The great government shutdown of 2013 was barely a day old, and already blue America was running out of comic put-downs to hurl at the House’s wrecking crew. Not content with “morons” and “dunderheads,” Jon Stewart coined new epithets for the occasion (e.g., “bald-eagle fellators”). Politicians you wouldn’t normally confuse with Don Rickles joined in too—not just the expected Democrats like Harry Reid, who had opted for “banana Republicans,” but blue-state Republicans like Devin Nunes of California, who dismissed his own congressional peers as “lemmings with suicide vests.”
Implicit in this bipartisan gallows humor was an assumption shared by most of those listening: The non-legislating legislators responsible for the crisis are a lunatic fringe—pariahs in the country at large and outliers even in their own party. They’re “a small faction of Republicans who represent an even smaller fraction of Americans,” as the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau put it in the Daily Beast. By this line of reasoning, all that kept them afloat was their possession of just enough votes in their divided chamber to hold the rest of America temporarily hostage to their incendiary demands.
Would that this were so, and that the extralegal rebellion against the Affordable Care Act, a Supreme Court–sanctified law of the land, would send the rebels, not the country, off a cliff. Off the cliff they may well have gone in this year’s failed coup, but like Wile E. Coyote, they will quickly climb back up to fight another day. That’s what happened after the double-header shutdowns of 1995–96, which presaged Newt Gingrich’s beheading but in the long run advanced the rebels’ cause. It’s what always happens. The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree. So deeply rooted are these furies in our national culture that their consistency and tenacity should be the envy of other native political movements.
Yet we keep assuming the anti-government right has been vanquished after its recurrent setbacks, whether after the Clinton-impeachment implosion or the Barry Goldwater debacle of 1964 or the surrender at Appomattox. A Democratic victory in the 1982 midterms was all it took for David Broder, then the “dean” of Beltway pundits, to write off Reaganism as “a one-year phenomenon.” When polls showed a decline in support for the tea-party brand last year, it prompted another round of premature obituaries. But the ideological adherents of tea-party causes, who long predate that grassroots phenomenon of 2009, never went away, whatever they choose to label themselves. In recent months, both The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post had to scramble to assemble front-page stories spotting a tea-party comeback. Even so, it took only one week into the shutdown for a liberal pundit at the Post to declare that we were witnessing “the tea party’s last stand.”
That last stand has been going on for almost 200 years. At the heart of the current rebels’ ideology is the anti-Washington credo of nullification, codified by the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun in the 1830s and rarely lacking for avid followers ever since. Our inability to accept the anti-government right’s persistence is in part an astonishing case of denial. The Gingrich revolution, the Ur-text for this fall’s events, took place less than twenty years ago and yet was at best foggily remembered as the current calamity unfolded. There’s also a certain liberal snobbery at play: We don’t know any of these radicals, do we?
In truth we do. The name of David Koch, among the bigger bankrollers of the revolution, is plastered over half of Manhattan, it sometimes seems. And beyond New York, the distance between the crazies and the country as a whole is not quite as vast as many blue-state Americans assume. The rebels’ core strongholds are the 80 Republican districts whose House members signed an August letter effectively calling on John Boehner to threaten a government shutdown if Obamacare was not aborted. Analysts have been poring over these districts’ metrics for weeks looking for evidence of how alien they are to the American mainstream. The evidence is there, up to a point. The 80 enclaves predictably have a higher percentage of non-Hispanic whites than the nation (75 percent vs. 63 percent) and a lower percentage of Hispanics (10.8 vs. 16.7 nationwide). But even those contrasts aren’t quite as stark as one might have imagined, especially given that most of these districts have been gerrymandered by state legislatures to be as safely Republican as possible. To complicate the picture further, fifteen of the offending districts have a larger percentage of Hispanics than the country does, and 24 have a proportionately larger black population. The 80 districts also come reasonably close to the national norm in median household income ($47,535 vs. $50,502) and percentage of college graduates (24.6 vs. 28.5). The percentage of high-school graduates in the rebel districts is actually a smidgen higher than that of the country (86.6 vs. 85.9).
Of course, the gang of 80 who fomented this revolt are predominantly white men, and their districts are mostly clustered in the South, the Sun Belt, and the Midwest. But the same could be said of most of the GOP caucus. For Republicans to claim that this cabal of 80 legislators represents a mutant strain—“a small segment who dictate to the rest of the party,” in the words of a prominent GOP fund-raiser, Bobbie Kilberg—is disingenuous or delusional. (Kilberg herself has raised money for Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.) This “small segment” accounts for a third of the 232 members of the House Republican caucus. Lunatics they may be, but the size of their cohort can’t be minimized as a fringe in the context of the wider GOP. And they wield disproportionate clout because the party’s so-called moderates let them—whether out of fear of primary challenges from the right, opportunism, or shared convictions that are not actually moderate at all.
According to Robert Costa of National Review, the go-to reporter on internal GOP congressional machinations, there are more than a hundred moderates among the party’s House ranks. Where are they, exactly? Even Peter King, the Long Island Republican who sees himself as their standard-bearer, has essentially called them cowards. “They will talk, they will complain,” he says, “but they’ve never gone head-to-head” with the rebels. If the recent events couldn’t rouse them to action—assuming they exist—it’s hard to imagine what ever would. Costa’s estimate notwithstanding, the fact remains that until the middle of last week only 24 Republican members of the House publicly affirmed they would vote for a “clean” resolution to reopen the government—a head count even smaller than the 49 who bucked their party to vote for Hurricane Sandy relief. It’s the sad little band of vocal moderates, not the gang of 80, that is the true “small segment” of the GOP.
The radicals’ power within the party has been stable for nearly two decades. The current ratio of revolutionaries to the Republican House caucus is similar to that of the 104th Congress of 1995–96, where the revolt was fueled by 73 freshmen out of a GOP class of 236. For all the lip service being paid this fall to memories of Gingrich’s short-lived reign as the Capitol’s Robespierre, some seem to forget just how consistent that Washington train wreck was with this one in every way. On MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell went so far as to categorize the current House insurgents’ Senate godfather, Ted Cruz, as a rare new pox on the body politic—the adherent of “a completely different strategy than almost anyone we’ve ever seen come to Washington.” Really? The political tactics and ideological conflicts are the same today as they were the last time around. Back then, the GOP was holding out for a budget that would deeply slash government health-care spending (in that case on Medicare) and was refusing to advance a clean funding bill that would keep the government open. The House also took the debt ceiling hostage, attaching a wish list of pet conservative causes to the routine bill that would extend it. That maneuver prompted Moody’s, the credit-rating agency, to threaten to downgrade Treasury securities, and Wall Street heavies like Felix Rohatyn to warn of impending economic catastrophe. The secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, juggled funds in federal accounts to delay default much as his protégé Jacob Lew was driven to do in the same Cabinet position now. Leon Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff, accused the Republicans of holding “a gun to the head of the president and the head of the country” and likened their threats to “a form of terrorism.” (And this was before terrorism became an everyday word in America.) The internal political dynamics in both parties were similar as well. Gingrich has a far stormier temperament than Boehner, but like the current speaker, he could have trouble keeping control of his own caucus and waltzed into a shutdown scenario without having any idea of an endgame, let alone an escape route. President Clinton, like President Obama, held firm rather than capitulating to the House’s extortionists, betting that public opinion would force them to cave.
To fully appreciate the continuity between then and now, one need look no further than the Third District of Indiana. It is currently represented by the most conspicuous goat of the 2013 uprising, Marlin Stutzman, whose declaration in the shutdown’s early going was a ready-made Onion gag: “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” Those who think Stutzman represents a new breed minted in the Obama era would be advised to recall his immediate predecessor in the same seat, Mark Souder. “We didn’t come here to raise the debt limits,” Souder said during the 1995 shutdown, insisting that “some of the revolution has to occur,” for “otherwise, why are we here?” (This is the same northeastern-Indiana constituency, by the way, that gave America Dan Quayle.)
The midterm elections of 1994 were in retrospect the tipping point driving American politics today—not because of the shutdowns that ensued in the next two years, however, or the fact that Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Rather, it’s that 1994 marked the culmination of the migration of the old Confederacy from the Democratic Party to the GOP. That shift had started in 1964, when Barry Goldwater pried away states from the old solid Democratic South with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and it accelerated with the advent of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of pandering to racists at the end of that decade. But for an interim quarter-century after that, the old Dixiecrats were dispersed in both major parties, rather than coalescing in one. The 1994 election was the first since Reconstruction in which the majority of the old South’s congressional representation went into the Republican column.
This shift wasn’t fully appreciated at the time. When the Gingrich gang staged its sequel to the shutdowns of ’95 and ’96—the self-immolating overreach of the Clinton impeachment in ’98—Dan Carter, a preeminent historian of the civil-rights era, told the Times that he was “surprised that there’s been so little discussion” of how “the southernization of the Republican Party” had shaped events. “Maybe it’s like the purloined letter,” he said. “It’s sitting there on the shelf right in front of you, so you don’t see it.”
What southernization brought with it was the credo of Calhoun, the “Great Nullifier,” whose championing of states’ rights and belief in a minority’s power to reject laws imposed by a congressional majority (whether over taxes or slavery) presaged the secessionism of the Civil War (which Calhoun didn’t live to see) and the old southern Democrats’ resistance to desegregation a century later. It’s Calhoun’s legacy that informs the current House rebels’ rejection of Obamacare and their notion that they can pick and choose which federal agencies they would reopen on a case-by-case basis.
When Calhoun’s precepts found a permanent home in the GOP in the nineties—under the aegis of a new generation of southern Republican leaders typified by Gingrich and Trent Lott (a typical Democratic convert)—the animus was directed at Bill Clinton, a president who happened to be both white and southern. It was inevitable that when a black president took office, the racial fevers of secessionist history would resurface and exacerbate some of the radicals’ rage. One of the House’s current nullifiers, Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, called the Obamas “uppity” during the 2008 campaign, smeared Huma Abedin as a Muslim Brotherhood mole, and voted against a new Justice Department initiative to investigate unsolved crimes of the civil-rights era. Another, Jeff Duncan, a former Strom Thurmond intern who represents the patch of South Carolina that was Calhoun’s ancestral home, has likened what he sees as slack border control to “allowing any kind of vagrant, or animal, or just somebody that’s hungry, or somebody that wants to do your dishes for you, to come in.” This kind of thinking is all too representative of that small but effective racialist-nativist subset within the GOP rebel bloc that will doom immigration reform and is working furiously to erect new barriers to minority voting in a swath of states.
But to brand this entire cohort as racist is both incorrect and reductive. It underestimates their broader ideological sway within their party. The unifying bogeyman for this camp is the federal government, not blacks or Hispanics, and that animus will remain undiminished after Obama’s departure from the White House. Though Andrew Jackson—under whom Calhoun served as vice-president—dismissed the ideology of nullification as “subversive” of the Constitution, it has always been wrapped in patriotic rationalizations, as it is now. In Ecstatic Nation, a new book about the decades bracketing the Civil War, Brenda Wineapple writes that even the South’s secessionists “saw themselves as protecting the Constitution, not tearing it apart.” Or as Jefferson Davis, speaking like a born tea-partyer, claimed: “We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution.” Whatever the bottom line of Washington’s current battle, the nullification of federal laws is growing as a cause at the grass roots. Of the 26 states that are refusing the federal Medicaid expansion—at the price of denying their poorest citizens health care—23 of them have GOP governors. That’s a bigger slice of America than can be found in the map of the 80 districts of the defund-Obamacare brigade.
How and where will this rebellion end? After a week of shutdown, Gallup found that the GOP’s approval rating had dropped to the lowest level (28 percent) for either party since the question was first asked in 1992. But there is no political incentive for the incumbent rebels in safe districts to retreat. “They may think of us as extremists here,” said Mark Souder when serving as a foot soldier in the Gingrich rebellion of 1995, “but none of us are extremists at home.” Playing Russian roulette with the debt ceiling of the despised federal Leviathan is even more of a plus in such overwhelmingly Republican enclaves today. A current House freshman, Ted Yoho of Florida, thinks nothing of publicly cheering on the “tsunami” of a default as a follow-up to the mere “tremor” of the shutdown. Now, as over the past century and a half, these revolutionaries aren’t going to disappear no matter what short-term punishment may be visited on their national party in 2014 or 2016 or both. Nor is their money going to run out. A donor like Kilberg may not write them checks, but the Koch brothers will.
Some Democrats nonetheless cling to the hope that electoral Armageddon will purge the GOP of its radicals, a wish that is far less likely to be fulfilled now than it was after Goldwater’s landslide defeat, when liberalism was still enjoying the last sunny days of its postwar idyll. This was also the liberal hope after Gingrich’s political demise of 1998. But his revolution, whatever its embarrassments, hypocrisies, and failures, did nudge the country toward the right: It’s what pushed Clinton to announce in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over” and to adopt policy modulations that tamped down New Deal–Great Society liberalism. The right has only gained strength within the GOP ever since. Roughly half of the party’s current House population was first elected in 2010 or 2012, in the crucible of the tea-party revolt. While it’s Beltway conventional wisdom that these Republicans don’t know how to govern, the real issue is that they don’t want to govern. That’s their whole point, and they are sticking to it.
Dwindling coastal Republicans of the nearly extinct George H.W. Bush persuasion like Peter King nonetheless keep hoping that the extremists will by some unspecified alchemy lose out to the adults in their party. Tune in to Morning Joe, that echo chamber of Northeast-corridor greenroom centrism hosted by Joe Scarborough, a chastened former firebrand of the Gingrich revolution, and you’ll hear the ultimate version of this fantasy: Somehow Chris Christie will parlay his popularity in the blue state of New Jersey into leading the national party back to sanity and perhaps even into the White House.
To believe this you not only have to believe in miracles, but you also have to talk yourself into buying the prevailing bipartisan canard, endorsed by King and Obama alike, that the radicals are just a rump within the GOP (“one faction of one party in one house of Congress,” in the president’s reckoning). In reality, the one third of the Republican House caucus in rebel hands and the electorate it represents are no more likely to surrender at this point than the third of the states that seceded from the Union for much the same ideological reasons in 1860–61. Unless and until the other two thirds of the GOP summons the guts to actually fight and win the civil war that is raging in its own camp, the rest of us, and the health of our democracy, will continue to be held hostage.