Monday, January 21, 2019

An Increasingly Dangerous Precedent

"A nation as large and complex as the United States, with its world-spanning obligations and interconnections, requires both the Republicans and Democrats to be serious and responsible governing parties. If moderation remains long absent from one party, let alone both, the consequences are likely to be dire." So warned Yale historian Geoffrey Kabaservice in his magisterial account of the Republican party's self-destructive recent history (Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, Oxford, 2012, p. 401). Note that date! He wrote those words when Donald Trump was still just largely a local New York phenomenon, whom hardly anyone seriously imagined would ever get anywhere near the White House! Trump's absence from Kabaservice's narrative highlights the complex history of the "conservative" movement's acquisition of complete control over the Republican party and with it the resulting destruction of that party's ability to govern - an inability now dramatically on display as the Trump shutdown enters the record books as the longest in our country's history.

By definition, a government "shutdown" is bizarre. It is also a relatively new tactic in American politics, the rise of which parallels the rise of the contemporary Republican party. This particular shutdown is especially bizarre because the outgoing Republican Congress had seemed to be on the verge of avoiding it, until the President panicked after some harsh words from right-wing commentators - and accordingly abandoned any attempt to govern the country in favor of campaign posturing.

Now he and his sidekicks in the Senate (and elsewhere) speak of "crisis" and "emergency." Of course, "crisis" and even "emergency" would be fair descriptions of the difficulties and dangers to which the country and so many individual citizens have been subjected as a result of this "shutdown." But of course, "crisis" and "emergency" in no way describe what the President and his supporters have chosen to apply those inflammatory words to describe. If there is any  "crisis" or "emergency" at the southern border and in immigration policy more generally, those terms apply essentially to the problems the President himself and his misguided immigration posturing have created over the last two years.

The abject subservience of Republican Senators to their White House master has indeed resulted in a crisis of constitutional democratic governance. The President's threat earlier in the "shutdown" to go around Congress completely by declaring a "state of emergency" was, so to speak, just the icing on the poisoned cake congressional Republicans have baked. And it speaks volumes about our constitutional dysfunction that some have actually suggested such a "state of emergency" could serve as a viable exit from the absurd logjam the "shutdown" has created.

The "shutdown" has created all sorts of serious problems for real people - first of all, for federal employees and contractors, but also for those dependent on government services (recipients of food stamps or income tax refunds, for example, and in the long run for all of us). For this reason alone, it is an unconscionable policy pursued by a particular President seeing to impose an unpopular policy he had no hope of achieving any other way.

Above and beyond these immediate problems, however, this lengthy crisis is creating a dangerous political precedent. The longer the President gets away with keeping the government "shutdown," behavior that has appropriately been characterized as holding society hostage (with all the moral opprobrium that rightly accompanies the concept of hostage-taking), the more dangerous the precedent that is being set. If this President gets away with it this time, what is to stop this President - or any future President - from doing this, seeking to circumvent congress and ordinary constitutional processes, whenever he (or the talk-show hosts who set his agenda) want to impose an extreme and unpopular policy they have no other way of enacting?

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