They're not crazy or irrational; there's method to their madness, and progressives would do well not to underestimate the rationality of their extremism if we wish to come out winners. To think that there isn't a strategy behind their madcap mission to shut down government and possibly default on the debt would be to severely underestimate their capabilities for very long-term thinking. They're more than willing to pay a short-term, easily overlooked, political price, with the backing of their Wall Street benefactors, and I've seen nothing in the unfolding drama so far to indicate that they're not going to gain from these machinations over the long haul.
The capitalist class is allowing this explosive charge to go forward, knowing that the overall result will still be in their favor. Isn't it amazing how quiescent Wall Street has been despite the looming debt default, how little interest it's shown in disciplining the supposedly out-of-control House Republicans? There is a rational explanation. The House, because of extreme gerrymandering, is not going to change hands anytime soon. So with this protection in place, a well-organized faction can destabilize the terms of discourse to favor the very wealthy. This is by no means unintentional or an unhappy byproduct of internal Republican bickering.
To call this a Republican civil war is journalistic malpractice. The extremist faction is the Republican party (not whatever John Boehner or John McCain are supposed to stand for); the extremist faction is the ruling class's preferred direction for American politics in the near future, as unimaginable as it might seem today.
Their apparently unhinged actions shift the political discourse further to the right. Remember the bad old days -- oh, a few weeks ago? -- when Barack Obama was being chastised by liberal opinion for his willingness to strike Syria? When his failure to be vocal on behalf of immigration reform was a disappointment? Now that the Affordable Care Act is under attack again, single payer doesn't seem so urgent anymore, does it? It's enough to get the insurance exchanges in operation, it's enough to leave some states alone to do the right thing.
When the Republicans are out of the White House, their purpose is not to govern but to be a toxic idea-generating machine, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation so to speak, opposing everything geared to making life better for the average person. Precisely the same function was accomplished during the 2012 Republican primaries, where the discourse shifted so far to the right that Obama, and even Romney at some level, began to look like paragons of compassion compared to the extreme callousness showed by the clowns who'd opened the show. Paul Ryan was an extremist last year; today he's a moderate. Sequestration has become a permanent reality.
The challenge for progressives is how to expose the destructive ideals of a party such as this, when so much propaganda has been leveled for so long against the real accomplishments of the New Deal. How to change the script when those who suffer the most are often the same ones who want the state to give up its last bits of rhetorical attachment to welfare and justice?
The Democrats are being put on the defensive for 2014 onwards. The ground is being set for a truly radical reengineering when the next Republican president comes to power -- it doesn't matter if it's not 2016, the Republicans are in no hurry, since they, with the backing of the corporate class, are setting the political agenda anyway. Out of power they always seem to have more power! The same dynamic -- with the Newt Gingrich gang (who now appear positively progressive in comparison) -- was in play throughout the 1990s, as the stage was being set for the Bush presidency.
Suppose a "grand bargain" on debt -- which would have been pretty regressive anyway, making deep cuts in social programs, all for the sake of the "fiscal sanity" which is always the cover of the ruling class for diverting more wealth toward themselves -- had been struck two years ago, and going off the cliff was no longer a continual distraction for Obama. Suppose peace had been made with the Affordable Care Act. Suppose modest infrastructure investment had gone ahead. Indeed, a landslide election victory resulted from precisely this moderate platform. Then what would occupy the discourse now? A more liberal direction to immigration reform? Correction of historic racial injustices? Skepticism toward surveillance, drone attacks, and all the paraphernalia of the rising police state? A national living wage? Help with mortgages and student debt?
These are the kinds of things that would rise to the forefront of discussion as soon as chaos recedes, and therefore, absent a fundamental reorientation of the polity, anarchy must remain a permanent feature of governance. It is a most rational governing strategy for those who want to further the agenda of class inequality and social repression. Government shutdown is the domestic equivalent of the Iraq War, and both were brought about with the full complicity of the corporate class.
If we discount the doubtful elections of 2000 and 2004, the Republicans have not won a national contest fair and square for more than twenty years; and they'd be hard pressed to do so in the foreseeable future, because of demographic shifts that are now an accomplished fact. So what is the party of the elite to do, how can it face electoral realities and yet make progress toward its goals of privatizing, defunding, and delegitimizing essential social functions?
Viewed from this angle, the fact that defaulting on the national debt is being discussed as a real possibility is the kind of chaotic development that can bring more recruits of a simplistic mindset to the Darwinian ideology. The classes are being pitted one against the other, there is a distinct racial taint to the whole theater of absurdity, and when values are upset in such a radical way that no historical precedent has any meaning, then the disaffected are free to form incongruous political alliances. This is still not sufficient to offset the overwhelming demographic disadvantage, but it is enough to keep things in play, close enough to harm any emerging liberal consensus.
The result of all this frantic activity is to set course for the next stage of neoliberal economics. After we have come this far in thirty years, what else remains to be done? A lot, really. Exactly what Ted Cruz and his compatriots are seeking, a total abandonment of government's commitment to ensuring a level playing field, so that class and inheritance once again become, as they already have to a very large extent, the ultimate determinants of one's place in society. This final stage of neoliberalism looks suspiciously like a return to feudal arrangements, as one can tell by a cursory look at, for example, private school admissions stakes in Manhattan or Los Angeles, or who gets the desirable entry-level jobs that lead to social prestige.
It is a rhetoric so extreme -- deport every child of every undocumented parent, leave sick people to die on the streets, lock them all up, shoot before thinking, sacrifice every freedom for security, blame yourself if you're not successful -- that it actually begins to sound logical to those on the outs already, those without a substantial economic stake. It is a rhetoric meant to make the center-right look positively socialist, and it is the perfect governing strategy when demographics and cultural democracy are absolutely stacked against you.
Don't count on them buckling before the debt ceiling deadline. Going over would serve their purpose quite well, and Wall Street, despite some expressions of worry, wouldn't be entirely displeased with its revolutionary arm in Congress. When Republican leaders assure the public that they will not let default happen, what they mean is that theoretically there is enough revenue to make interest payments; it is a radical reprioritization of government, just as the partial shutdown favors the militarized functions of government. To inject this idea alone into the public bloodstream, to make people think that everything but militarism is redundant, is a success of the advance guard of the Republican party, which continues to set the agenda for the rank-and-file.
Does the ruling class know what it's doing, is it really coherent, or is there a civil war in progress, befuddling and confusing them, so that they're split in two directions? Alas, there is no civil war. They are very much in control, precisely when it seems they've lost control.
Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet, and critic, whose novel Karachi Raj is forthcoming soon. His books include The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, My Tranquil War and Other Poems, and Anatolia and Other Stories. A new novel, Abruzzi, 1936, is in progress.