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The Shutdown Standoff Is One of the Worst Crises in American History

Welcome to Weimar America

Rembrandt Peale/Gibbes Museum of Art

The current government shutdown threatens to stall the already slow economic recovery from the Great Recession. But more is at stake here. Political philosophers from Aristotle to Locke have defined the nation-state as the highest form of political community. Locke, whose views are embedded in America’s Declaration of Independence, saw government as a result of a communal compact—a social contract—among peoples. What is happening in America is that this social contract is being voided, largely through the initiative of rightwing Republicans from the deep South and rural Midwest. America is not likely to become Afghanistan, but it could easily become Italy or Greece or even Weimar Germany.

There is no simple explanation for why this is happening now, but there are precedents in American history for the kind of assault on government that the Republicans are mounting. First, there is the South of John Calhoun, which Sam Tannenhaus wrote about in The New Republic. Calhoun developed the doctrine of nullification—that states, claiming a higher Constitutional authority, could refuse to obey federal laws—in order to justify South Carolina’s opposition to tariffs adopted in 1828 and 1832. Calhoun’s doctrine became the basis of the state’s rights argument against attempts by the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery and a century later to enforce racial desegregation.

Secondly, there is the rise in 1937 of a conservative coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and rural Midwestern Republicans to block and repeal the New Deal through parliamentary maneuvers and investigations, which I wrote about two years ago. Calhounist nullification anticipates the anti-federal tactics of today’s Republican right. The conservative coalition of the late 1930s anticipates the composition of today’s Republican coalition and its grievance: the expansion of the federal safety net. Both of these older movements cited the United States Constitution as their authority for attempting to defy or dismantle the federal government. Like today’s Republican rightists, both older movements claimed to represent tradition and morality against a decadent modernity. They looked backwards. They were reactionary rather than conservative movements.

What happened to these movements gives some indication of what could happen to today’s Republican intransigents. The Calhounists precipitated a civil war, in which over 600,000 Americans died. The conservative coalition, on the other hand, faded temporarily from view and only reemerged in the last decades. That was because in 1941 Americans went to war against Nazi Germany and Japan. World War II unified Americans. In modern wars, the national government has to call upon all its citizens to do their part and to submerge their differences. Business made peace with labor; blacks served alongside whites. And that spirit of national unification lasted for 15 years after the war. It helped to give rise—although not without conflict—to a social compact between business and labor, an end to racial segregation and the preservation and expansion of New Deal programs like social security. If World War II had not intervened, it’s very likely that the conservative coalition would have grown stronger, and would have been able to stop the expansion of, if not undermine, social security.

The current political crisis—and the challenge presented by right-wing Republicanism—can be traced to the unraveling of this consensus. That began in the Sixties and then accelerated after the end of the Cold War. It took its final political form from the realignment of the parties, which, reaching a climax in 1994, brought conservative Democrats in the South into the Republican party. What had earlier been a coalition between Republicans and their conservative Democratic counterparts became a partisan effort entirely within the Republican party, which surfaced with a vengeance after the Republicans took control of Congress in November 1994. The next year, Republicans shut down the government, and in Bill Clinton’s second term, they tried to impeach the president on spurious grounds of sexual misconduct. (These events should be kept in mind before attributing the current fervor of the radical right entirely to the election of a black man as president.)

I wouldn’t expect the current crisis, which was precipitated by the descendants of Calhoun, to result in a civil war. The civil war, as Marx once wrote, was a revolutionary clash that pitted one mode of production against another. Nothing so momentous is at stake today. It also pitted one region against another, and it was fought with rifles and men on horseback. The largest effect is likely to be continued dysfunction in Washington, which if it continues over a decade or so, will threaten economic growth and America’s standing in the world, undermine social programs like the Affordable Care Act, and probably encourage more radical movements on the right and the left. Think of Italy, Greece, or Weimar Germany. Or think about what the United States would have been like if World War II had not occurred, and if Europe, the United States, and Japan had failed to pull themselves out of the Great Depression.

What is the alternative? How can the United States escape this quagmire? There seem to me be two kinds of things that have to happen—one having to do with political movements and the other with structural changes in American politics. Politically, the Republican far right has to be marginalized. That can happen either through ordinary conservative Republicans like Tennessee Senator Bob Corker or California Congressman Devin Nunes bolting the party or by the conservatives and moderates reclaiming control of the party and forcing the far right to create its own party along the lines of the old Dixiecrats or George Wallace’s American Independent Party. In the former case, you would have the emergence of an FDR-strength Democratic majority; in the latter, an Eisenhower era collaboration between the parties.

These kind of changes would have to be sustained by developments within the electorate. Roosevelt’s majority was sustained by the growth of an industrial labor movement. But today’s labor movement has not been able to adjust to post-industrial capitalism. Peter Beinart has argued for the rise of a “new new left” based in the political generations that have come of age in the Obama years. There is something to this, but I’m more inclined to see these voters as part of a movement that has taken place among college-educated workers since the 1960s; They backed the anti-Vietnam war, feminist, civil rights, and environmental movements; they contributed to the rise of public sector unionism; and they have staffed and funded a myriad of interest groups in Washington. But this complex of people and groups lack the organized clout that the labor movement enjoyed. The question for the future is: Can the older workplace-centered movement be fully replaced by the virtual community of Internet, as groups like Move-on have attempted to do?

Equally, if not more important, is the growth of organized business opposition to the radical right. So far, organized business groups have stayed largely on the sidelines. If anything, they have been more inclined to fund Republicans, and some of the very wealthy, often drawn from older extractive industries or fringe financial operations, have backed reactionary groups like the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. To withstand the challenge from the radical right, the mainstream business groups would have to target the Republican right with the same fervor and determination that business groups of the early twentieth century targeted the socialist left. Organizations like the Fix the Debt that attempt to blame both sides equally are useless.

Structurally, much of the power of the radical right depends upon two loopholes in American politics that need to be closed. The first are the campaign finance laws, which allow eccentric billionaires like the Koch Brothers or Peter Thiel to exert inordinate influence over American politics. Restoring the McCain-Feingold limits on independent expenditures would help, but what is really needed is a liberal Supreme Court that could overturn Citizens United and the pernicious 1976 ruling Buckley v. Valeo that threw out the 1974 campaign finance law’s effort to limit total spending on individual campaigns. Getting a liberal Supreme Court would require the Democrats’ retention of the White House in 2016 and perhaps even in 2020, and getting it to overturn these laws would mean years of agitation directed at campaign finance reform. It’s no longer simply a good government issue; it’s about the distribution of power in American society.

The second loophole, for which Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame, are the congressional redistricting rules in states that allow whatever party controls the state government at decennial intervals to create maps that inordinately favor their own party. As the example of California shows, Democrats, who won a majority in the overall House vote in 2012, stand to benefit by non-partisan redistricting. Democrats need to make that happen, as well as repeal the new racist restrictions on voting rights cropping up in state politics. Much of the radical right, particularly in states like Texas, owe their seats to gerrymandered districts. This is a good government issue that could attract support from people who are not ready to blame the Republicans for the mess in Washington. 

None of these changes will be easy to achieve. But the current shutdown—with a battle over the debt ceiling looming—should serve as an object lesson to many Americans, including the CEOs of the Business Roundtable and the Financial Services Roundtable, of the price that the country will pay for allowing the radical right to run wild in Washington.