategies as well as what draws politicians willing to follow those strategies into campaigns in the first place.

But—excuse my Sorkining—at some point we have to pause to remember that it isn’t wrong to hold these men and women to a higher standard than “follows self-interest.” It is true that, as Pareene puts it, “The Republicans are acting rationally.” Yet in this context it is their duty as elected officials to act irrationally. This is a democratic republic—the people’s elected representatives are entitled (obliged, even) to exercise their own judgments, and then take thier lumpings at the polls if that is what it comes to. There may not be an available appeal to self-interest, but there is one to the better angels of these Republicans’ natures—at the least, such an appeal would confirm that such angels do not exist.

I imagine Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, agrees with Pareene and Friedman about the need for structural reform. She has pushed to limit the Citizens United ruling and reform the filibuster; if you grabbed her in a private moment, you could probably get her to say something bad about the electoral college. Yet she did not focus on such things in her going-viral clip from the Senate floor Monday night. “In a democracy, hostage tactics are the last resort for those who can’t win their fights through elections, can’t win their fights in Congress, can’t win their fights for the presidency, and can’t win their fights in the courts,” she argued. And she added, “The time has come for those legislators who cannot cope with the reality of our democracy to get out of the way, so that those of us in both parties who understand that the American people sent us here to work for them can get back to work solving real problems faced by the American people. We have real work to do, and that’s what we should be doing.”

Pareene and Friedman are right. Warren is right. I am sure they are simpatico, too. But the trick for liberal and other sane people going forward is going to be to balance the structural narrative—which to some undeniable extent exculpates the Republican lawmakers—with the “we have real work to do” narrative—which to some undeniable extent denies the structural obstacles to doing real work. Structural reform is necessary. But in the meantime, so is a resounding Democratic victory in 13 months.