The US has uttered a sigh of relief, and its critics the world over have chortled with glee. The nation that never ceases telling the world how to govern itself — even taking admonition as far as war — cannot run its own whelk stall. Was hypocrisy ever more grotesque?
Yet to visitors such as myself this week, the US’ budgetary hysteria and exhausted resolution have seemed a synthetic ritual. The constitution delivers these Hitchcockian spectaculars when president and Congress are at odds, as last happened in 1995 and 1996. They wrestle each other to the brink of the cliff, lose their footing, slip and hang on by their fingertips. Then they clamber back up. They always do.
Washington’s driving compulsion to keep the show on the road reflects a deep-seated survival instinct. It may be decried by the right as the desperation of those with their hands on other people’s money, and by the left as democracy defaulting to sanity. Either way, when taxpayers cannot pay the bills, lenders must do so. US debt is now about US$16.7 trillion and is going to rise, not fall. The Tea Party lost the battle, but it did not lose the argument.
Some ridicule at the US’ expense is understandable. The rottenness of modern Washington makes outsiders gasp. The pomposity of its architecture can no longer dignify the log-rolling, the gerrymandering, the lobbyists’ egregious power, the money sloshing everywhere and the partisan polarization that drips from every news program.
The most bizarre participant is the Republican Party. Its representatives all sang Amazing Grace and invoked God’s help in unison before voting down the penultimate Senate rescue package. It was like a Taliban loya jirga. Even in the final vote, a majority of Republicans refused to back the rescue, thus voting for the US to default on its debts.
The party of former US president Abraham Lincoln, Reconstruction and reform, as its elder statesman, US Senator John McCain, admitted, has degenerated into a sad squabble of factions. The Tea Party, with just 40 official congress members, threatened every Republican voting for rescue with a primary election challenge, no idle threat. It is small wonder that many opted for the devil of default rather than the deep blue sea of oblivion.
The Tea Party represents a serious strand in US public life — old-world fundamentalist in its exclusivity, self-righteousness and religious zeal. Its defense policy is little short of jihadist. It hates compulsory government, such as Medicare and Obamacare. It believes in state and local rights. It sees US president Barack Obama as an amalgam of federal power, liberal smugness and black Americanism, and hates him for it.
Like the right wing in any country, this strand lies in waiting for any political system that has grown too fat, centralized and arrogant. It cannot be dismissed as a crazed rural minority. Its threat to congressional Republicans was real, and remains so. When Tea Party members and candidates were warned they might cause the entire federal project to collapse, they saw that as a hope, not a threat. They still do.
For all that, a classic of US brinkmanship has been averted with some credit for common sense. The Tea Party was not just defeated — it was humiliated. It was brought down by the cynicism of using Obamacare as its cause, using shutdown and default as a nuclear weapon against its foe and yielding a catastrophic failure to win public opinion.
Obama’s victory last week was not so much for him as for Americans, as they screamed, “Pull yourselves together,” in poll after poll.
The shutdown and its resolution were not the evil in the US system, but a sign of its ultimate sanity.
Outsiders should beware of dumping too much contempt on Washington. The separation of powers between the presidency and congress is not just hallowed by history: It is constantly tested in the fire. The US was born of disregard for the demands of subsidiary assemblies by then-British king George III and then-British prime minister Lord North. It forged its independence on the anvil of states’ rights. This involved creating a deliberate, transparent tension between the states and federal government. Where other federations fail — or in Europe’s case are wilting — the US does not.
Certainly, the US Constitution is questioned on all sides. Commentators, think tanks and political scientists agree that it is sick. Just as Iraq and Afghanistan have heralded the US’ retreat from global suzerainty, so federal chaos is undermining faith in the system of government. Expressing this consensus, the author of The Unwinding, George Packer, argues in the new Prospect magazine that the whole gamut of US conservativism has run out of ideas.
The “weaknesses in a system of democratic checks and balances [are] now glaring” and need to be refocused on a stronger executive president, he says.
I am not sure. It is the presidency and its agencies that have made federal government bureaucratic and wasteful. The Pentagon is so cumbersome it can no longer win wars. Corporate lobbying and union power have driven federal medical and welfare entitlements to an unsupportable level. Obamacare, admirable in intent, is chaotic, with computers crashing and applicants left floundering.
Congress may be part of the problem. However, it does exert a crude brake on the budget through having to vote for supply. It has delivered a jolt to government spending this past month, but has not curbed it. There is still no sign of Obama cutting back on welfare spending, a long-term cause of the looming debt mountain (as in the UK). There may be another breakdown next year.
Governments round the world are facing the “impossibility of democracy,” whereby electoral majorities vote for benefits they do not have to finance, and so resort to debt. Britain’s last Labour government was reckless in this respect, as US presidents of both parties have been. Both countries face tax famines, in part because the world has not confronted the cancer of corporate tax evasion. This is nowhere near resolved.
A catastrophe that threatened real damage to economic recovery has been avoided. It is no bad thing that it happened. The conflict over resources was real, as was the continuing war between the extravagance of this generation and the burden heaped on to the next. Battles that elsewhere are swept under the carpet are fought in the US in full view, democracy red in tooth and claw. That is good. Thank you, America.