The government shutdown crisis revealed a startling truth to the American public about our system of government: It will not work without a willingness on the part of people and leaders to make it work. Thus, as the shutdown continued and the debt ceiling deadline loomed, a scary thought presented itself: What if Republicans remain steadfast in their refusal to pass a budget or honor the nation’s debts? What if the Republican leadership is unwilling or unable to break the deadlock? What if government seizes up entirely?
Analysts have pointed to that other time in our history when one part of the nation became so radicalized that it refused to allow for the continued operation of the federal government. It was the Civil War. In the government shutdown crisis, a block of tea party conservatives in the House was willing to starve the government of funds and provoke an international financial crisis to achieve their goal of nullifying a federal law: the Affordable Care Act. A small core of tea party-oriented senators was also pushing this strategy, and with the power of the filibuster at their fingertips, their potential for wreaking havoc was considerable.
If this threat to the nation’s economic well-being had been engineered by left-wing radicals, an outcry about the danger of socialism or communism would have shaken the heavens. But these were a different sort of radical. Journalist John Judis in the New Republic magazine calls them “middle-American radicals.”
Middle-American radicalism is strongest in those parts of the country whose well-being has been eroded in recent years by economic trends favoring large corporations, Wall Street and the wealthy. Thus, tea party conservatism is strongest in the South, especially rural regions, which is subject to higher poverty and other disadvantages. It is a region where small-businesspeople must compete against mega-corporations, where farming has declined, where the rural drug scourge has tattered the social fabric, where Main Street has been hollowed out by the invasion of chains and big box stores. Author George Packer wrote a book called “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” that vividly chronicles this decline.
The alienation and anger simmering in the neglected, struggling parts of the nation has caused people to focus their rage, not on the corporations that are siphoning the profits away from communities and narrowing available opportunities. Rather, rage is focused at the federal government. Taxes and regulation are what every businessman must contend with, and in the minds of many they are the problem. Thus, President Obama has become emblematic of all that they hate. Resentment of his race adds another layer of anger.
Middle American radicalism has a long history. In the 1950s and 1960s the apparent threats were communism and the civil rights movement. The John Birch Society and the Minutemen were among the fringe groups that articulated what seemed like a loony form of paranoia. In the 1990s the militia movement gained momentum until the Oklahoma City bombing cast it into disrepute. In the 1930s there was the anti-Semitism of Father Coughlin and the Nazi-friendly isolationism of figures such as Charles Lindbergh. Earlier periods featured waves of anti-immigrant feeling and the racism of the Ku Klux Klan.
This time around, the Republican leaders of Congress refused to allow the tea party agenda of middle class radicalism to cause the dismantling of the federal government. But we saw how such a dismantling could happen. Now there is a backlash among so-called establishment Republicans against the radicalism they have nurtured.
The marginal middle and lower middle class has had a history of mistaking the cause of its tribulations. Its anger is easily exploited by the economic elites in the boardrooms of Wall Street or Wal-Mart who are engineering the economic travails that are provoking middle class anger. It is a bitter irony for President Obama that he is bitterly hated by the people who stand to benefit the most from the health care plan that he is forcing upon them. They don’t like being forced, even for their own good.
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