The debt ceiling deal reflects a permanent feature of American democracy

The debt ceiling deal reflects a permanent feature of American democracy
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I don’t like doing this, but for the sake of democracy in these United States, I’m going to use a classic scene from a classic movie to illustrate my thinking about the agreement that prevents the US government from defaulting on its debts. The problem isn’t what we think it is. The problem is much deeper than that.

The classic movie I’m talking about is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (released in 1989). The classic scene I’m talking about involves a German tank on which the hero, his dad and a Nazi are riding. The hero’s dad trips and falls onto one of the tank’s treads. Using his whip, the hero lassos his dad’s leg to prevent him from being pulled under, to this death. While the hero is holding on to his dad, the Nazi is standing behind him, punching him in the kidneys.

That’s where the hero finds himself for a long, long moment – between the desperate need to save his dad’s life and the desperate desire to retaliate against an enemy that is exploiting his desperate need to save his dad’s life.

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Eventually, conditions change so that it’s safe for the hero to retaliate before the Nazi and the tank, which has been careening toward a cliff, meet their end.

I don’t like doing this, because movie scenes as metaphors for politics are annoying. They often and quickly spiral off in directions I don’t intend them to.

At the moment, however, I can’t think of a better way to illustrate my view. The problem isn’t the debt ceiling. That’s the law that limits borrowing money to pay for things that the US Congress has already said shall be paid for. The problem isn’t the Democrats. They have lifted the cap for Democratic and Republican presidents alike. The problem is the GOP. It’s always the GOP.

Like the Nazi on the German tank, the Republicans are so focused on their enemy, and on inflicting suffering on it, that they don’t know, or don’t care, that the tank – in this case, the US government – is careening toward a cliff – in this case, toward an unthinkable default on the United States’ debt.

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They refuse to take responsibility for solving shared problems of democracy, because the shared problem, from the Republican view, isn’t shared. It’s their enemy’s problem. It's their enemy’s problem because only the enemy believes democracy is a collective effort. Democracy is indeed a collective effort. It can’t not be. So they aren’t punching the enemy. They’re punching democracy.

From behind.

In the kidneys.

Unlike the movies, there is no moment of truth in politics. The Democrats do not retaliate. (It’s too risky, politically and practically). The Republicans do not careen toward their (political) deaths. Instead, the kidney-punchers are put on the same plane as the problem-solvers – or worse. The problem-solvers are typically the only ones expected to solve democracy’s problems while the kidney-punchers are never expected to stop kidney-punching democracy.

This is, I think, a permanent feature of American democracy. Or, if I’m allowed to give some benefit of the doubt, it has become a permanent feature. While one party is eager – sometimes too eager! – to solve the shared problems of democracy, the other party can’t think of a problem that’s worse than the opposition party trying to solve the shared problems of democracy. While one party tries, and risks failing in the attempt, the other party risks nothing.

Until the whole she-bang careens off a cliff.

The Washington press corps, as a matter of convenience and self-interest, usually depicts the plane of American politics as if it were level, as if the parties had political incentives that are more or less equally matched. They are not equally matched. The Democrats are focused on the problem while the Republicans are focused on the Democrats focusing on the problem.

One party has incentive to at least try to solve the shared problems of democracy while the other party has incentive to sabotage attempts to solve the shared problems of democracy. One has an incentive to act like grown folks. The other has an incentive to act like children. One party accepts the responsibility of hard work. The other party rejects hard work in all its forms – unless it’s the hard work that goes into punching democracy in the kidneys.

I said the hero of the movie is stuck, until conditions change, between a desperate need and a desperate desire. The condition is Indiana Jones’ friend, Sallah. He enters the scene, riding a horse, to pull the hero’s dad to safety. Then the hero can turn his attention to the Nazi who’s been punching him in the kidneys the entire time. He retaliates, then jumps off the tank, just in time.

What does Sallah represent? What in American politics is the force that frees democracy to do what needs to be done to the people who are punching it in the kidneys. I don’t know. Like I said, movie metaphors are slippery. The answer is probably no one. This isn’t a story. There is no deus ex machina.

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