What Really Caused the Shutdown?

  • 01/26/2018
  • Paul Rosenberg

Lies, racial resentment and mainstream media duplicity are the culprits

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

At midnight on Jan. 20, the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, the federal government shut down. This was the first time this had happened while one party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.

Trump blamed Democrats and GOP congressional leaders echoed him. But conservative anti-Trump columnist Jennifer Rubin cried foul.

“The notion [that] Rs are entitled to D votes to break 60 without negotiating with them is bizarre,” Rubin tweeted. “If you say take it or leave it, you have to be prepared for leave it.”

“The [Senate] leader [Mitch McConnell] crafts a partisan approach without consulting us, and then tries to blame us for not going along,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a Senate speech the next day. “That kind of behavior would not pass in any part of civil society. It would be called ‘bullying.’”

Such bullying, however, has become an integral part of GOP politics over the past several decades, as the party has moved sharply to the right, while Democrats have moved only modestly to the left

The GOP’s increased extremism has caused it to lose the popular vote in six of seven presidential elections since 1988, but it maintains exceptional power by aggressively exploiting the weaknesses of American democracy, like the Electoral College, which gave them victories in 2000 and 2016.

Budget-related processes have other weaknesses — shutdowns, shutdown threats and threats to block raising the debt ceiling — that Republicans have repeatedly used to try to pass unpopular partisan measures. This marks the first time in history that Democrats have turned the tables and tried to use the budget process to pass an overwhelmingly popular bipartisan measure: legalizing the status of Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents as young children, who are working, in school, or in the military, and have no criminal record. A CBS News poll just before the shutdown found 87 percent of the people polled support for legalizing Dreamers, so called due to a failed “Dream Act” first introduced in 2001.

The shutdown can be understood as a product of four factors: First, Trump’s far-reaching pattern of lying; second, the GOP’s rightward trajectory, which made Trump’s presidency possible; third, coverage by the so-called “liberal media,” which, in the guise of “balance” provides enormous political cover for GOP extremism and bad faith;  and fourth, a constellation of demographic forces (all connected to inequality), which have characterized periods of state breakdown, civil war and revolution for thousands of years.

Before examining those factors, we need clarity about just where we are and how we got here.

This is the first shutdown ever when one party controls both Congress and the White House. Republicans had two simple ways to avoid this. They could have negotiated with Democrats to get broad bipartisan support in both Houses, which is how appropriation bills have been handled throughout most of our history. Or, they could have pushed through a partisan budget with only their own votes.

But Senate rules only give them one chance to do this.

“Senate Republicans had the option to pass a budget bill with a simple majority,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell explained, responding to Trump on Twitter, “It would have been through the budget reconciliation process. Instead, they decided to waste the reconciliation process on tax cuts.”

Rampell is right. By choosing tax cuts without Democratic support, Republicans chose to depend on Democrats for the budget — and then chose to ignore.

Trump’s Constellation of Lies

Trump’s first lies contributing to this shutdown revolved around his pledge to build a border wall and have Mexico pay for it. This was based on his claim that Mexico was sending “rapists” and “murderers,” who were driving crime through the roof.  But both violent crime and property crime are down 50 percent from their early 1990s peak, and most of that decline happened before 2007, when undocumented immigration peaked.

Since then, about one million undocumented immigrants have left the country.  There is no rising crime, no flood of undocumented immigrants and no connection between the two in the first place. Immigrants — documented or not — have significantly lower crime rates in comparison to native-born Americans. Trump’s whole immigrant-scare narrative was nothing but a paranoid racist fantasy, with two added layers on top: the claim that Mexico was intentionally flooding America with criminals and that it would pay for the wall.

Trump’s campaign also revolved around another set of contributing lies: those about him being a super deal-maker, an outsider who could do what a broken Washington couldn’t, who would make so many great deals that people would cry, “Stop! We can’t stand any more winning!”

But making Washington work for Americans again—and keeping the government working is certainly a part of a “great deal.” So, Trump lied about that, too.

“Nobody knows the system better than me,” he said. “Which is why I alone can fix it.”

Then, in September 2017, when his administration acted to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, he told a strikingly different lie. He said that he loved the DACA recipients, and was actually ending DACA to help them.

“It is now time for Congress to act!” Trump said, as if Congress couldn’t act without him threatening to deport 800,000 people. “We will resolve the DACA issue with heart and compassion…. I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly.”

Then, nothing much happened until  Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury came out, portraying Trump as a hopeless incompetent. On Jan. 9, Trump staged a televised hour-long meeting to discuss fixing DACA with congressional leaders, doing his best to act presidential.

“You folks are going to have to come up with a solution and if you do, I’m going to sign that solution,” Trump told the 25 lawmakers, even “If they come to me with things that I’m not in love with.”

Two days later, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin came to see Trump in the White House, with the deal they’d struck, only to be blindsided by hardliners who Trump agreed with, while referring to African and Latin American countries as “shitholes,”

“Trump is a self-proclaimed dealmaker who struggles to close deals, an unreliable negotiator who seems to promise one thing only to renege days, or even hours, later,” Washington Post White House reporter Ashley Parker tweeted, as the shutdown began. “And on Friday night, he watched as yet another deal slipped away.”

Trump’s and the GOP’s  Reliance on Racial Resentment

But Trump doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For decades, Republicans followed an evolving “Southern Strategy,” as explained by one-time party chairman Lee Atwater explained in a 1981 interview:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

This “evolution” reflected a common assumption: that implicit (“coded”) racist messages were much more effective than explicit ones, because people rejected messages they perceived to be racist.  That’s changed for a combination of reasons, including the election of Barack Obama.

A recent study headed by Nicholas Valentino, a University of Michigan political scientist, found that:

“Whereas explicit racial rhetoric once seemed aversive to large swaths of American society, such messages are no longer as widely rejected. Racial conservatives recognize the hostile and conflictual content in explicit messages, but are not angered or disgusted by it.”

Trump’s success in the GOP primary reflects the fact that he alone grasped this amongst the 2016 GOP hopefuls. His general election success reflects a related finding by political scientists Adam Enders and Jamil Scott, explained in a recent entry in the Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post:

“White racial resentment has remained remarkably stable over time. But that racial resentment has become much more highly correlated with particular political attitudes, behaviors and orientations.”

Trump also broke with past GOP practice by rhetorically rejecting the courting of Wall Street and playing the part of an economic populist.

“I was the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid. Huckabee copied me,” Trump tweeted on May 7, 2015.

He’s also repeatedly claimed that his tax cuts were aimed at the middle class. His actual record is quite the opposite. There were deep Medicaid cuts in the GOP’s failed Obamacare repeal, the tax cuts were everything Paul Ryan wanted and further deep Medicaid cuts are already planned.

Finally, Trump’s chaotic disruption of normal governance is also part of a long-term trend. It’s visible in events like the 1995-96 and 2013 shutdowns, the 2011 near-miss on refusing to raise the debt limit, and Mitch McConnell’s refusal to have hearings for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016.

Disinformation From the Mainstream Media

The third factor, which Republicans were counting on, was anti-Democratic spin in the so-called “liberal media.”

“Over twelve hours into a government shutdown, a look at the headlines and polls shows Democrats have so far borne the brunt of the blame,” the GOP’s website noted, citing the following examples:

  • Bloomberg: “Shutdown Starts As Senate Democrats Block GOP Funding Plan”
  • CNN: “Why Democrats May Be Making The Wrong Bet On The Shutdown”
  • The New York Times: “Senate Democrats Block Bill to Keep Government Open Past Midnight; Shutdown Looms”
  • The Associated Press: “Senate Democrats Derail Bill To Avert Shutdown”

Coverage was strikingly different in 2013, when the New York Times headline read, Government Shuts Down in Budget Impasse. There was no hint of responsibility or blame in how the story began:

“The federal government will shut down for the first time in nearly two decades after last-minute moves in both chambers of Congress failed to break a bitter budget standoff over the president’s health care law.”

The 2013 coverage echoed a broader media adaptation to the sharply increased use of the filibuster since the 1960s: the need for 60 votes in the Senate is normalized and neither side is blamed. But this time the GOP highlighted the Democrats’ role in gridlocking the national government.  Obligingly, the press coverage sharply shifted gears.

Demographic Forces Characterizing State Breakdown

Underlying all three of these factors is a deeper one: a constellation of demographic forces characterizing periods of state breakdown, first identified by historian Jack Goldstone. In his 1991 book, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, he identified the phenomena  known as “structural demographic theory.”

The idea was later refined by evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin in Secular Cycles (2009) and applied to American history in Ages of Discord (2016). The key factors involved are:

  1. Mass economic impoverishment resulting from labor over-supply
  2. Elite overproduction, as elite incomes and numbers rise, resulting in intensified competition, fragmentation and conflict
  3. Fiscal distress of the state, as elites grow increasingly selfish, competitive, anti-social, and unwilling to pay taxes for the national well-being.

In a blog post, Government Shuts Down: It’s Not Just Schumer against Trump, Turchin presented two graphs from his book tracking proxies of elite fragmentation—one showing the fluctuation of polarization in Congress from the 1790s to 2000, the other showing the increase in Senate filibuster threats and votes since 1960.

“Keep in mind that what is at stake now is only an extension of government spending for another 30 days,” he wrote. “Given the degree of intra-elite conflict we currently have in the U.S., I wouldn’t be surprised if we are soon in a permanent state of government shutdown.”

While Goldstone and Turchin stress factors that far transcend the specific ideological divides of our time, they are not totally unrelated. The Republican obsession with tax cuts for the rich only intensifies elite overproduction and the political dysfunction to which it contributes. Pairing this with cuts to programs for the poor and middle classes only intensifies the problem.

While both sides have contributed to political dysfunction, it’s primarily Republicans who have driven this process. Democrats created the basic framework of the modern American state from the New Deal to the Great Society and Republicans have been trying to dismantle it ever since, using increasingly aggressive methods, eroding the norms of cooperative government in the process.

Democrats, in contrast, are torn between trying to maintain a cooperative process and fighting fire with fire reluctantly. This shutdown was a case in point. They had agreed to two previous continuing resolutions without any DACA fix, before finally pressing the matter. Democrats are ambivalent not necessarily because they lack spine, but because they have  substantive and procedural motivations. These were aligned decades ago, but now are increasingly at odds.

Republican policy positions like building the wall, cutting healthcare and taxes for the rich, are consistently unpopular with the public at large. Their success depends on exploiting the Democrat’s ambivalence, which is precisely what we’ve been seeing them try to do during this shutdown drama. We can expect to see similar dramas play out again and again in the days, weeks and years ahead. But for now — with shutdown resolved for almost another three weeks — there may actually be a chance to focus on solving a problem that almost nine out of 10 Americans agree on.


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