The Debt Ceiling: Where Are the Grownups?
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
When I heard on Friday, July 22 — just 10 days before the drop-dead August 2 deadline for raising the U.S. debt ceiling so the government can continue to borrow money to keep all its current programs going — that House Speaker John Boehner had walked out on talks with President Obama to negotiate a bipartisan solution, I felt a cold chill of fear. Until then, I had assumed that there was no way even as dysfunctionally divided a government as the one we have now in Washington, D.C. would let the U.S. slide into its first-ever default on its debts.
I had assumed that at some point the grownups would step in — not the politicians, certainly, but the rich individuals and corporate executives who fund the political system and essentially own the politicians. Just as the Temporary Assets Relief Program (TARP) had been jammed through Congress in October 2008 after the first version had been voted down, largely due to the pressure of all the really existing capitalists who stood to lose scads of money if Congress, out of an excess of Libertarian/Right-wing populist fervor, voted down this grand giveaway to the banks, I expected what Noam Chomsky called “the reality-based wing of the ruling class” would prevail again and the debt ceiling would get raised with some cutbacks in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending so the Tea Party could claim a victory.
Speaker Boehner’s dramatic walkout, explained in a letter he sent to the Republicans in the House of Representatives, gave me the chills and made default as an option thinkable for the first time. Not that I hadn’t been warned: listening to Right-wing talk radio, thanks to my Right-wing roommate who dotes on the stuff and believes everything the hosts tell him no matter how far against its own interests it goes (and as a Queer person in a wheelchair who’s lived on Social Security disability almost his whole adult life, it’s hard to think of someone who has more to lose if the Right-wing ideology of the Tea Party, talk radio and Fox News becomes the law of the land), I knew not only that they were turning their powerful and well-coordinated megaphone against any raise in the debt limit but were minimizing the consequences, using their well-honed skills at ridicule to assure the American people that the government was still taking in lots of tax money and would therefore have no problem paying its bills even if the debt ceiling weren’t raised.
But the absence of any serious corporate or upper-class pressure on Congress to act on the debt ceiling raises two ominous possibilities. Either the corporocracy has signed on to the agenda of the Tea Party and favors the skidding halt to the welfare state and most of what the government does other than defense and tax breaks for the rich that a failure to raise the debt ceiling would trigger, or else the Tea Party and the radical Right in general has become the ruling class’s Frankenstein monster. Sparked by a Right-wing commentator on a cable-news network, the Tea Party has reached its influence largely due to the effective promotion of it on talk radio and Fox News, and at a time when Fox News’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, is in the biggest scandal of his career in Britain, he and his ideology seem poised to take complete control of American politics either if the debt ceiling is not raised or — as seems increasingly likely — the Republicans in the House hold the line and insist they’ll only raise it if both houses of Congress adopt the so-called “cut, cap and balance” plan, which will not only reduce federal government spending to 18 percent of the gross domestic product (a level last reached in 1966, not coincidentally the year Medicare first took effect) but require Congress to pass and send to the states an amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandating a balanced budget.
The debt ceiling fight is just the latest demonstration of how complete the Right’s hegemony over American politics and policy-making has become. Thanks to a number of factors — their skill at using race and culture as wedge issues to win the working class over from the Democratic to the Republican party; the money at their disposal courtesy of wealthy individuals like the Koch brothers and Richard Mellon Scaife (who was to Bill Clinton what the Kochs have been to Obama — the man who funded the vast Right-wing conspiracy against Bill and Hillary Clinton that really did exist); the powerful media infrastructure they have built through talk radio, Fox News and other corporate media outlets to repeat ultra-Right propaganda 24/7 while both the far-Right and more moderate center-Right (falsely called “liberal”) wings of the corporate media don’t give air time to progressive viewpoints at all; and, most importantly, their impressive discipline, their ability to stay “on message” no matter what and present a united front to the world while settling their internal differences behind closed doors (a tactic they learned from, of all people, Vladimir Lenin, who called it “democratic centralism”) — the issues that matter in this country are debated from only one direction. Whatever you think of Ralph Nader (whom I supported for President in 2000 and opposed in 2008), he’s right when he says that America doesn’t have two major parties; it has one party with two Right wings.
The Democratic Party is hobbled in the current political environment not only by the huge communications infrastructure that openly propagandizes for the Republican Party in general and its farthest Right factions in particular, but also by a yawning gap between what its voters want and what its corporate funders want. As former Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey said shortly before he was thrown out of the Senate and into prison for accepting bribes, the traditional issues of the Democratic Party — supporting workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively, preserving and extending the welfare state, regulating business to protect consumers, protecting the environment — have “voter constituencies” but not “financial constituencies.” Thus the Democratic Party has to play a double game: to win votes, it has to appear to be working for the interests of workers, consumers, low-income people and the environment; but it can’t actually do much for them because then the corporate rich who fund it won’t give it money. The Republicans don’t have this contradiction because what they want to do from ideological conviction — abolish unions, get rid of the welfare state, end all regulations on business, slash taxes on the rich and trash the environment in the name of “economic development” — is also what the ruling class which funds them wants done.
The Republican Party is one election away from what Karl Rove called “full-spectrum dominance” of American politics. They are almost certain to win control of the U.S. Senate in 2012, if only because the Democrats are defending 23 seats while the Republicans are defending only 10 — and the Republicans only need a net gain of three or four seats for control, depending on how the presidential election goes. What’s more, barring a major economic recovery in the next few months — and when I say “major” I mean one that will create at least one million new middle-class jobs in the U.S. — the Republicans are almost certain to defeat President Obama in 2012. Americans simply don’t re-elect presidents who have been in office when unemployment skyrocketed as much as it has over Obama’s term — the last time they did was Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, and that was when there were still strong grass-roots mass organizations on the Left to counteract the propaganda on the Right.
Friends I’ve told this prediction to have generally responded by making fact-based arguments — that the economic collapse really began under the Bush administration (true), that without Obama’s stimulus package even more jobs would have been lost (unprovable, but highly likely), and that the agenda of the Republican party (and the handful of Democrats they got to support “cut, cap and balance” — just enough turncoats so they could call it “bipartisan”) would be likely to take so much money out of the economy, since cutting government means cutting government jobs, which means putting more people out of work, which means drying up demand for goods and services, that it would risk turning the lingering recession into a full-blown depression (again, highly likely). What they don’t realize is that facts have virtually ceased to matter in American politics; as Marshall McLuhan predicted in the 1960’s, the rise of electronic media — radio and television, and more recently the Internet — have undercut the intellectual discipline needed to analyze political claim logically. Instead, today’s voters are ruled by impressions — and the Republicans have far, far more access to the capital-intensive impression-creating machines of radio, TV and the Internet than the Democrats do.
What’s most remarkable about the debt ceiling crisis is that the Republicans in the House of Representatives not only want total control of the political process, they want it now. They don’t even want to wait for the 2012 election! John Boehner’s letter — in which he wrote that “a deal was never reached, and was never really close … not because of different personalities, but because of different visions for our country,” and cited “the principles of the Cut, Cap and Balance Act” as the only basis he sees for a solution — indicates that he and the Republican House members he represents want President Obama to sign on to the destruction of the welfare state as their price for raising the debt ceiling. It’s a masterstroke of political strategy: not only does it get rid of something the Republicans hate — remember that the Republicans fought tooth and nail against the creation of Social Security in the 1930’s and Medicare in the 1960’s — but it does so in a way that ensures the Democrats will get blamed and won’t be able to use it as a campaign issue in 2012.
When William F. Buckley, Jr. founded the National Review in 1955 he wrote a famous editorial for the first issue in which he said that his magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Today, the ascendancy of the radical Right seems so strong I sometimes get the feeling it is we progressives, radicals, Leftists, whatever we’re calling ourselves who are standing athwart history yelling stop. But if this country — or the human race as a whole — is to have a fighting chance at a decent future, in the short term we must make sure that the reality-based wing of the ruling class gets (or, in Obama’s case, keeps) power and we stop the mad schemes of the Rightists who would either let America default on its debts or insist on a “cut, cap and balance” law that would likely mean economic catastrophe. In the long term we face the task of building a mass movement against almost insuperable odds and offering the American people a counter-narrative to the racial and cultural scapegoating of the Right that has so hypnotized many of them.