Great American breakdown

As far-right control of the US Congress promises slash-and-burn austerity, Daniel Lazare calls for rejection of the existing constitution and a constituent assembly to establish a real democracy

“God has a special providence for fools, drunkards and the United States of America.” So Otto von Bismarck once remarked. If so, then last week’s great Washington meltdown may be a sign that divine patience is at last running out.

Two years after the Capitol Hill insurrection, a second mob has taken over the US Congress - one composed not of ‘Make America Great Again’ rank-and-filers, but of members of the House Freedom Caucus. While the mob did not break windows or invade offices, it hijacked control in order to steer the government in a militant rightwing direction. Last time, government employees were able to clean up the mess within hours. This time, the damage is not so easily undone.

It is yet another stumble on the part of a decrepit constitutional system, now in the middle of its third century. The epic breakdown began in the late 1990s when Bill Clinton’s presidency nearly collapsed over Monica Lewinsky and a certain blue dress. The crisis took another turn two years later during the ‘battle of Florida’ - an episode that began with ‘hanging chads’ and ended with the Supreme Court effortlessly sweeping aside a democratic election and installing George W Bush in the White House merely because he was a fellow conservative. Yet another stolen election in 2016 led to a phony campaign aimed at running Donald Trump out of town on the grounds that he had colluded with Russia (virtually the only crime that the otherwise odious Trump was not guilty of!). The goal was a home-grown ‘colour revolution’ that, as in Kyiv two years earlier, would sweep aside a duly elected president through plainly unconstitutional means.

This was followed by a failed impeachment in December 2019, an attempted coup d’état in January 2021, a second failed impeachment a week later, and now a putsch by the 46-member House Freedom Caucus - a process of breakdown that is growing ever more extreme. The results are likely to be crippling. Even before Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy managed to win the speakership on the 15th ballot, the New York Times was moaning in a front-page article that the US “should brace for the likelihood of a Congress in perpetual disarray for the next two years”, one that will “struggle to carry out even its most basic duties … such as funding the government, including the military, or avoiding a catastrophic federal debt default”.1

Now that McCarthy has prevailed by making sweeping concessions to the far right, the situation is looking even more precarious.

Conceivably, the meltdown could lead to a default on America’s $31 trillion federal debt, or a cut-off in military aid to Ukraine. But it seems more likely that the radical right will use such threats to cut social security or Medicare, the national health insurance programme for the elderly - previously untouchable. But with Washington currently spending $5 for every $3 it takes in, the ultra right is determined to exact its pound of flesh.

It may thus turn out that the only way Democrats can avoid defaulting on the national debt is by defaulting on a social contract going back to Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal. Robbing retirees to pay for Ukrainian military aid is unthinkable. Yet thinking the unthinkable is something that Biden may just have to do.


The great American breakdown can be understood in any number of ways - economically and politically, or in terms of sheer logic. Unlike the French Revolution, for instance, the American war of independence in 1776 was an overwhelmingly conservative affair, in which “patriots” fought in defence of freedoms that they believed they were entitled to by virtue of settling the New World. This meant local self-government first and foremost. The constitution that came together 11 years later amounted to a recognition that some degree of national government was necessary if the new republic was to make its way in the world. But the founders knew that the deal would never go through, unless they made as much room for local control as possible.

The result was an elaborate contract binding the people, the states and a new federal government in a complicated, three-way agreement. To be sure, the arrangement broke down over slavery in 1861. But the victors succeeded in putting it back together after the Civil War in a way that was stronger than ever. It has held together throughout the storms of history since, through robber barons, economic crises, two world wars, social transformations, and whatnot.

Yet a plan of government that purports to answer all questions for all eternity is an affront to good sense. To be sure, the arrangement led to a great leap forward by providing the conservative political foundation that capitalism needed to advance to a new level of mass production and consumption. But, just as the economic machinery is running down due to a long-term crisis of profitability, the constitutional structure is running down as well due to worn-out ancient machinery. Yet the repair kit that the founders bequeathed, an amending clause in article 5, allows tiny minorities to veto any constitutional change.

Not only has the constitutional machinery frozen up, but in a sense it has turned itself inside out. Every civics student knows how the system is supposed to work. By checking and balancing political institutions like Congress and the executive, its goal is to encourage the different elements to come together for the ‘common good’. Yet it really works by requiring compromises, backroom deals, in which the opportunities for dodging responsibility are endless. Accountability is nil because mistakes are always somebody else’s fault. In the convoluted legislative process, bills disappear in ‘conference committees’ for weeks on end, only to emerge completely changed, yet no-one knows why. Money greases the skids, while members of Congress spend more time dialling for dollars from wealthy campaign contributors than in legislative sessions. Nothing can be done, however, because that is the way the founders said it should be back in the 18th century - and who are we to second-guess the founders? Apparently, we mortals have no choice but to carry on in their wake.

Not that congressmen have suffered as a consequence. Members essentially have a job for life, thanks to a re-election rate that now stands at 98%,2 while average wealth in the Senate is pushing $28 million.3

But others are paying an enormous price. Adjusted for inflation, real wages stayed flat from the mid-1970s through the Trump years, only to fall by 4.4% under Biden.4 Rents have risen 18% over the last five years, while 10% of tenants are spending half their income or more just to keep a roof over their heads.5 Thanks to obesity, drugs, Covid, suicide and violence, life expectancy has plunged by 2.7 years since 2020 to the lowest level in a generation.6 The US now lags 8.4 years behind Japan, 7.3 years behind Australia, 4.7 years behind the UK and, most remarkably of all, 2.1 years behind the People’s Republic of China.7 Americans are dying because ‘democracy’ is withering on the vine.

Freedom Caucus

The Freedom Caucus putsch can only cause the decay to intensify. Not surprisingly, the revolt is concentrated in the ‘Sunbelt’, where obesity and gun violence are shooting through the roof. Where the average Republican House candidate won by less than 3% in November, Freedom Caucus members come from ‘ruby red’ districts in which the winning margin was 20 or 30 points or more.

Marjorie Taylor Green, the ultra-right firebrand whose campaign ads feature her cradling an assault rifle, won by 32% in western Georgia, Matt Gaetz by 36% in the Florida panhandle, while Chip Roy, a leader of the anti-McCarthy revolt, won by 26% in central Texas. Indeed, three members of the Freedom Caucus are so firmly ensconced that Democrats couldn’t find anyone to run against them. Such untouchables include Paul Gosar of Arizona, who has close ties to neo-fascist groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys; Mike Johnson of Louisiana, a fierce opponent of abortion and gay rights; and Debbie Lesko, an Arizona climate-denier from the Phoenix suburbs, made famous by ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Better Call Saul’.

All these are champions of the second amendment, whose “right to keep and bear arms” has emerged as the rallying cry of Sunbelt conservatives. All supported Trump’s bid to overturn the 2020 election, and all can fairly be described as neo-Confederates, itching for another go at centralised government. Denied the right to secede in 1861-65, they are now waging war on federal authority from within.

As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank observed, “Two years to the day since the January 6 invasion of the Capitol, Republicans are still attacking the functioning of government.”8 Milbank is a wishy-washy centrist of the worst sort, but in this case he is dead-on. The Republican right is on the warpath, and its offensive can only accelerate.

What are the implications for government, for imperialism and for the working class? In terms of the first, Republicans are expected to demand a 60% supermajority to raise taxes - a measure that will make revenue hikes all but impossible. They are threatening to cut money for the Internal Revenue Service - the party has a long record in support of tax cheats - and they are out to flex their investigative muscle by putting together a special panel to probe the “weaponization of government”.9 As a form of payback for ‘Russiagate’, this will be an attempt to investigate how Democrats were able to mobilise the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the intelligence agencies to impose years of torture on Trump and other top Republicans. Attorney general Merrick Garland, under intense Democratic pressure to charge Trump for his role in the January 6 insurrection, will likely be a prime target.

Making use of a Republican congressional investigation to counter a Democratic criminal indictment of a Republican presidential candidate will certainly bring the political system into uncharted territory. Republicans will also use their clout to go after ‘first son’ Hunter Biden. According to information gleaned from his famous missing laptops, he hired prostitutes, arranged for business partners to visit the White House, snagged a no-show job at an energy company owned by a top Ukrainian oligarch, and entered into a business relationship with a Chinese energy firm in which “the big guy” (ie, Joe Biden himself) would get 10% of the profits. As divided as Republicans are along ideological lines, every last one of them is determined to get to the bottom of abuses like these. It is hard, therefore, to see how Biden père can avoid being roasted over red-hot coals.

Then there is US imperialism, where the implications are also profound. On one level, the empire has never been stronger. Despite debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is holding together the anti-Russian coalition in Ukraine, while assembling a broad array of anti-Chinese forces in the western Pacific. If the Kremlin fears that Washington is seeking regime change and the break-up of the Russian Federation, it is because it knows that such goals may finally be within American reach.

At home, however, the story is the opposite. January 6 is still casting a shadow, the House is in turmoil, the Supreme Court is on the warpath, while a Senate based on equal state representation is as monstrously undemocratic as ever. Biden’s legislative agenda is on the ropes. Notwithstanding Bismarck’s belief in divine providence, how long can the empire prevail against such adverse circumstances? The New York Times is beside itself with worry that the rise of the Freedom Caucus “could lead to deep cuts in military spending”.10 This seems slightly overdone, since Freedom Caucus members are militarists whose Sunbelt districts have traditionally benefited from Pentagon largesse. Yet pro-Putin sentiment courses through Republican ranks, as does anti-Ukraine scepticism. When Volodymyr Zelensky addressed a joint session of Congress last month, seven Republicans - all Freedom Caucus members - were the only members who remained in their seats rather than giving him a standing ovation.11

Considering that Trump is also a sceptic, Ukrainian aid could conceivably run into trouble. If so, constitutional woes at home could well end up clipping US power abroad - as at some point they must.

Finally, there is the working class. A Freedom Caucus assault on social security means the arrival of full-fledged austerity, with all the horrors it entails. Strikes will be broken, unions busted and benefits cut, as ‘democracy’ pitches further and further downhill. Outside of a small corporate elite, just about everyone will feel the sting.

At the root of it all lies not only a capitalist economic system in a growing state of collapse, but a capitalist political state that is beyond rotten. This does not mean coming up with some more modern or humane way of interpreting America’s ancient constitution, but a wholesale rejection, so that the people, led by the working class, can begin the task of rebuilding democracy anew. Rather than a constitutional convention, this means a constituent assembly, in which the same popular elements which constituted the old government come together to create a new one in its place. They must do so not according to the tortuous amending procedure outlined in article 5, but on the basis of a simple up-or-down democratic vote.

This is the clean sweep of democracy that America desperately needs - and one that only revolutionary socialism can provide.

  1. www.nytimes.com/2023/01/06/us/politics/mccarthy-house-speaker-republicans.html.↩︎

  2. ballotpedia.org/Election_results,_2022:_Incumbent_win_rates_by_state.↩︎

  3. www.opensecrets.org/personal-finances/top-net-worth.↩︎

  4. www.factcheck.org/2022/10/bidens-numbers-october-2022-update.↩︎

  5. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/03/23/key-facts-about-housing-affordability-in-the-u-s.↩︎

  6. www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/nchs_press_releases/2022/20220831.htm.↩︎

  7. www.healthsystemtracker.org/chart-collection/u-s-life-expectancy-compare-countries; english.www.gov.cn/statecouncil/ministries/202207/13/content_WS62cdfd4dc6d02e533532da48.html.↩︎

  8. www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/01/06/mccarthy-house-speaker-vote-insurrection-by-other-means.↩︎

  9. www.politico.com/news/2023/01/10/house-republicans-justice-department-00077108.↩︎

  10. www.nytimes.com/2023/01/09/us/politics/house-rules-republicans-mccarthy.html.↩︎

  11. www.newsweek.com/full-list-republicans-who-sat-during-zelenskys-speech-1768962.↩︎