Debt Ceiling Holy War: Why Do Conservatives Have Unshakable Faith in Ideas That Are Totally, Demonstrably False?

The Republican Party is holding the U.S. economy hostage. While the American people overwhelmingly support a solution to the debt ceiling impasse that includes a mix of tax hikes on the rich and cuts to the federal budget, the Tea Party GOP is deaf to their concerns. Moreover, even though President Barack Obama is willing to make painful concessions on entitlement spending—a move that hands the Republican Party a practical win—the Tea Party GOP remains intractable in its refusal to support even the most minimum of tax increases on the wealthiest Americans.

The American people, the world’s financial markets and the pundit classes remain perplexed by the Republican Party’s dangerous brinkmanship. Why would they risk financial armageddon? What is the practical gain to be had from such irresponsible behavior? Is this a ploy to undermine the Democrats before the 2012 election?

Observers remain befuddled because they have failed to connect the dots between the Republican Party’s intransigent stubbornness and a populist brand of conservatism where the world of facts has been made secondary to the intoxication of faith.

Consider the following: faith is based upon a belief in that which cannot be proved or demonstrated by normal means. Faith is also immune and separate from tests of empirical proof. Not to be overlooked, the contemporary Republican Party is home to the Religious Right. Consequently, the primacy of “faith” as the decision rule in political decision-making is both a perfect and logical fit for conservative populism.

When coupled with conservatives’ penchant for authoritarianism, their adherence to simple moral scripts, and a either/or binary world view, the allures of faith mated with fiction are irresistible to the Republican Party. Thus, the idea that politics should serve the common good for all is truncated and superseded by the pursuit of a common good that is only for the faithful, the few and the ideologically pure.

This cognitive framework colors a wide range of the Republican Party’s policies. For example, in the face of overwhelming evidence the Tea Party GOP continues to deny the existence of global warming. Doubling down, history is made into a plaything; the U.S. Constitution is transformed into a fetish object where the intent of the framers is almost magically divined by “strict constructionists” who pray at conservatism’s altar. School boards in Arizona and Texas rewrite the historical record at a whim in order to indoctrinate students into right-wing ideology. And conservative darlings such as Mike Huckabee and “scholar” David Barton pander ideologically correct, snake oil, flimflam versions of U.S. history to the Tea Party GOP faithful who are suckered into buying their books and videos.

In all, the Republican Party is possessed by a spirit of willful denial: aided and abetted by the right-wing media, Conservatives can bend the world to their wishes; reality is subject to their fantasies; any belief, however specious, is made true because they want it to be so. This is a pathology that extends both to the debt ceiling debate and the broader assault by conservatives on the country’s social safety net. Both are examples of a frightening pseudo religion called Free Market Fundamentalism—a faith based on a set of assumptions that are immune to interrogation, challenge or the collective weight of reality.

Myth Number One: The crisis over the debt ceiling is an artificial panic. There will be no serious consequences if the United States does not resolve this issue by August 2, 2011. In fact, President Obama and the Democrats are trying to scare the American people into thinking that a calamity will occur if the United States chooses to selectively pay its bills. Alternatively, the United States Treasury has more than enough revenue to push the debt ceiling issue down the road to a future date. 

While Tea Party darlings such as Congressman Allen West are saying this is "much ado about nothing,"a failure to resolve the debt ceiling crisis would be an unprecedented event in American history. A range of non-partisan organizations, financial giants such as Standard & Poor'sMoody's and even the Chinese government are warning the Obama administration that if the United States were to default on its debts a global financial crisis would ensue. Moreover, a myriad of government agencies would be closed and a shock wave would ripple out to all corners of the U.S. economy.

Myth Number Two: Supply side, trickle-down economics are always the solution to America’s financial woes.

In reality, there is little to no proof that tax cuts have ever paid for themselves. In almost all cases, they are a drain on revenue. As demonstrated by the Bush and Obama years, the latter’s continuing of the former’s policies have resulted in a net loss to the federal budget. Tax cuts for the richest Americans have not been broadly stimulating. Moreover, they played a role in causing (and deepening) America’s current fiscal crisis.

Myth Number Three: Unions hurt the economy, take away jobs from American workers and impede economic growth. The way out of the Great Recession is to complete the destruction of the public sector workforce through a final demolition of unionized labor and the elimination of minimum wage laws.

The truth is a different matter. Historically, strong unions were responsible for the growth of the American middle-class. As seen across the advanced economies of the world, there is a direct correlation between unionized labor, a high standard of living and wages that allow for a healthy level of long-term consumer spending and economic growth. Minimum wage laws, as well as other income supports, positively stimulate the U.S. economy.

Myth Number Four: “Job creators” are being punished by Obama’s tax policies and any increase in taxes to resolve the debt crisis will further extend the Great Recession. 

The corporations and financier class (who ostensibly create jobs) have long benefited from some of the lowest effective tax rates in the world. Both have grossly and disproportionately gained from a financial bailout that has increased their profits and earnings to record rates, all the while new hiring remains stagnant. Coupled with this troubling phenomenon, the last three decades have witnessed the rise of neo-liberal economic policies that have exported American jobs while generating record corporate profits. There seems to be little if any connection between the policies that have enabled the corporateocracy’s growth, and the overall financial health of the average American worker, who is struggling with record levels of unemployment, a mortgage crisis of historic proportions, crippling debt, and a diminished standard of living.

Myth Number Five: An increase in taxes on the wealthiest Americans is “class warfare” and proof of President Obama’s “socialist” policies.

The United States exhibits a severe and unequal level of wealth and income distribution: the top 1 percent of the population holds at least 20 percent of the wealth. Adding insult to injury, the very top 1 percent of Americans earns an average of $27 million a year per person, while the bottom 99 percent of Americans earns an average of $31,000 a year. The average salary of a corporate CEOis now at least 500 times more than the average worker. 

In a progressive tax system those who earn the most income should pay higher taxes. However, in the United States the effective tax rate on the wealthiest Americans has decreased over the last 30 years, while middle-class Americans have seen relative tax burdens increase as a percentage of their respective incomes.

Yes, there is a class war in the United States. But it is being waged against the middle and working classes, where for the last 40 years the minimum wage has effectively decreased when controlled for inflation, and earnings have gone down when controlled for inflation—all in an era when highly favorable tax policies have encouraged unprecedented economic growth for the richest Americans. In a post-Citizens United era when corporations can donate unlimited monies to influence elections, these radical levels of economic inequality will only worsen.

The debt ceiling crisis has revealed the noxious hold that a politics of faith--one that is immune from reason and fact--has on the contemporary Republican Party. In practice, politics ought to be based on compromise. Because faith supersedes reason for conservatives in the Age of Obama, compromise is made difficult…if not impossible. As revealed by the debt ceiling crisis, the Tea Party GOP’s need for ideological purity is the fuel for a dangerous holy war where the target is the economy of the United States, and the American people are collateral damage. 

This is a systemic challenge to the common good because the Republican Party’s steely resistance to compromise in the debt ceiling negotiations is a function of other trends. First, eliminationist rhetoric that vilifies liberals and progressives as un-American, traitors, evil, degenerates, a disease, a mental illness, or a group of people who should be destroyed through violence, is a type of lingua franca in the right-wing media echo chamber. From this point of view, why would conservatives ever compromise with those who disagree with them?

Second, the racially tinged right-wing populist rhetoric of Sarah Palin’s brigades, and the Tea Party with their yearnings to “take back America,” suggests a deep antipathy to an increasingly diverse and multicultural United States and its first black president. Here, the Right appears willing to see this version of America destroyed in order to advance their political agenda. The United States of the 21st century is at the apotheosis of empire. It is also a nation where white folks will soon “only” be a plurality of the population. Ultimately, it is no longer the “real America” anyway, so why would racially reactionary white conservatives want to save it?

In sum, as David Brooks sharply suggested several weeks ago, the contemporary Republican Party is not practicing “normal politics.” Rather, it is behaving like a cult, drunk on the cheap whiskey of political orthodoxy and deaf to the world of facts. To the present, the Tea Party GOP has painted itself into a corner in the debt ceiling fight. Frighteningly, they may see no other option but to salt the earth and bring the temple down on the heads of the American people in order to prove the righteousness of their cause.


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