Government shutdown theater has given us some surreal moments. Heard of the “trillion-dollar coin“? Obama actually mentioned it on Monday. It’s a half-serious solution that some wonks have floated to solve the debt ceiling crisis, if “floated” is the right word for a coin that figures into most people’s imagination as a giant, sweepstakes-style money cartoon.
Then there’s Senator Ted Cruz reading children’s books on the US Senate floor, a move that will undoubtedly give future historians and/or alien visitors curious ideas about the possible role of star-bellied sneetches (Cruz is a fan of Dr Seuss books) in our legislative process. Constant references to hostage-taking and suicide bombers will provide those same analysts with an exaggerated (though not by much) picture of gun violence in the early 21st century.
But you haven’t witnessed the truly crazy until you turn on Fox News or browse the right-wing websites.
Here’s a piece of absurdism you can appreciate right now: the image of a janus-faced conservative media talking head, with one mouth defiantly denouncing the impact of the government shutdown, and the other wailing at the costs of keeping government going. Sean Hannity, no great advocate of consistency anyway, has sputtered these two thoughts within minutes of each other. “The government is not totally shut down! Seventeen percent is it!” he told listeners Monday, before confiding that he believes the GOP will prevail, since “the public will side with the group that’s willing to talk”.
Laura Ingraham told her listeners that she was “beginning to enjoy” the shutdown; she also tweeted out her apparently earnest concern that the closure of a parking lot on federal land meant that “ppl risk their lives pulling off the GW Pkwy”.
Fox News has been a funhouse of these distorted twin thoughts, not surprisingly, with guest after guest mocking the seriousness of the shutdown; in a particularly Orwellian stroke, someone at the network even did a search-and-replace on AP stories run on the site, replacing “shutdown” with “slimdown”. At the same time, they’ve given breathless coverage to a highly-selective pool of “slimdown” victims: first, the second world war veterans who faced some inconvenience at the war’s memorial, and, more recently privately-funded parks and – incorrectly – the nation’s missing-child “Amber Alert” system.
Let’s unpack this rhetoric, since it’s wholly representative of the coverage that conservative media has given the shutdown. With one side of your head, you need to remember that government is bad, and that the less of it there is, the better. Supporting that thought is the belief that a government “slimdown” won’t disrupt any of the government’s more important functions.
With the other side of your head, you need to dredge up righteous indignation at the loss of some government functions. It almost doesn’t matter which ones, though it’s helpful if they are services that strike a sympathetic chord without being, you know, necessary. The right-wing Washington Examiner has some examples to get you started, including “Lake Mead, NV property owners” and “tourists”.
Now, try to stand up. Do you feel a little dizzy? Seeing double? You better sit back down.
How is it that so many conservatives seem able to not just stand, but stand for hours and hours and hours holding both these thoughts in their heads? It would be easy to dismiss them as cynics, that perhaps they don’t believe either proposition. But as the remarks about “being willing to compromise” caught on a hot mic between Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell show, at least some of their convictions are sincere – maybe especially this part, “I know we don’t want to be here, but we’re gonna win this, I think.”
Conservatives’ problem is not so much that these are two ideas with no basis in fact, but that both ideas have some basis in fact.
That government is unpopular is the easy part. There’s a long and even somewhat honorable history to that tenet of conservative philosophy. In fact, that’s pretty much argument that the leaders of the shutdown strategy made over the summer to skeptical lawmakers and not-so-skeptical Tea Party activists.
There is one important difference between the small-government philosophy as espoused by, say, the Anti-Federalist Papers and the arguments made by the Tea Party Patriots and Heritage Action: the anti-federalists argued from logic, these modern-day PACs used a misleading poll. They asked voters in conservative districts if, “in order to get … Obama to agree to at least have a ‘time out’” before implementing the Affordable Care Act, “would you approve or disapprove of a temporary slowdown in non-essential federal government operations, which still left all essential government services running?”
Well, if you put it that way … And, of course, they did put it that way, and found that voters supported a totally painless shutdown by a 2-to-1 margin.
And this gets us to the half-truth behind the outrage at “slimdown targets”: however much you dislike the faceless bureaucracy of “the government”, there are very few people who truly want to live without the services it provides. The traditional basis for party divisions has been in deciding what services it provides, and to whom. It makes us hypocrites; it makes us human. Most of us don’t really try to argue two different philosophies at the same time, we cave to realism and sentiment. We agree to feed the children of poor families and pay for safety regulations to be enforced. We haggle over the small things because sometimes the big ideas are too large to be contained in a single debate, and it’s foolish to even try.
F Scott Fitzgerald once called “hold[ing] two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain[ing] the ability to function” the “test of a first-rate intelligence”, but when it comes to the GOP, the jury’s out on the “functioning” part.