Will the Tea Party fundamentalists see the light and release their hostage before the US plunges into default in mid-October? Will the Republican leadership finally step back from the cliff edge they have allowed the extremists to push them to and take the gun from the country’s head? That is the question to which we are waiting for the answer right now.
By Gerard M. Gallucci
It’s hard enough for we Americans to understand what is going on in Washington these days. Our government closed and the country is facing the prospect of defaulting on our debt, all by choice. But it may be even harder for those beyond our borders who may yet be affected by our craziness. So let me try to explain.
Basically, the United States has been taken hostage by a small group of fundamentalists. These fundamentalists are an extreme strain of a longstanding – and typically American – distrust of government that dates back to our 18th century revolution against the British monarchy. Taking this distrust of government – and the mythical American belief in “self-reliance” – to an absurd degree, they abhor government and believe they don’t need it. They are in truth a band of anarchists. They call themselves the Tea Party, after a band of patriots that threw English tea into Boston Harbor in 1773 to protest British taxes imposed by a Parliament that did not give the colonists the vote. The rallying call was “no taxation without representation.”
These Tea Party fundamentalists do in fact have the vote as well as representation in the US congress. Indeed, they have used voting to elect representatives eager to keep their favor by carrying their extreme rejection of government to Washington. Nevertheless, these Tea Party-ists believe the federal government is too big and powerful and seem to prefer it be dismantled. They are mostly white, male and rural and especially dislike the parts of government that help provide a safety net to those who our rather extreme version of a market economy let fall through the cracks. They believe that most of those who need help are lazy, shiftless, fecund and colored. They have received the cynical support of a section of the moneyed class who don’t like paying taxes and enjoy seeing the federal budget hacked.
The Tea Party fanatics have achieved a considerable degree of success already. Under their pressure, the federal budget has been cut substantially and in some cases dangerously. But thanks to their seizure of state legislatures – which in America draw up the congressional districts – they have created a hard core of “safe seats” that always send Republicans to Congress and drew congressional boundaries so to throw likely Democratic voters into the fewest possible districts. (We call this “gerrymandering.”) Thus, while Republicans won less than a majority of the national popular vote in the 2012 elections for congress, they filled more than half of the seats and kept control of the House of Representatives. (The Democrats retained their majority in the Senate in large part due to the extremism of some of the Republican candidates.)
In the solidly Republican districts, the Tea Party extremists outvote more moderate Republicans in the primary elections that select party candidates. (Fewer regular voters turn out for primary elections.) They selected extremist candidates who then go to Washington assured of continuing support back home as long as they vigorously attack the American government. These Republican extremists have cowered the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, is so desperate to keep his job that he has pandered to these extremists so they don’t vote him out of his position. The Tea Party Republicans in the House pushed him to threaten to close the government and renege on our debt unless President Obama gives up his effort – passed into law and approved by our Supreme Court – to extend basic health care to everyone. (Yes, only in 2013 is the US finally getting to this point decades after most other Western countries have done so.)
Distrust of government, when not taken to an extreme, may be a mostly healthy impulse, even in a democracy. But these Tea Party fundamentalists know no limits. They view compromise as defeatism. Added to this, it must be admitted, is the taint of racism. Barak Obama is still black and still President. Many leading Republicans made it their special purpose to defeat him in every way possible. Now that he nevertheless has been re-elected, they are attacking his greatest legislative accomplishment, health care.
Why should any of this matter to those beyond the US? Because the fundamentalists have not only taken America hostage but the entire world economy. Not knowing how to compromise – and bullying a Republican leadership unable to rise above them in the national interest – they have increased their ransom demand. They will let the US default on its debt unless President Obama gives up some piece of his healthcare program and further cuts the federal budget, aiming at everything except military spending. (The Tea Party extremists like weapons, the more and bigger the better.) A US default on its debt would fundamentally weaken the dollar and the global economy that depends on this paper “gold standard.”
Obama has said he will not meet these ransom demands. If he were to allow a small minority to dictate public policy by threatening to plunge America and the world into chaos, where would the demands end? It has long been US policy not to make deals with terrorists or pay ransom. President Obama cannot now surrender. The extremist Republicans – and their media mouthpieces such as Fox News – are seeking to cloak their hostage-taking effort in the guise of seeking “dialogue.” Boehner says he won’t even allow a vote in the House – where disgruntled Republican moderates might join Democrats to vote to end the crisis – until Obama talks to them about giving the extremists what they want.
Will the Tea Party fundamentalists see the light and release their hostage before the US plunges into default in mid-October? It’s not in their genes. Will the Republican leadership finally step back from the cliff edge they have allowed the extremists to push them to and take the gun from the country’s head? That is the question to which we are waiting for the answer right now.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He will serve as Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year.