This time is different. What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule. President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking—not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.
What we’re seeing here is how three structural changes that have been building in American politics have now, together, reached a tipping point—creating a world in which a small minority in Congress can not only hold up their own party but the whole government. And this is the really scary part: The lawmakers doing this can do so with high confidence that they personally will not be politically punished, and may, in fact, be rewarded. When extremists feel that insulated from playing by the traditional rules of our system, if we do not defend those rules—namely majority rule and the fact that if you don’t like a policy passed by Congress, signed by the president and affirmed by the Supreme Court then you have to go out and win an election to overturn it; you can’t just put a fiscal gun to the country’s head—then our democracy is imperilled.
This danger was neatly captured by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, when he wrote on Tuesday about the 11th-hour debate in Congress to avert the shutdown. Noting a shameful statement by Speaker John Boehner, Milbank wrote: “Democrats howled about ‘extortion’ and ‘hostage taking,’ which Boehner seemed to confirm when he came to the floor and offered: ‘All the Senate has to do is say ‘yes,’ and the government is funded tomorrow.’ It was the legislative equivalent of saying, ‘Give me the money and nobody gets hurt.’ ”
“Give me the money and nobody gets hurt.” How did we get here? First, by taking gerrymandering to a new level. The political analyst Charlie Cook, writing in The National Journal on March 16, noted that the 2010 election gave Republican state legislatures around the country unprecedented power to redraw political boundaries, which they used to create even more “safe, lily-white” Republican strongholds that are, in effect, an “alternative universe” to the country’s diverse reality.
“Between 2000 and 2010, the non-Hispanic white share of the population fell from 69% to 64%,” wrote Cook. “But after the post-census redistricting and the 2012 elections, the non-Hispanic white share of