“Jefferson, wake up! They’ve gone crazy!” blared the headline from the French newspaper Le Monde. American politicians throughout history have squabbled, fought, and even caned each other to resolve political differences. But with the whole world watching, we now are witnessing something different about the current government shutdown. By holding the federal budget hostage in exchange for defunding President Barack Obama’s health care legislation, a small minority of highly-disciplined, ideologically-unified Tea Party legislators has ushered in the age of post-consensus politics.
This disaffected Tea Party contingent has successfully halted government through its single-minded determination not to play by the rules – majority rules. Thomas Jefferson wrote fervently and prolifically on the fundamental importance of democratic majority rule in governing the nation: “If the measures which have been pursued are approved by the majority,” he wrote, “it is the duty of the minority to acquiesce and conform.” And, “if they approve the proposed Constitution (at issue) in all its parts I shall concur in it cheerfully, in hopes that they will amend it whenever they shall find it works wrong.”
Sabotaging the economy as a negotiating tactic is not the way it’s supposed to work. If the minority truly believes that the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was a mistake, and if the goal is to stop uninsured Americans from getting health insurance, then there are constitutional ways to go about changing or repealing it. The ACA was passed by the Congress, signed by the president, upheld by the Supreme Court, and endorsed by the majority of voters who re-elected the President for a second term. Under the Constitution, as any eighth-grade student should know, an existing law can be redressed by majority vote in both chambers, and then signed by the president. It can be challenged and changed jurisprudentially, or by electing a majority of new legislators who agree that change needs to be made.
Constitutional processes for change? Not so for this rogue minority. They want to get their way by intimidating their own party and in so doing, sticking up the entire nation. As the comedian, Bill Maher, put it: “What could be more reasonable than losing an election by 5 million votes and then demanding the President to govern as they would, or else shut the government down and not pay our bills?”
For this minority, there no longer is a consensus that governing the nation is the goal. In the Tea Party view, government is bad. The goal is to shut it down, gum it up, slow its growth, and show people that it is not important to their lives. Fortunately, a slowly-building revolt is brewing. House Republicans are making stirring testimonials to the importance of reinstating funding for veterans, sick kids, national parks, and war memorials. As the song goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Unfortunately, selective re-funding of popular programs serves only to increase expenses even while maintaining the shutdown on the revenue side of government.
Government is important. We as a country do not want to tolerate unsafe drugs, dirty air and water, contaminated food, or toxic mortgages. To be sure, our democratic institutions are not infallible; however, mistakes can be corrected and we have the tools for doing so. As Jefferson said, decisions made by the majority are not a perfect way of controlling government, but the alternatives – decisions imposed by a minority – “are even worse and a source of great evil.” Democracy requires that when the minority is outvoted it accepts the results and gears up for the next election. Governance by blackmail is a disgrace to the republic.