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Kevin McCarthy releases the hostage — this time
The debt ceiling deal shows how we can muddle through fascism, at some cost.
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At least since Trump's election in 2016, it’s felt like we are careening towards crisis. The GOP has been rapidly radicalizing. The Christofascist Supreme Court gutted abortion rights and has been recklessly tossing out precedent in the name of imposing its own ideological hegemony. The far right attempted a coup on January 6. States are launching sweeping legal assaults on pregnant people and trans people while banning books about Black and LGBT life and history.
It’s felt like something has to give. Either fascism wins, or we have to defeat it.
The last week though has been a reminder that a third option is possible. Maybe fascism neither wins nor loses, or loses gradually. Maybe in the words of political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, we just muddle through.
America, arguably, has been muddling through fascism for a long time. The Civil War and possibly the civil rights movement were exceptions, but for the most part the US has responded to fascism and authoritarianism with half-measures and compromise. Typically, America when confronted with fascism changes just enough, and just quickly enough, so that daily life more or less stumbles on without any great moment of crisis or transformation.
Bernstein argues that "muddling through is a perfectly fine goal" — we can defeat Trumpism and fascism, he argues, even if we retain "an imperfect democracy with some absolutely unjustifiable features."
That's true to some degree. But it's also true that muddling through without actually rooting out fascism means a real, brutal cost in ongoing human misery and injustice. We got a taste of what that might look like this week too.
One notable example of the country muddling through rising fascism can be seen in Texas, where a (relatively) moderate majority of the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives voted over the weekend to impeach far right Attorney General Ken Paxton. Paxton’s impeachment suggests there’s still some limit to the corruption and excesses Republicans will tolerate, even in red states. The New York Times framed it thusly:
“It’s the battle between the version of the Republican Party under Trump and the version of the traditional Republican Party,” said Jeronimo Cortina, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. The fight is especially urgent in Texas, he added, because increasing urbanization and demographic changes threaten the party’s dominance over Democrats.
“The question for Republicans is, do you want to stay in government for a couple of years” by catering to a shrinking pool of aging voters? Mr. Cortina said, describing the party’s most conservative members. “Or do you want to invest in having a Republican Party that’s going to have a future in Texas?”
Nationally, meanwhile, the specific crisis that it looks like we might be able to muddle through right now is averting a national default. For weeks, and really for months, the GOP has been threatening to refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats capitulate to sweeping spending cuts. Among the programs that Republicans suggested might be slashed were Social Security and Medicare.
The debt ceiling is an arbitrary and outmoded legislative construct. It limits the amount the federal government can borrow to pay debts it has already incurred. It's like if you put $300 on your credit card and then passed a law saying you were only allowed to pay off $200. And then loudly proclaimed that the law was necessary to prevent out of control spending.
RELATED FROM PN: The (many) perils of a debt default, explained by an economist
For most of the last century, raising the debt ceiling has been a routine, uncontroversial procedure. When the US incurred debts and needed to borrow more money to pay them, Congress just raised the ceiling. That's because failing to raise the debt ceiling would be catastrophic. The US would be unable to pay its obligations. Credit markets would seize up; the stock market would plummet. There would probably be a global economic recession at least on the scale of 2008, and possibly worse.
Congresspeople are elected by the public and are supposed to look out for their interests. Normally, that would mean that they would not cause a massive recession immiserating tens of millions of Americans for no reason. But thanks to gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the right-wing media bubble, Republicans have become less and less accountable, and less and less concerned with the real world consequences of their actions.
Since 2011, when a Democratic president is in office, Republicans have tried to use the debt ceiling as a kind of blackmail. Unless they're allowed to govern from the minority, they insist they'll destroy the country’s economy (and maybe the world’s too).
Apocalypse Avoided (Maybe)
Supervillain hostage taking is not conducive to normal democratic processes. Democrats are faced with allowing Republicans to harm people by blowing up the world economy, or allowing them to harm people by shredding the social safety net.
Instead, many Democrats urged President Joe Biden to refuse to negotiate with the Joker. They've argued that the Constitution requires the US to honor its debts. The president could use that as a constitutional justification to order the treasury to mint a $1 trillion coin — or to simply continue to pay US obligations even if Congress can’t reach a deal.
The administration has been leery of these solutions, in part because Biden is an institutionalist, and in part because potential lawsuits could lead to a lot of market uncertainty. Biden preferred to try to negotiate as if he were facing a normal Republican Party.
And, lo and behold, the Republican Party kinda sorta behaved as if it's a normal party. After much brinkmanship and back and forth, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed to a deal that looks more or less like what you'd expect from a standard budget negotiation. There are no across the board cuts to entitlement programs. There are no draconian work requirements for those programs either. Government spending basically remains flat through 2025 — a major retreat from GOP demands to roll back Biden's legislative accomplishments of the last few years.
In a sign of the deal’s acceptability to Democrats, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries gave it his endorsement Tuesday, saying it protects the safety net and vulnerable communities.
It's still possible that the GOP rank and file legislators will reject the deal. Freedom Caucus members are running to any microphone they can find to talk about how much they hate it. But for now, the country appears to have muddled and shuffled its way away from a fiscal cliff.
Avoiding default is an unambiguous good. Immiserating millions and possibly billions of people globally would have been a horrific outcome.
There are downsides though. The deal suspends the debt ceiling till 2025. That’s good news for candidate Biden. But it means that he wins next year and has to again work with divided government in his second term, Republicans are likely to try to take the economy hostage in budget negotiations again.
(Tellingly, as the below clip illustrates, Freedom Caucus members like Dan Bishop are especially mad about the debt ceiling being suspended through next year, because it means Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis won’t be able to run against Biden on the wreckage of a smoldering economy.)
The provisions of the current deal also will harm many people. It calls for clawing back unspent covid funds. But covid funds remain vital; nearly 1,000 people are dying of it every week in the US, and long covid continues to affect millions, with less and less hope of a cure as funding dries up.
The GOP has also managed to expand work requirements for SNAP, or food stamps, to include those with no dependents between 50 and 54 years of age. There's barely a pretense that this will actually reduce spending or accomplish anything beyond ensuring that a number of poor older people will go hungry as they fail to get the benefits they need.
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More broadly, Biden turned down an opportunity for a full-throated defense of the Constitution. The 14th Amendment requires the US to pay its debts. Republican legislators — backed by the implicit threat of a far right Supreme Court — were recklessly attempting to violate the Constitution. Rather than fighting for the constitutional principle at stake, Biden sidestepped the issue.
Again, avoiding default is good. But ducking confrontation with the courts as a general principle leaves many vulnerable people in the lurch. The current horrifying assault on trans rights is just one example. Florida, for example, is putting in place a series of draconian laws that among other things ban gender-affirming care for minors and prevent trans people from using public restrooms.
RELATED FROM PN: A brief history of the right-wing scheme to corrupt SCOTUS
Part of the reason states feel empowered to pass these laws is because they feel confident that the far-right supermajority on the Supreme Court will uphold their bigotry. Democrats say that they have trans people's backs. But those promises ring hollow if the party isn't willing to aggressively challenge the court.
And so far, they haven't been. Biden has avoided even suggesting that expanding the number of Supreme Court justices might be a good idea. Following revelations about Justice Clarence Thomas's decades of egregious corruption, Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin has all but hidden under his desk to avoid doing anything about it.
Muddling through means avoiding the worst crisis, like coups and global economic collapse. It also means, though, avoiding aggressive steps to expand democracy, or to confront authoritarianism. It means acting as if GOP blackmail and a reckless, Christofascist, unaccountable court is normal. It means treating de facto fascist regimes in the states as legitimate, too, when they target the rights of LGBT people, or Black people, or women.
For students of US history, this is familiar. The country spent about a century, between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, looking the other way as Jim Crow states (and not just Jim Crow states) subjugated Black people in flagrant violation of the Constitution. Was the US a fascist regime during those years? Sort of yes, sort of no; it muddled and bumbled through, with Democratic institutions that functioned, more or less, in some parts of the country for some people.
I think US commitment to democracy has expanded since the Jim Crow era. States like Minnesota, for example, have moved aggressively to increase voting rights, abortion rights, and LGBT rights. Where Democrats are in control, they push back against fascism. Where they're not, though, federal efforts have been vacillating.
Democracy is messy; you have to compromise. That's a truism, and an argument for the virtues of avoiding constitutional confrontation. But when one party has been taken over by reckless fascists, compromise tends to means abandoning marginalized people, and negotiating away the rights and safety of the most vulnerable. Muddling through may be better than some alternatives. But we should be clear about the cost.
That’s it for today
Aaron will be back tomorrow morning with a new podcast featuring Nikki McCann Ramírez of Rolling Stone. To get the show right in your inbox and support this work, please consider becoming a paid subscriber if you aren’t one already.