What made this government shutdown different from other government shutdowns is that this time – and here I quote the New York Times – “a small but powerful group of outspoken conservative hard-liners is leading its leaders.” Or, in my parlance, in recent weeks history has been made not by leaders, but by followers, by some twenty-five or so hard-core right wing Republicans so strong in their convictions and so tightly organized that they exercised power beyond their numbers.
Think of them as a band of revolutionaries, determined to overthrow the system as most of us understand it. Like real revolutionaries they seemed initially to be out in left field. Like real revolutionaries they think big not small. (No less than revoking a law that already was passed – the Affordable Care Act – was going to suffice.) Like real revolutionaries they threaten those who ostensibly are their allies (in this case John Boehner). Like real revolutionaries they are die hard ideologues. Which is why, like real revolutionaries, they prefer to go down fighting than consider any compromise.
The question then becomes, how is this particular revolutionary movement to be defeated? The answer? Like any other revolutionary movement or, at least, like any other revolutionary movement in a democracy as opposed to an autocracy. In autocracies (see Putin’s Russia) those in positions of power quash (by any means necessary) any individuals or groups that seem to them to be threatening. In democracies, however, such heavy-handed tactics are off the table. Whatever President Obama might think of his political enemies, he will not send them into exile, throw them in jail, or threaten their physical or financial well-being. So what has to happen in a democracy for a revolutionary movement to become irrelevant is for the silent majority to coalesce against it. Put directly, others, other stakeholders, have to care enough to start getting politically involved.
In the last week, we saw unmistakable signs of such restiveness – signs that various others were no longer willing to put up with dissidents determined to destroy. First the American people weighed in. Recent polls blamed the Republicans more than the Democrats for the government shutdown by a margin of 43% to 27 %. Moreover, only 26% of those polled viewed the Republicans favorably, while fully 52% viewed them unfavorably.
But, maybe more to the point is not the overriding consensus, but a few key groups, one especially among them, that finally are fed up. I am thinking particularly of members of the business community who, for reasons of self interest of course, are starting to speak out. Some of the country’s most powerful corporate executives are realizing that all that money poured into Republican coffers did not translate into political influence. In fact, they have become downright frightened of right-wing ideologues refusing to listen to reason, and threatening not only our political system, but our economic system as well.
As a result, two things are happening. First, at least some members of the business community are planning to wage primary campaigns against lawmakers who contributed to the Washington standoff. And second, some are speaking out, daring for once to confront their own kind. David French, the top lobbyist at the National Retail Federation, was quoted as saying that his group was “looking at ways to counter the rise of an ideological brand of conservatism that, for lack of a better word, is more anti-establishment than it has been in the past.” Joe Echevarria, CEO of Deloitte, came right out and declared that while he was a Republican by definition and registration, “the party seems to have split into two factions.” The top lobbyist at the US Chamber of Commerce (the biggest single lobbying group in Washington), Bruce Josten, said that while his organization supported conservatism, it only supported conservatism that was “more realistic.” And David Cote, CEO of Honeywell, went on record as saying, “It’s clearly this faction within the Republic Party that’s causing the issue right now.” Honeywell, I should add, has clout. In 2013, its corporate PAC and executives were the seventh largest source of political contributions – more than half of which went to the GOP.
Assuming that there is some sort of resolution in Washington, it will not, then, be the result of leaders in the Congress and the White House suddenly coming to their senses. Rather it will be the product of others being willing to take on and knock out, at least for the moment, a small band of revolutionaries who seem to have morphed from striking sideshow to serious threat.