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US standoff was fallout from the financial crisis – and it’s not over

The recent political standoff that shut down the US government for 16 days and came uncomfortably close to the debt ceiling extension deadline is now thankfully over — for the moment. Given the current…

Yep, seems fair. dbking

The recent political standoff that shut down the US government for 16 days and came uncomfortably close to the debt ceiling extension deadline is now thankfully over — for the moment. Given the current deal only extends the debt ceiling to February 7 (and the budget to January 15), it marks the end of one round of an ongoing battle. In the words of Republican Senator Marco Rubio, “This fight is not over. It’s really only just begun."

In many ways, the battle is for control of the Republican Party. Arguably, the reason we don’t see the same thing across the aisle is because, with Howard Dean’s appointment as the head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2005 and the ascendancy of Barack Obama — not to mention the Democratic Party’s near-total divorce from the Occupy movement — the battle for the Democratic Party has already been won.

On the other hand, the GOP’s Newt Gingrich-era coalition (symbolised by Grover Norquist’s famous mantra on “babies, guns and taxes”) has broken down, and the party now has a substantial Tea Party contingent whether it likes it or not. So the battle rages on.

The way this has played out so far is remarkable, among other things, for the fundamentally different worldviews on display of the Tea Party conservatives (and its Fox News pundits) versus Obama and the Democratic Party (and their MSNBC pundits). They exhibit basically zero common ground. Different interpretations of what should be the same reality are, of course, always a feature of partisan politics, but the divergence nowadays is extraordinarily stark. Consider, for instance, Democrats’ (and economists, and world leaders, and indeed some Republicans) frustration at having to engage with the idea that fears of not raising the debt ceiling were simply “doomsday rhetoric,” and wouldn’t really be that bad. The total breakdown in what was once a Washingtonian common sense is truly striking.

One implication is that we should probably expect things to get worse before they get better. The Democrats, Tea Party Republicans, and their respective intelligentsias will continue to interpret more or less everything (including the causes of the last crisis, the allocation of blame, and the meaning of the outcome) in totally different ways.

Another, perhaps less obvious, implication is that, while Europe’s political leadership would like to put as much distance between itself and American politics as possible at the moment, its own problems aren’t really that different.

Even as Washington’s political standoff dominated American media, for instance, French news focused on the rising electoral fortunes of the far-right Front National. The truly disturbing rise of Golden Dawn in Greece has been another recent front-page item in Europe. In Germany just last month, a new anti-Europe party with far-right leanings (the Alternative for Germany) came surprisingly close to securing parliamentary seats. In other words, the financial crisis has left extremism and anti-political alienation in its wake on both sides of the Atlantic; the Tea Party is just the American version.

So far the US political system has been able to absorb the problem by incorporating Tea Party representatives into mainstream democratic politics, which is a headache for the world, the White House, and the Republican Party, but also a way of tempering what otherwise might be a much more radical movement. The Tea Party, like all social movements, is actually many groups that have come together under one umbrella against a common set of enemies (Obama, the Democratic Party, “liberals,” the “Washington establishment,” and of course, the US government). So far its most frightening factions are more likely to be found in demonstrations than in the House of Representatives.

In this sense, the instability on display in American politics in the past few weeks (which we may well see again in early 2014) is comparable to uncertainties around the rise of far right parties, anti-political, and extremist groups in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Finland, and elsewhere. The important difference is not some vague American “exceptionalism,” but rather a difference of democratic institutions (that is: parliamentary versus presidential, multi-party versus two party). And, of course, the international economic importance of the United States and the almighty dollar.

The central question confronting the US and its European counterparts is very much the same: whether democracy can continue to absorb the ongoing political fallout of the financial crisis. You don’t have to be much of a historian to know we’ve been here before. Hopefully we won’t lose sight of this in the scramble to tsk-tsk the failings of American politics.

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    America continues to absorb our thinking and opinions.

    We dissect US politics almost as much as our own, and their whole culture fascinates us.

    Is it because America is supposedly the world's supreme nation. Or is it because it is simply a great story of many parts that has unfolded decade after decade before our eyes.

    Perhaps even Hollywood has been instrumental in shaping the fascination with the U.S. As well as the music, the TV and the money.

    America seems to be a continuous sitcom/drama that we are addicted to.

    1. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Very true, Stephen, and for obvious reasons. Firstly, because what happens there has such a profound effect on events here; secondly, because we are so obsessively locked into their culture (as you point out); and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, because the USA represents the pinnacle of democracy in action, a role model for what we have been trying to sell (sometimes forcibly?) to the less-enlightened and less-privileged inhabitants of our world.

    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      And yet for all that democracy there is a failure of that system on many levels. Another aspect of the attraction - the juxtaposition of the good, the bad and the ugly.

    3. Edwina Laginestra
      Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Jack of all trades

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I would have thought we are interested in analysing the US due to:
      global economy and the impacts world wide of their monetary policies;
      cultural similarities and narratives (sorry about the word);
      how they can drag us into wars and sides;
      as an example of worldviews (the author does point out similarities in Europe to watch for).
      But you are right in that maybe the most fun is had from voyeurism...

    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Edwina Laginestra

      Hi EL

      Sometimes it's like being a voyeur at a car crash....we know we shouldn't look, but can't help it.

      It is an endlessly fascinating country.

  2. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    What do you get if you watch too much violent videos? An Apprehended Violence Order.

    What do you get if you watch too much Fox News? Tea Party membership.

    "We're mad as hell and we're ... we're ... well, we're mad as hell."

  3. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    I've a question for Dr Mudge regarding the comparison between European far Right ("nationalist") Parties and the US Tea Party, based in mention of

    "Different interpretations of what should be the same reality ..." ? It's the substitution of "should be" for "is" that interests me, because I'm one of those simple pre post-Modern souls, who still thinks there is only one reality, so that Fox News is a fabulist collective in which Saddam still had WMD as at 2003, cigarettes are good for you and global warming is a Commie plot.

    I am not aware that there is a comparable media organisation anywhere in Europe, that European Far Right parties have emerged in straitened economic circumstances similar to those of the 1930's. The Tea Party, on the other hand, is a consequence of programmed (Fox News programs, generally) retreat from reality.

    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to David Arthur

      "US standoff was fallout from the financial crisis ...". Perhaps US standoff was consequence of Fox News editorial stance, which in turn falls out of Citizen Rupert's ideology?

      Either way, it's not over - I understand Citizen Rupert to be in rude good health. That's physical good health, at least; someone in all that mess must be as mad as hell.

  4. Mike Farrell

    Former Penny Wong employee (DSP)

    I'm constantly amused by various leftards trying to cloak the Tea Party movement in far-right clothes. It is outrageous to say they are the equivalent of the National Front. They have a few policies that include:

    * Lower income tax rates
    * Balanced budgets
    * Control of American borders
    * Getting rid of the criminal "illegals"

    If these are far right wing policies, I pity who is teaching our kids in schools and universities.

    1. Edwina Laginestra
      Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Jack of all trades

      In reply to Mike Farrell

      Mike - I'm not too sure you appear balanced. The policies may not be bad in themselves but it is how they hope to achieve them and what they take away from society. They often want to achieve some policies by violence (control of borders and management of [that rubbish word] illegals) and others by leaving others high and dry (lower tax rates and balance budgets by taking away health and education services - keep control by keeping 'em stoopid). An unequal society just causes so many other problems and as a government you have to look at what is best for your society.

  5. Roslyn Mulcahy

    Social Worker

    America is the sitcom that's entering into a season of regret. Australians still have the time and opportunity to selectively distance ourselves from the darker side of politics that appear to be emerging patterns within other nations.

    Our culture could withstand such patterns but it will require stronger community leadership from within our local government boundaries and right through to our federal leadership systems.

    A good starting point is to have balanced gender and diversity within elected members of parliaments

    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Roslyn Mulcahy

      World politics is in a state of flux at the moment.

      How much more money can America put on the tick before there are tears before bedtime. And how will the Tea Party be seen in another 5-10 years. Will there be a move to Libertarian principles, or will democracy for the people prevail.

      Will Russia continue the slide into quasi-dictatorship, and undue influence from plutocrats and criminals.

      Can the E.U not only survive, but flourish, or are the jackals of economic inequality howling at the gate.

      But we'll be alright, wont we.