In 1961, an up-and-coming American politician foresaw danger for his country. “We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free," he warned.
The star was a rising one indeed — within two decades Ronald Reagan had been elected president of the United States — and the America he predicted is all too familiar. It’s the America of today, one complete with the program Reagan was denouncing as a critical impost on liberty: the system of government-sponsored health insurance for over-65s called Medicare.
Reagan’s apocalyptic tones were alarmist, but they reflected a deep undercurrent of paranoia that has long existed amongst the American right, and which has today metastasised into a political growth now malignant enough to have, as of this month, brought about a shutdown of the US government.
The current chaos in Washington, now made even more turbulent with the danger that the US government might default on its debt obligations, is less a partisan feud and more an internecine Republican Party dispute with the unfortunate side effect of endangering the entire American economy.
Most Republicans realise that this is a fight that doesn’t endear them to the American people, but thirty to forty House members, plus a few vainglorious Senators, have dragged their colleagues into a battle the polls — though perhaps not Fox News — insist they’re losing.
As with most bloody-minded struggles, this one has been undertaken as much for glory as it has for purposes of policy.
Like Reagan in 1961, the current concern of right wing Republicans is health care — this time, the so-called “Obamacare” law that, as of October 1, has been extending health care coverage to uninsured Americans through a system of exchanges and government subsidies.
Tea Party Republicans do believe the program of near-universal health care is an irresponsible government handout, which is why they insist they will not fund the government nor raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats agree to delay at least some part of the law.
But many of them also believe that as objectionable as Obamacare is, what it represents is even worse. It is a symbol that their understanding of America is being supplanted by one they find alien and unfamiliar.
And it is not a coincidence that Republican intransigence is increasing as the party becomes older, whiter, and more male in an America heading in the exact opposite direction.
This feeling has been growing among conservatives for a long time. In a 1964 Harper’s essay, the historian Richard Hofstadter explained the contemporary right’s understanding:
“America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers.”
Today’s Tea Party politicians, however, refuse to allow Washington politics to operate as normal. The most determined are those entrenched in pockets of the country untouched by the nation’s growing cosmopolitanism, mostly in rural areas with homogeneous and conservative populations. These representatives are doing exactly what their constituents want them to: act as a bulwark against an America that’s changing into something they don’t recognise.
Reagan might have channelled the fears of the American right, but he didn’t share its style. As president, he oversaw an expansion of the government and negotiated his waythrough eight barely noticeable shutdowns, the longest of which was three days.
Nothing about the contemporary Republican Party suggests it will grow more comfortable with achanging America. As such, the big question is not how this current crisis will end, but how soon the Tea Party contingent will force the next one.
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