US Capitol

The Wrong Lessons From the Shutdown

As the national news media works overtime to vilify the Republicans who refuse to abandon their objectives in the interests of reopening the government and allowing business as usual, the lesson seems unmistakable: anyone who stands by his or her principles is obstructionist, extremist and hopelessly out of touch with the majority of Americans and in sharp contrast to the reasonable, patriotic members of Congress ready to put partisan principles aside for the common good.

As the shutdown drama drags on, major news organizations are trumpeting an NBC News/Esquire poll indicating that most Americans are "centrist." Of course, a survey by Newsweek from 2011 likewise shows that 64 percent didn't understand why the Cold War occurred, and 44 percent apparently couldn't explain what the Bill of Rights is. Even so, the message is clear: virtue lives in the center. But political change does not.

"The mainstream narrative reinforces a presumption that "business as usual" is a sane and rational course."Historically, movements of social change have begun among the disaffected, and among the relatively small numbers of people angry enough to act on their concerns. The moment an individual becomes impassioned enough about an issue to take to the picket line, or engage in civil disobedience, that individual has left the moderate, sensible, safe world of centrist politics. If they succeed, social change movements may win adherents among the "centrist" majority, who come to understand the importance of an issue that once didn't matter to them at all, but the centrists do not typically lead the charge.

Today, judging by their actions, most Americans, who we now know are "centrist," and the people they send to Washington apparently have no significant concerns about the Obama's administration assault on civil liberties, or its cruel and callous policy on deportations, or its support for pillaging America's public lands and coastal areas to fuel the addiction to fossil fuels. There seems to be little concern about the young lives sacrificed to urban violence and poverty, or the relentless poverty and dysfunction that marks so many American Indian reservations.

But imagine if progressives took a page from the Tea Party playbook, working to infiltrate both parties, pushing both parties to address these and other issues. Imagine if progressive concerns were front and center of a shutdown showdown over budget priorities and debt levels. Imagine if progressives demanded defunding of programs to sell-off America's natural resources, or round-up "illegal immigrants," or demanded an end to drone strikes.

Such a left/progressive strategy is difficult to imagine for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the seemingly boundless faith that people with progressive leanings seem to be willing to place in the centrist Democratic Party, as if, candidates fully yoked to the money machine that drives electoral politics will magically morph into stalwart champions of progressive causes.

The rightward tilt of the Republican Party in the last three decades, however, did not occur by chance. It occurred because people acted on their views that abortion, gay rights and the demise of school prayer were dangerous social developments, and insisted the Republican Party respond to those concerns.

Doubtless, just as the major news media are braying about the Tea Party extremists in Congress, they would likewise characterize hypothetical leftist members of Congress as extremists and radicals. But isn't this the natural course of political change? Aren't those who demand it always seen as extremists and radicals?

True to form, major media outlets are calling the shutdown a disastrous political strategy for Republicans and offering polls showing that Americans are "blaming" Republicans. But this narrative, too, is a dangerous one for progressives.

For one, it overlooks what was gained from the shutdown in terms of advancing Tea Party goals. Can anyone doubt that anyone who knew next to nothing of the nation's yawning deficits and extraordinary debt is now much more sensitized to these issues, and just might become engaged around them?

Secondly, the mainstream narrative reinforces a presumption that "business as usual" is a sane and rational course. For two decades, interest on the debt has been near or exceeded $200 billion annually. By way of comparison, Obama requested approximately $70 billion to fund the Department of Education in FY 14, and $526.6 billion for the Defense Department. Obviously, $200 billion in interest, paid to people well off enough to loan money to the federal government, is unavailable for more useful purposes, such as improving conditions on Indian reservations. For FY 14, the Obama Administration requested $2.6 billion for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In short, the budgetary issues raised by the Tea Party faction in Congress have significant implications for progressive causes as does the mainstream narrative about their tactics. We should be cautious in supporting the view that their tactics are extremist, irrational or useless.

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