The last time things got this bad was about 150 years ago — and we needed a Civil War to resolve it.
Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein recently wrote a column for the Washington Post with a provocative headline: “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.” Their thesis was that they had never, in 40 years of observing Congress, seen the institution behave in such a dysfunctional manner. They wrote that while they had long found reasons to be critical of both Democrats and Republicans, things have changed and our current crisis is solely the fault of a Republican Party that “has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
The article went on to present extensive evidence to back their case. Nothing has signified these extreme tendencies more clearly than last summer’s debt ceiling fiasco, where the Republicans acted so irresponsibly that Standard & Poor’s felt compelled to downgrade America’s hitherto gold-plated credit rating. In their press release, the ratings agency implicitly accused the Republicans of “brinksmanship” and said they had caused American governance and policymaking to become “less stable, less effective, and less predictable that we previously believed.” They were particularly alarmed that the statutory debt ceiling had become a bargaining chip over fiscal policy.
Looking back at that debacle, Steve Benen recently wrote, “It was, to my mind, the worst thing an American major party has done, at least in domestic politics, since the Civil War.”
When I first read that, it struck me as a preposterous statement. What about the Jim Crow laws, or the Palmer raids, or the Japanese internment camps, or McCarthyism, or the Vietnam and Iraq wars? But when I started to think about it, I realized that many of the big mistakes our country has made since the Civil War were not really the result of one political party’s actions. The Jim Crow laws are, of course, associated with the Democratic Party. But only the Southern half of the Democratic Party. Wartime measures, like the Palmer Raids during World War I, the internment camps of World War II, COINTELPRO during Vietnam, or illegal surveillance and detainee abuse during the current War on Terror, have been instigated less by political parties than by particular administrations, or they have had significant bipartisan support. The same can be said for our country’s decisions to fight in Vietnam and Iraq. In these cases, the blame is both too narrow in one sense, and too broad in another, to lay all the blame on a single party. Even McCarthyism can’t be laid squarely on the GOP, since much of the Republican establishment, including the Eisenhower administration, wasn’t too pleased with it. The debt ceiling fiasco was different. Here’s how Benen described it:
It was a move without parallel. The entirety of a party threatened to deliberately hurt the country unless their rivals paid a hefty ransom — in this case, debt reduction. It didn’t matter that Republicans were largely responsible for the debt in the first place, and it didn’t matter that Republicans routinely raised the debt ceiling dozens of times over the last several decades.
This wasn’t just another partisan dispute; it was a scandal for the ages. This one radical scheme helped lead to the first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt; it riled financial markets and generated widespread uncertainty about the stability of the American system; and it severely undermined American credibility on the global stage. Indeed, in many parts of the world, observers didn’t just lose respect for us, they were actually laughing at us.
It’s the kind of thing that should have scarred the Republican Party for a generation. Not only did that never happen, the Republican hostage-takers are already vowing to create this identical crisis all over again, on purpose.
Benen is right. It’s not easy to identify other examples where an American political party acted with such reckless disregard for the good of the country. But when I really think about it, the Debt Ceiling Fiasco isn’t a stand-alone thing. It’s part of a continuum. You can’t just cherry-pick the Debt Ceiling Fiasco and forget about the politicization of the Department of Justice, or putting an Arabian horse trader in charge of New Orleans’ safety, or blowing off any planning and just declaring, “Fuck Saddam, we’re taking him out.” What’s the worst thing the GOP has done in the 17 years since they first took control of Congress? The Gingrich shutdowns of the federal government? Impeaching President Clinton? Using their majority on the Supreme Court to steal the 2000 election? Standing around like mute apes while the housing bubble inflated?
It’s not that the Debt Ceiling Fiasco was the worst or stupidest thing that any political party has imposed on America in 150 years. It’s that the Republican Party is the worst party we’ve had in 150 years. You might argue that they don’t have much competition. “So, they’re worse than the Democrats, big deal.” But parties don’t remain the same over time. In one sense, they change every two years following each federal election cycle. It’s best to think of iterations of our political parties.
For the GOP, there’s the abolitionist Lincoln iteration, the Reconstruction iteration, the McKinley/Taft iteration, the Teddy Roosevelt Era, the Roaring ’20s iteration, the FDR oppositional phase, the Eisenhower era, the Nixon/Ford iteration, the Reagan Revolution, the Gingrich Revolution, the Bush era, and finally the post-Bush era. And there’s no need to box things into tight little categories. It makes sense to talk about the post-Bush Republican Party, but we can also talk about the post-Nixon party or consider the contemporary GOP on a timeline beginning with its 1994 takeover of Congress.
I think it’s fair to say that the GOP that exists today, as expressed by both its behavior in Congress and its recent display in the presidential primaries, is worse than it has ever been. The Republicans of the 113th Congress are worse than the Republicans of the 112th, who were worse than the 111th, and so on.
There’s a scene in the movie Office Space in which the main character is talking to a psychologist. He complains that every day seems worse than the last. The psychologist says, “That means that every day is the worst day of your life.” The protagonist agrees, which leads the psychologist to observe impassively, “That’s messed up.” That’s a great metaphor for the modern Republican Party. The Debt Ceiling Fiasco, which is now set to be repeated, was merely a temporary nadir on an otherwise constant 45º downward slope.
A blogger who goes by the nom de guerre driftglass recently wrote about New York Times columnist David Brooks’ tendency to “waddle into the threshing blades.” I like that imagery. That’s what the Republicans have been doing to the country for a while now. Under Gingrich, they shut down the government and impeached the president after hounding him for six years with specious investigations. Then they disgraced the Supreme Court and stole the election away from its rightful winners. Then they dropped the ball on al-Qaeda. Next we wound up in Iraq with no plan.
From there it was on to Terri Schiavo and a drowned New Orleans and a failed attempt to privatize Social Security and a wrecked Department of Justice, and the Abramoff scandal. There was Guantanamo and black prisons and torture and murder and disaster in Afghanistan. When the stock market collapsed in September 2008, it might have seemed like the final culmination of a disastrous path embarked upon…when, exactly? 1964? 1980? 1994?
But the nightmare wasn’t over. In many ways, it was only starting. Yet to come were the Birthers and the Tea Party and the Tenthers and climate deniers. The party would begin a new Great Purge, sending Arlen Specter scurrying to the Democrats and defeating long-serving politicians like Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (who survived on a write-in campaign), Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, and a couple dozen “Establishment” picks. Those that have survived are now cowering in fear, completely unwilling to compromise with the Democrats or the president on anything, lest they become the next victim. They can’t address climate change because, despite the fact that John McCain and Sarah Palin campaigned on a cap-and-trade carbon plan, the party’s officeholders are now afraid to admit that climate change is even occurring.
And who could have predicted that the party would go after women’s access to contraception?
And what of the new crop of Republican governors. Grifters like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Scott in Florida surely represent a new breed (and a new low) of radical state executives. Governors in Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona and elsewhere are competing with each other to craft the most radical and unprecedented legislation. We have not seen a party this dangerous in any of our lifetimes. Not in this country, anyway. The last time things got this bad was about 150 years ago. The last time things got this bad, we needed a Civil War to resolve it.