Chuck Schumer’s long lunch
It is the paralysis of rightwing Democrats which the three-day government shutdown exposes, not the White House, argues Paul Demarty
The Iraqis blow up civilian buildings in order to give the impression of a dirty war. The Americans disguise satellite information to give the impression of a clean war. Everything in trompe l’oeil! ... With hindsight the Presidential Guard itself was perhaps only a mirage; in any case it was exploited as such until the end. All this is no more than a stratagem and the war ended in general boredom, or worse in the feeling of having been duped. Iraqi boasting, American hypocrisy. It is as though there was a virus infecting this war from the beginning, which emptied it of all credibility.1
Thus wrote the postmodernist philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, of the first Gulf War, in one of his most celebrated and derided polemics about the universal corrupting influence of the media.
Most of his conclusions are bogus, of course (though one almost wishes he had lived to see the Afghanistan quagmire reach its 16th birthday), but the picture he paints of the war - with both sides seemingly more concerned with how their performance looks to the ‘viewers at home’ than how the conflict as such is actually going - seems to fit the weekend’s events on Capitol Hill pretty closely. The Democrats’ Chuck Schumer - the Senate minority leader and apparatchik’s apparatchik - stands in here for Saddam Hussein (a comparison we must admit is a little unusual), and the Republicans’ Mitch McConnell as George HW Bush; Donald Trump reprises the role, which fits him most naturally of all, as ‘beer-swilling American TV watcher #3’.
This time, of course, it was all about the government shutdown, which in the event lasted barely three days - only one of them in the normal working week. The BBC website quoted one analyst to the effect that it was basically a long lunch. All the while, we were told that something very important was going on, but the details of the argument as such seemed so pedantic and wafer-thin that, to a naive foreigner like your correspondent, the dust-up seemed as incomprehensible as the ‘bodyline’ controversy of 1933 must have been to Americans (apologies to others who know nothing of cricket).
The people most catastrophically embroiled in all this are the so-called ‘dreamers’ - immigrants who were brought illegally to the US as young children, but enjoyed the modest protections of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme, under which they could stay in the country legally by renewing their status every two years ... until Trump let it lapse last year. The result is that they now find themselves added to the already large number of migrants subject to tyrannical border enforcement, with a worst-case outcome of deportation to countries which (in their particular case) they may barely even know.
There are certainly participants in this controversy for whom the fate of the 900,000 or so ‘dreamers’ is the primary issue. Schumer, however, was apparently prepared to chuck endless billions at Trump’s famous wall, so expansive was his human concern for the ground-down immigrants in modern America; and, in the end, he caved in merely in return for a declaration of intent on a congressional debate and vote on Daca at some unspecified point in the future.
America the ungovernable
The necessary context for this little episode is the gradual slide of America into its present state of near ungovernability, whose most recent chapter began with the election of Donald J Trump to the presidency, but has in fact been perceptible since the financial crash of 2007-08. For it was that episode that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency, with the ultra-moderate Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee John McCain quite unable to cope with the catastrophic failure of the financial system assembled by the Reagan and Clinton administrations.
Fearing that the few modest concessions promised by Obama should prove only the first of many demands for Danegeld, a wing of the American capitalist class - typified by the Koch brothers - began directing vast tranches of campaign funding to the far-right fringe of the Republican Party, producing what later became known as the Tea Party. Successive congressional elections produced an unignorable faction of wingnuts, some of whom are religious types, others viciously anti-immigrant, and still others verging on ‘lost cause’ southern racism. All are united by their hatred of the federal government, and especially any part of it offering material assistance to the poor - welfare, food stamps, and their great holy war, Obamacare.
The existence of this faction has made the congressional arithmetic completely unmanageable on several occasions now. The peculiar, quasi-decentralised nature of the two large American political parties makes the chambers of congress places where the ‘whips’ - above all caucus leaders like Schumer and McConnell - loom large, producing a unity where none might otherwise exist. The Tea Party types, however, grew to despise the whips to the point of organising coups against them, especially in the house of representatives. The result has been a ratchet effect, whereby the majority of representatives and senators, who believe that keeping the show on the road is a virtue in itself, has been shrinking, and those who view parliamentary politics as a kind of low-intensity warfare have been growing in number.
The great ‘morbid symptom’, from the point of view of American politics-as-usual, is the government shutdown, which occurs when congress is unable to pass a budget bill in time. Passing a budget is, of course, the ne plus ultra of ‘responsible government’. It was the House of Lords rejection of the 1909 UK budget, containing extensive (by contemporary standards) welfare provisions, that caused the constitutional crisis which in turn robbed the Lords of their veto. Yet it is vulnerable to the same array of parliamentary tactics - above all the filibuster, by means of which bills not supported by a supermajority can be killed by a determined minority.
Traditionally, such a mechanism has served as an occasional rough shove towards the centre of the Overton window; but the Freedom Caucus and other Tea Party groups are now large enough that the filibuster is an extremely effective means of blackmail by the far right. The result is sustained periods of paralysis, like the current one, and occasional shutdowns. Ted Cruz, a Texas senator of impeccable Tea Party credentials and blessedly unencumbered by sanity, spoke for 21 hours to prevent a budget passing that would fund Obamacare in 2013, causing the last shutdown. It so happens that the Democrats obstructed this particular budget on this occasion, but the intransigence of the Tea Party Republicans is one major background pressure that prevents ‘sensible’ Republicans from making compromises. There but for the grace of god talks Ted Cruz for another 21 hours.
The other, of course, is the president himself - who has veto powers over the laws made by Congress. His relative absence from proceedings has been widely noted; a verbal agreement between him and Schumer, concluded over cheeseburgers in the West Wing, was aborted by chief of staff John Kelly the next day; he or the president found the Daca provisions “too liberal”. Apart from that little false dawn, and the initial lapsing of Daca, the drama has been focused on Capitol Hill. If it is resolved to the satisfaction of enough people there, however, it will still have to make it past Trump’s pen, which at the best of times is a matter of Russian roulette.
All this leaves congressional Democrats in a rather difficult position, rather summed up in senator Schumer’s vanishingly brief flirtation with intransigence.
The Democratic critique of Trump and the Republican right has two essential elements to it. The first is the matter of competence. Trump is not a serious president, so the argument goes; he does not educate himself or treat politics at all seriously; he does not negotiate, despite his meticulously crafted public image as a deal-maker; he embarrasses our country abroad, and so on. The same is true of the Freedom Caucus scenery-chewers, who shut down the government and turn the business of legislation into an intractable process of hostage negotiation. America needs its leaders to work together for the national interest, and rise above petty partisan matters!
The second element is that Trump is evil: a callous racist and misogynist, a bully-boy who openly revels in cruelty, who threatens nuclear war ... And similar arguments might be made for the deleterious effect of the rise of the Tea Party, the monstrous spectacle of state laws mandating that aborted foetuses be given a full burial and funeral, naked gerrymandering and so on.
The trouble with these two lines of critique is that they are contradictory in a very specific sense - in the implied response to them. In reply to Republican unprofessionalism, professionalism is required: the Democrats must appear to be ‘the adults in the room’. Viewed as a dangerous and malignant enemy, of course, the response is different - intransigent fighting against the Republican agenda is the order of the day. With this hat on, the Democrat styles him or herself as a member of ‘the resistance’.
Schumer’s shutdown, then, is a farcical attempt to ride both horses at once. The mood in the Democratic camp at large is for ‘resistance’; so Schumer must be seen to resist. Yet the Democrats must rise above petty partisanship, etc, etc; so it only lasts for a single working day. The result is the government shutdown that did not take place.
Schumer and his ‘centrist’ confrères are clearly the losers here: their moral authority has suffered a serious blow and, whatever happens in three weeks time when the whole farce must be rerun, it is those Democrats who refused to vote for Schumer’s deal - indeed who denounced it - who will be in a stronger position. Leftwing Democrats like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris - the latter of whom has made the dreamers her main issue - will demand more than an ‘intention’ to hold a debate, and no doubt can come up with a 21-hour speech between them if necessary.
But the leftism of ‘progressive’ Democrats is in its own way fatally weak. The ‘progressive’ critique of Schumer’s sell-out can be paraphrased like this. There is, in reality, little support for Trump’s racist ramblings in the country. Daca is actually very popular. Trump’s ratings are way down. He and Senate Republicans have given Democrats the moral high ground on a platter; they have made a gift of an opportunity to rebel on the basis of common humanity and shared American values. All that was needed from us was the rebellion itself, and we failed, and were humiliated. We will never turn back the tide if we refuse ever to stand our ground.
Mike Macnair argued last week that we cannot assume that Trump is merely an aberration before the return of the status quo ante of a heavily-statised imperial hegemon with an official legitimating ideology of liberalism. It may also be the case that he is a bellwether, and indeed an accelerant, for an historic shift back into overtly ethnic-nationalist, patriarchal territory.2
I want to introduce a note of caution, inasmuch as the abstraction with which he discusses it makes it sound rather easy, as if it was a matter of the heads of the three-letter agencies getting together for a committee vote. This really would be a matter, in part, of putting the civil rights genie back into the bottle; and so, quite apart from purges of the state apparatus, the sort of terroristic methods used against Reconstruction would become again the order of the day, up to and including the lynching of ‘uppity’ black political figures, and the ‘nigger-loving’ whites who support them, pour encourager les autres. There are historical precedents for this sort of thing - the pogromist character of the Pilsudski regime in inter-war Poland, and more recently the use of far-right gangs against protests in Putin’s Russia; but it would be difficult. In other respects (again, the gerrymandering, the voter ID laws ... ), we are already quite far along.
The point is this: the ‘progressive’ Democrat horizon stretches little further than this autumn’s midterm elections, when it is hoped that there will be substantial Democratic gains and (dare to dream!) progress for the left of the party. But that is to assume that we are still fundamentally in the ‘usual’ political cycle between Republican and Democratic governments that has held since Lyndon Johnson dispensed with the Dixiecrats and Richard Nixon rebuilt the Republican Party around bilious anti-communism and culture-war conservatism.
The truth is that this political layout is in crisis - a crisis exacerbated by the complexity of the US constitution, with its extreme two-party bias, and the decline of its global power. With that crisis comes opportunity - for the nationalist right, very obviously, but also for the socialist left - to radically remake the terrain of high politics in the United States. The strategic objective should not be a strong Democratic showing in November and an end to the Trump era, but the splitting of the Democrats’ base along the class lines so clearly exposed in the contest between Sanders and Clinton, and the construction on that social basis (rather than the political basis of Sanders’ weak-tea social democracy) of a socialist party of the working class. Only with such an objective can the American left truly hope to end the ceaseless rightward ratchet.
1. J Baudrillard The Gulf War did not take place Bloomington 1995, p62.
2. ‘Is Trumpism the future? ’ Weekly Worker January 18.