The Government Shutdown and the Failure of the Two Party System

From the November-December 2013 PNL #829

by Aly Wane

I’ve repeatedly observed that the entire political spectrum in the US is tilted to the Right in relation to most European democracies. That is, in terms of most European politics, the Democrats would be considered moderates at best (if not moderate conservatives) and the Republicans represent a Far Right sensibility. This hit home for me recently during the latest government shutdown debacle: it was a perfect example of how only focusing on the perspective of the Two-Party system allows the entire country and so-called “Political Center” to gradually shift to the Right without our noticing it.

Defending a Conservative Plan
Republicans started this crisis by trying to pressure Obama to repeal key portions of the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”) and refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless he did so. This, unfortunately, put Democrats and many so-called “liberals” in the position of defending a program which is basically a Center-Right compromise which entrenches the for-profit health insurance industry. The ACA has always been the intellectual child of the conservative Heritage Foundation, one of DC’s most influential conservative think tanks. While most progressives wanted a single payer system, the Democratic Party never even took up that battle and instead (perhaps realistically), decided to fight for a so-called public option. Those plans kept getting whittled down and even a simple expansion of Medicare was strongly rejected by the Republican Party.

Credit: Khalil Bendib Source:

All of the compromising eventually left us with the ACA which had clauses like the individual mandate which guarantees the health insurance industry a slew of new clients in exchange for a few concessions of their own (no denying people coverage because of pre-existing conditions and keeping adult children on policies up to the age of 26, just to name two). In fact, the day the ACA passed, Health Insurance stocks went sharply up.
In an Orwellian turn of events, Republicans have been assailing Obamacare as a “socialist government expansion,” masking the fact that it is essentially a pro-industry law which will actually benefit the corporations which dole out health insurance. The problem with this is that most of the corporate media, as amnesiac as ever, did not question this framing. Mainstream outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and on cable, even the “progressive” MSNBC relegated their commentary to defending the ACA from the absurd distortions coming from the Republicans, but did not do a good job of refuting the idea that Obamacare was considerably “liberal.” Thus the entire so-called “political center” moves to the Right; so while Democrats are able to win legislative victories (like the ACA), the Republicans win the rhetorical framing battle.
On this issue, the legislative wrangling between the two parties obscured the fact that, in the end, the major victor has been the health insurance industry. This is not to dismiss the ACA, but to correctly frame it as a slight improvement in health care access which, nevertheless, plays into the hands of the corporations who have most profited from our dysfunctional health care system. Of course, the disastrous rollout of the website only played into the hands of Republicans who were once again gleefully able to call attention to “government dysfunction.”

Here Comes Austerity
Another area in which the problematic “Democrat vs. Republican” framing reveals its function in obscuring deeper debate is the coming budget battle. Obama has already agreed to Social Security cuts when he signaled his approval of the so-called “Grand Bargain” last year. We are at the point where the Democratic President is, in effect, agreeing to cut one of the crown jewels of “progressive” achievements (Social Security) in order to trim the deficit. The question is not whether we will get austerity, but how much austerity.
At a time of great economic inequality and increasing poverty, both parties agree that “the government is part of the problem.” Instead of arguing forcefully for the value of government and the public sector to relieve some of the more cruel aspects of Free Market capitalism, Democrats have essentially agreed to be the party of “less cuts.” In many ways, we are still living in Reagan’s world. However, I predict that some progressive pundits will express their surprise and outrage when Obama follows through with his stated compromise and agrees to deep government cuts.
The wrangling between the two major parties is increasingly hiding a deep societal wound: economic inequality is getting worse and our government has been hijacked by major corporate players who win no matter which party prevails.

Aly is an undocumented activist and a member of the PNL Editorial Committee.