[originally published on openDemocracy on Sept. 17]
Whew. It’s over. At least until next time. At 10:40 PM on Wednesday, Republicans in the US House of Representatives voted to end the shutdown they began so cavalierly on Oct. 1. But not until the world saw the US government screech to a halt and the global economy held hostage by a bunch of irresponsible yahoos who wanted to play chicken with the President, threatening a default on US debts unless he backed down on the Affordable Care Act.
Observers from Bill Moyers to Andrew Sullivan to John McCain pointed out that the shutdown was unconstitutional. The Affordable Care Act was passed twice by Congress, signed by a President who had just been re-elected by a substantial majority, and approved by the Supreme Court. That makes it law. Congress is constitutionally obligated to fund laws once they are passed.
But Tea Party Republicans have their own interpretation of the Constitution, and were unmoved by the misery they caused by putting eighty thousand federal employees on furlough, shutting down infant feeding programs, holding up subsistence money to Indian reservations, and closing Head Start and daycare centers. Damage to US prestige has also been extensive, and there is talk in China of going off the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
What caused such a mess? US liberals and leftists have offered three main explanations of the debacle.
Explanation 1: The shutdown was caused by a capitalist cabal of climate-denying, big government-hating, welfare-cutting libertarian oil magnates and international capitalists, led by the Koch Brothers of Wichita, Kansas. This position was laid out by an investigative report by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Mike McIntire in the New York Times, and echoed in a recent openDemocracy interview with Colin Greer. According to the Times, the shutdown plan was hatched by former Attorney General Edwin Meese and Michael Needham of Heritage for America, the recipient of a half million in Koch Brothers money. Other groups involved include Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, Freedomworks, and the Club for Growth—all also funded by David and Charles Koch.
And who are the Koch Brothers? Their father, a founder of the John Birch Society, set up oil refineries under Stalin, saw his associates purged, and became convinced that socialism—which he saw as identical to big government—was the source of all the world’s ills. His sons David and Charlie are billionaire oilmen, and, according to a 2010 New Yorker profile, “longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.” The Koch brothers are often cited as an example of the unprecedented power of capital in US politics since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision removed limits on corporate campaign contributions.
Explanation 2: The shutdown was a rational expression of the class interests of the old Southern oligarchy, descendents of slave owners, who are scared by the fact that white men are now a minority and hope to keep control over their local turf and its people by weakening the federal government. This position has been developed by Michael Lind in Salon and Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker.
Noting that the shutdown Congressmen come from electoral districts that differ demographically from the rest of the country, Ryan Lizza says, “The members of the suicide caucus live in a different America from the one that most political commentators describe when talking about how the country is transforming. The average suicide caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. Latinos make up an average of nine per cent of suicide-district residents, while the over-all average is seventeen per cent.” And a majority of them come from Texas and the South, former slave states.
The long term economic strategy of the Southern white elite has been to attract investment by holding down wages, crushing labour unions, and skimping on social services to keep taxes low. They use voter suppression to keep blacks and immigrants from voting, particularly since a June 2013 Supreme Court decision invalidated parts of the Voters Rights Act. And, says Michael Lind, if these tactics are not enough, their representatives in Congress can try to stop new federal programmes that would help the working poor of the South by “devolving federal programs to the states, privatizing federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, blocking the implementation of new federal entitlements like Obamacare.”
Bill Moyers, a Southerner himself, has gone so far as to call the shutdown a second effort at secession: “Like the die-hards of the racist South a century and a half ago, who would destroy the union before giving up their slaves, so would these people burn down the place, sink the ship.... At least, let's name this for what it is: sabotage of the democratic process. Secession by another means.”
Explanation 3: The shutdown was caused by Christian fundamentalists who think destroying the US government and economic system will kick off the End Times, from which they will emerge the ultimate winners of history. This argument has been advanced by a number of people who track the religious right, including Amanda Marcotte, Chris Hedges, and Morgan Guyton of the United Methodist Church.
Two of the shutdown’s cheerleaders, Rep. Michelle Bachman of Minnesota and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, are associated with a strand of evangelical Christianity called Dominianism. As defined by Political Research Associates, a US think tank that investigates the Christian right, Dominianism is “the theocratic idea that...heterosexual Christian men are called by God to exercise dominion over secular society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.” Dominionists believe that the US always was and always should be a Christian nation; that there can be no equality between faiths; and that US civil law should be based on the Bible.
Michelle Bachman recently gave an interview in which she accused Obama of arming Al Qaeda in Syria, but said this was really good news because “I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times.” Fortunately Bachman isn’t running for re-election. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, is aiming for the heights; last week’s Value Voters Summit, a convention of conservatives hosted by the anti-abortion and anti-gay Family Research Council, voted him their pick for president in 2016. Cruz was educated in Baptist schools and his father, Rafael Cruz, a Cuban exile, is an evangelist with the Purifying Fire Ministry, ministering to the US, Mexico, and Central America.
Both Cruz and Bachman are also associated with the Tea Party. They represent the US Christian equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who sought political power through elections in order to dismantle the secular state and inaugurate the rule of the pious, meaning them. The shutdown has demonstrated that Christian fundamentalists are equally willing to destroy democracy in order to save souls. And, despite their claims, they no more represent most Americans than the Muslim Brotherhood represented most Egyptians. According to a 2010 New York Times/CBS poll, Tea Party members are older, whiter, better educated and richer than the general population. And while Cruz may been raised by Texas bible-punchers, he also attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Law Review, just like Obama, and went on to clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
So while the Koch Brothers, Southern good ol’ boys, and Christian fundamentalists all bear responsibility for the shutdown, none were its sole movers. The interesting question is the relationship between them—and their relationship to oil.
Oil may be the world’s most valued commodity and source of political clout. Oil has made Norway a social-democratic icon, Venezuela a South American leader, Saudi Arabia the funder of Islamists all over the world. But oil, which may have doomed our planet, is itself a doomed, non-renewable source of energy. As Michael T. Klare, an historian of oil, observed in 2011:
“America’s rise to economic and military supremacy was fueled in no small measure by its control over the world’s supply of oil. Oil powered the country’s first giant corporations, ensured success in World War II, and underlay the great economic boom of the postwar period. Even in an era of nuclear weapons, it was the global deployment of oil-powered ships, helicopters, planes, tanks, and missiles that sustained America’s superpower status during and after the Cold War. It should come as no surprise, then, that the country’s current economic and military decline coincides with the relative decline of oil as a major source of energy.”
No wonder the Koch brothers are unhappy. No wonder they fight the idea of climate change with such fury. Their End Time approacheth. As does that of the Southern oligarchs who ruled for so many years by union-busting, race-baiting and terror. Few of them run factories or plantations any more; as Michael Lind puts it, they are “the lords of the local car dealership, country club and chamber of commerce...more likely to be millionaires than billionaires, more likely to run low-wage construction or auto supply businesses than multinational corporations. They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities.”
Desperate to hold onto political power, these billionaires and local gentry seek allies who can appear to represent “the people,” and lo! here come the fundamentalists, always good at raising a crowd, and not only in the US. Hindu supremacists, political Islamists, fanatical West Bank settlers, and Bible punchers of every description have donors among the global rich as well as local elites. The Koch Brothers fund the Tea Party. The Saudis fund madrassas in Africa, South Asia, even Bosnia-Herzogovina, building a power base to project their ideas far into the future. Needless to say, fundamentalist groups have their own agendas: stop abortion, subordinate women, fight the hereditary enemy (usually the ethnic or religious group next door.)
But this does not worry their patrons, who assume they can rein them in if necessary.
But can they? The Tea Party bolted for 16 days, threatening the world economic system until the Koch Brothers got so nervous they disowned the shutdown. Sometimes puppet masters have less control than they think.
These are not comforting thoughts. But it is better to see things as they are than to think you have one enemy when you really have three.