The extremism of the Republican Party in shutting down the government and threatening default as means for pushing its agenda makes the present standoff in Washington more than a test of wills. What is at stake is the integrity of American democracy.
President Obama, who has stood firm in the face of Republican threats, appears to understand that giving in to blackmail is no longer workable. When a minority is allowed to use anti-democratic methods to achieve its ends, democracy itself is the victim. So in standing up to extremist bullies seeking to hijack American democracy, he is standing up for democracy.
Republicans have used contorted rhetoric to try to paint Obama as the recalcitrant party. They accuse him of refusing to negotiate. They demand that he agree to delay the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Their accusations and demands are an absurdity wrapped in a farce.
The Affordable Care Act itself is the product of endless negotiations and compromises on the part of Obama that were the despair of many liberals. If the law had not been weakened by the demands of Republicans and conservative Democrats, it would not leave out many poor people who are blocked from access by the states where they live. It would not maintain a central role for the insurance industry.
But that is how democracy works. People thrash it out, and then they pass a bill. It is an absurdity for parties who didn’t like the outcome then to threaten economic collapse to exact further concessions. Democracy requires a shared understanding by all parties that they have a common interest in maintaining a process that allows for majorities to form and for laws to be passed. Otherwise, a special-interest group that gains a foothold on power can permanently thwart the will of the majority.
The Republicans are behaving in the manner of an aggrieved minority that believes it is right but is outnumbered — so it must take special, coercive measures. But for a minority to use coercion to impose its will on the majority is contrary to democracy. The rules of Congress and our system of divided government give minorities many opportunities to block action if they are determined to do so, and Republicans are taking advantage of the budget and debt ceiling votes to force their position on Obama. He must continue to stand firm in opposing them.
House Speaker John Boehner has been become a farcical character. Obama, he says, is demanding “unconditional surrender” of the Republicans. Since when does agreement by Congress to pay the nation’s bills constitute a surrender? Boehner ought to surrender to good sense and end the mobster tactics he is employing (“That’s a very nice economy you have there — you wouldn’t want anything to happen to it, would you?”).
It may be that Boehner is engaged in a massive charade designed to fake out the tea party extremists within his own party and that he will give in at the last moment. He could easily allow a majority of House members — Democrats and moderate Republicans — to pass budget and debt ceiling bills. In doing so, he would be allowing for majority rule and thwarting the demands of the minority that seeks to impose its will on the rest of us.
By standing up to the demands of the extremists, Obama may begin the process of marginalizing them. That is the only hope we have of freeing ourselves from the pattern of coercion and special interest rule in which we are now trapped.
There is historical precedent for minority stranglehold on government. The elite class of Southern planters continually expanded its power before the Civil War to undermine constitutional governance and bolster its pro-slavery agenda. It was the failure of the presidencies that preceded the Civil War that they failed to find a way to require respect for the Constitution in the slave states. Thus, some historians say that the Civil War’s larger victory was to expand democratic rule.
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