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).