The US is entering its second week of a government shutdown. On the surface, life seems to be continuing as usual – at least, as far as the media is concerned.
Conservative Republicans, who are driving policy in Congress, are using the tactic of blocking government funding to delay the implementation of Obamacare. But their aim is to overturn established legislation that was passed in 2010. If the administration were to cave on this, it would have accepted the precedent that one chamber of Congress could enforce its will on government by holding funding hostage.
While Washington Democrats and Republicans maneuver for tactical advantage, the poor and near-poor are being punished. Government supplementary food programs, for example, have taken an immediate hit. Imara Jones pointed out on Democracy Now that the shutdown “comes on top of the dramatic cuts of sequestration. … mothers with young children… had gone to WIC sites and WIC programs in New York that were out of food. And that’s on day two…”
The shutdown is essentially a trial of strength between extremist billionaires and the executive branch. It’s not intended to achieve anything in itself, any more than Ted Cruz’s 21-hour monologue in Congress did. It is a ploy to put pressure on the Republican leadership and in turn on Obama through the coming debt ceiling negotiations to make bigger cuts in social spending and eventually eviscerate Social Security and Medicare.
Under Obama’s administration, the plutocracy has grown economically richer and politically more powerful, using unlimited access to new technology and media (thanks to the Supreme Court) to sway a disgruntled core of Tea Party supporters who have successfully elected extremist Republican candidates in gerrymandered constituencies. They in turn have been able to use weaknesses in the American political system to paralyze the government.
The New York Times reported on the plethora of well-funded conservative shell groups that have been campaigning against the health law, laundering political slush funds from the billionaire Koch brothers to create a sustained ideological onslaught on the idea of government-supported health care. The billionaires’ strategy has been to put pressure on Republican legislators through groups like “Heritage Action,” which has trained 6,000 paid “sentinels” to confront legislators around the country.
Their campaign builds on a Republican ideological narrative that portrays government deficits as unsustainable. Traveling to Congressional Tea Party leader Steve King’s constituency in rural Iowa, NYT reporter James Stewart “was surprised to hear in nearly all my conversations that the issue for people in this part of Iowa is less Obamacare than it is government spending in general. ‘We have to sacrifice now so our children will not be drowning in our debt,’ [King supporter and glass factory owner] Mr. Geels said.” Many online comments on the article pointed out that the region survived on massive agricultural subsidies, and in the event of another agricultural crisis like the 1980s would be appealing desperately for government help.
The shutdown has made major corporations and Wall Street nervous, but they are no longer able to command influence in the Republican party. The Associated Press commented that “the partial closing of the government and the looming confrontation over the nation’s borrowing limit highlight the remarkable drop in the business community’s influence among House Republicans, who increasingly respond more to tea party conservatives than to the Chamber of Commerce.”
Ironically, big business torpedoed Republican moderates in 2010, helping hard-core conservatives gain election to the House. Corporations might want a rollback of environmental regulations and even further cuts in their taxes, and Wall Street may be in favor of cutting Social Security, but neither want to crash the economy to achieve these aims. However, moderate Republicans face billionaire-funded attacks and attempts to unseat them in primaries if they voice their opinions.
Although some have argued that tea party ideology signifies a descent into insanity, it is in line with overall Republican strategy. The New York Times comments that despite its flaws, Obamacare “could fundamentally change the relationship between working Americans and their government. This could pose an existential threat to the small-government credo that has defined the G.O.P. for four decades. … To conservative Republicans, losing a large slice of the middle class to the ranks of the Democratic Party could justify extreme measures.”
Harold Meyerson points out that the party holds the House with a minority popular vote, the result of gerrymandered districting after the 2010 census. Either Republicans can exert influence by embracing minority rights, he says, or they can maximize their power “by trying to disrupt the nation to the point that the majority will be compelled to support Republican positions.” The redistricting will ensure there are no electoral repercussions for their intransigence.
Republican-controlled states like Mississippi have voted to reject government-subsidized Medicaid expansion, one of the health act’s provisions, which would have had the effect of expanding health coverage in the state’s predominantly white rural counties, which voted consistently to put Republican lawmakers into office.
Poor whites who presently form the conservative Republican demographic would then get the most benefits from Obamacare while, it turns out, poor blacks who live in Republican-controlled states would get little. “The irony is that these states that are rejecting Medicaid expansion — many of them Southern — are the very places where the concentration of poverty and lack of health insurance are the most acute,” said Dr. H. Jack Geiger, a founder of the community health center model. “It is their populations that have the highest burden of illness and costs to the entire health care system.”
While conservatives claim public support for their tactics, opinion polls tell a different story. Josh Marshall sums them up: “The public opposes [the shutdown] by overwhelming margins (70%+). The public also blames the shutdown on House Republicans by a substantial though not overwhelming margins (the number who blame Obama, in the mid-30s, roughly matches the base of the GOP).”
A Kaiser poll found that most Americans, even fervent opponents of the health law, were substantially in favor when asked about its individual provisions. “A majority of Republicans feel favorable towards seven of the 11 provisions asked about in the March poll, with seven in ten or more favoring tax credits to small businesses, closing the Medicare ‘doughnut hole’, and the exchanges,” researchers found.
The propaganda campaign against the law has created a great deal of public confusion, but what has been hidden in the furor about the government shutdown is that the launch of Obamacare on Tuesday generated a huge volume of traffic to its websites – 7 million people in the first two days, an unexpected volume that caused delays and access problems. There is clearly a huge pent-up demand for information about affordable health care.
Americans are genuinely worried about health care and the future. As Juan Cole points out: “This is an America where unemployment is stubbornly high for the Millennials, where the top 1% are taking home 20% of the national income (twice the proportion of just a few decades ago), and where people are struggling.” Young adults stay living with their parents, because even if they can get a job, it’s low-waged. Many are still burdened by college debt. In a Washington Post poll, almost two-thirds of people express concerns about covering their family’s basic living expenses, compared with less than half four decades ago.
Ralph Nader asks why big business, the Republican establishment, and the executive branch have suddenly become powerless. “Who is in charge here?” he writes. “Our Constitution opens with the words ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Congress’ or ‘We the Corporations’.” It is time for the people to take sovereignty back into their own hands and disrupt the super-rich hostage-takers.