“We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” ” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.)
In a thought provoking piece in The New Republic, John Judis argues that the Republican party is causing one of the worst crises in American history. “Welcome to Weimar America,” he chides before launching into an entertaining and persuasive reflection on American history and the roots of the current crisis. While I’ve diagnosed the “tea party” as a nostalgic movement resenting the changes in American demography and culture, Judis argues its actually a continuation of earlier movements, including the Calhounist nullification movement that led to civil war.
We’re not likely to have civil war, but there is a real danger that the current crisis reflects growing political fragmentation destined to weaken both American democracy and strength.
But Weimar America? The electoral system of the United States works against the kind of extreme fragmentation of the German system before the rise of the Third Reich. The Weimar Republic was a straight proportional representation system which allowed dozens of parties to compete and get representation in the Reichstag. That required a Chancellor gain support from a large number of parties before being able to control a majority bloc of the parliament and govern. That worked OK until 1929, then after the Great Depression hit Germany became ungovernable. For years no government could form and President Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree. Adolf Hitler rode the unrest, instability and confusion to power, even though he never actually was elected by a majority in a free election.
That won’t happen here. Our system of single member districts assures we’re likely to stay a two party system; it’s a structural feature of how we run elections, and it does create a kind of stability. Yet other aspects of our system of government create possibilities that make the Weimar metaphor plausible. Since we do have a government divided between the executive and legislative branches (not the norm in most democracies), and the legislative branch is divided into two separate bodies of independent power, it is possible that if the culture of compromise and tradition is broken, gridlock and division could become the norm. That would destroy the essence of systemic stability that has brought us freedom and prosperity.
“Republicans have to realize how many significant gains we’ve made over the last three years, and we have, not only in cutting spending but in really turning the tide on other things. We can’t lose all that when there’s no connection now between the shutdown and the funding of Obamacare. I think now it’s a lot about pride.” Dennis Ross (R-Fl)
Ross, like other Republicans skeptical of the tactics being undertaken, recognize that the shut down and threats to default are being taken by people who have no clue what those things mean. They mutter things like “Oh, good, shut down that horrible government,” not recognizing the real consequences for the country. “The debt’s too high, let’s not increase the debt limit,” some bemoan, utterly clueless to what the impact would be of going into default. These people aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant. They are so blinded by ideology that they don’t take the time to study the real implications of what’s happening.
Luckily, John Boehner does not fit into that category. Yet he’s dealing to what one pundit called, a Republican civil war. Both parties have their ideological extremes, but usually they are kept in check by the establishment center. The extremists hate the pragmatic centrists because they “compromise on principle” and aren’t driven by ideological fervor, but they’re the ones that assure stable governance. The extremes pressure the centrists and that’s important, but in the GOP they’ve taken over the party.
And they’re mad, certain they are right, and they don’t care about the system because they’ve decided it’s “crashing and burning” anyway, and only big government lovers would suffer if the whole thing collapsed (since presumably a more “pure” America would rise from the dust). OK, not all are that extreme, but the mix of extremism and ignorance has allowed one party to put the country and the world dangerously close to catastrophe over….pride. Being ‘disrespected.’ Trying to change a law they couldn’t change the usual way.
As noted last week, the President cannot let that tactic work. That would be damaging to the Republic in the long term; as bad as the short term consequences are, it would really become Weimar America if parties started to make these games the norm. Yes, there have been government shut downs before, but the circumstances here are unique.
So the ball’s in Boehner’s court. He has to find a way to walk the tightrope of avoiding all out insurrection from his tea party wing, but not being the man who dashed the American dream by refusing to hold a vote. He understands the consequences. While Obama can’t negotiate, perhaps he can give Boehner a face saving way out. Perhaps Harry Reid and Boehner can figure out a path that gives Boehner “peace with honor.” Because right now the Republicans are risking damaging the country immensely at a time we least need it. This has to end sooner rather than later.