Carl von Clausewitz, a German soldier, once said, "War is politics by other means." But many in the United States (US) today feel that the Republican Party espouses the reverse, i.e., "Politics is war by other means." This belief is manifested in their vociferous demand to dismantle some of President Obama's pet initiatives (such as the Affordable Health Care Act in 2013, and the extension of unemployment insurance in 2014). They even went as far as not passing the budget in the Congress, thus denying funds to the government which resulted in a partial government shutdown in October 2013. Many federal offices and programs including national parks and museums were closed. Roughly 800,000 government employees stayed at home without pay.
The bone of contention was the Affordable Health Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare). Large sections of the Republican Party are stoutly opposed to the President's pet initiative. They want the funding for Obamacare to be scrapped altogether. Although the problem has been resolved temporarily and the employees are back to work, the threat of non-cooperation among Congress members over the rising debt ceiling limit still looms large. Threats to force the government into a debt default yet again in the near future, would have serious consequences, not just for America but across the globe. Don't be surprised if global financial markets, which hold chunks of US treasury bills as collaterals, collapse like a pack of cards; this could send the whole world into a deep recession even before witnessing a proper economic recovery. The poor stand to lose again and expect more anarchy in various parts of the globe, even in those places which epitomized order and stability in previous times. The critics therefore are well within their right to castigate Republicans for using the debt ceiling and budget cuts as bargaining chips to attack some of the President's biggest policy initiatives in recent months.
However, blaming the Grand Old Party (GOP) for anything and everything to do with the government shutdown, to the debt ceiling limit, to the extension of unemployment insurance, to raising the minimum wages, is simply preposterous to say the least. The problem lies elsewhere within the system and blaming Republicans for everything which goes wrong only reflects an inability to understand the crux of the problem of American democracy. The Republican Congressmen/women who opposed and continue to oppose the Affordable Health Care Act, are in fact voicing the concerns of their district electorate and are doing everything within their electoral power as per the Constitution of the United States in trying to prevent the implementation of the Act. Consider this: President Obama was elected as the President of United States from 50 states. Two Senators representing each State are elected to the 200-member US Senate. Now consider the House of Representatives, dominated by Republicans whom many see as responsible for the recent government shutdown. Each of the 50 US states are represented in proportion to their population in the House of Representatives. Thus every state is represented by at least one representative in the House who are elected directly by their district constituents once every two years. It is the House of Representatives, spread across 400-odd electoral constituencies, firmly rooted to their electoral districts, compared to the President or Senators, who often voice the concerns of their electorate in the House. They are merely reflecting the views of their voters!
Many don't even realise that it is the Constitution of the United States which precisely allows for frequent contestation of various views on issues which are contentious in nature and are of great importance to the people. In fact, the United States' system of government was not designed to allow easy passage of legislations without putting them to a proper debate. It is not akin to Venezuela in Latin America or Angola in Sub-Saharan Africa where the President of the country can relatively easily get his way or force it through. In other words, the United States' system of government allows for strong checks and balances which ensure no one person (either the President - Democrat or Republican) or one House (either Senate or House of Representative) has absolute and superlative control over critical issues. It is after all democracy at work at its best in the world's oldest democracy.
In an interesting dataset constructed by Oona Hathaway (2008) who looks at legislative hurdles to pass important legislations in 187 countries across the globe, it shows that the US is one of the only few countries which require a supermajority in at least one House to pass key legislations. It is true that at times strong checks and balances in the system can test the patience of the countrymen, like in the case of the budget deal which eventually led to a partial government shutdown. Although many were quick to jump the gun and did not miss the opportunity to blame the Republicans, the long-term benefits of a government shutdown was conveniently overlooked because the public more often than not demand instant results! Take a look at the long-term benefit the economy reaped when there was a government shutdown on the previous instance. The last time the Americans saw their government shutdown was in November-December 1995. The standoff between a faction of the Republican Party led by Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Clinton administration on balancing the budget which was the most critical issue that existed during those years, resulted in a government shutdown lasting 21 days. The shutdown kept nearly a million government employees out of work with almost a billion dollars in lost wages. Although many blamed Republicans for the fiasco and in particular Speaker Gingrich, the country benefited in the long run. Thanks to the Republicans, the government shut down forced President Clinton to present balanced budgets for four straight years in a row, which not only reduced the level of debt but also restored investor confidence lifting millions of people into better jobs, better homes and better lives in what came to be known later on as the 'Clinton boom years'.
Yet the Democrats name-calling and lampooning Republicans continues, which ranges from being called obstructionists to agents of the neo-rich. But opinions cannot overrule the facts. It is indeed a myth that the Republican Party shields the rich by taking the stand against tax hikes. Fareed Zarakia, Editor-at-large of Time magazine, who by the way is left-leaning in his ideology, cites some interesting numbers on taxes which is startling to say the least. It is no doubt that the super rich in the US have grown richer in comparison to the middle classes over the past two decades. But it is also true that their contribution to tax revenues is gargantuan in the US context. Mr. Zakaria points out that the top 10% of the American rich contribute roughly over 70% of the total federal tax revenues. In New York City alone, argues Mr. Zakaria, the top 1% pays around 45% of the city's total taxes. And more importantly, the tax rates on the rich have gone up to at least a 20-year high. To put it in perspective, in Europe the biggest revenue grosser is the consumption tax. The country I live in - Norway - has a flat 25% consumption tax. On the other hand, the consumption taxes are lowest in the US, thus the exchequer relies heavily on income taxes. This makes the American wealthy the highest contributors to tax collections vis-à-vis their counterparts in Europe or in other parts of the world. The question therefore is, as Republicans rightly ask, how much more should the rich pay? It is noteworthy that the empirical research on whether taxing the rich heavily helps create more middle class is rather mixed.
The second misconception is that Republicans protect the wealthy bankers. There may be some element of truth to it. There is no question of any denial but it is also noteworthy that Democrats are no saints in this matter. Once again, populist opinion can't obfuscate the facts. Consider the information released by various regional Federal Reserve Banks on the fines and penalties imposed on banks on mortgage related activities. In 2008, this number was close to zero. As on 2013, according to The Economist magazine, the total amount of fines and penalties on banks add up to roughly over 52 billion US$. If Republicans do protect the entire community of rich folks, investment bankers and banks in general, they would have ensured that the taxes on rich wouldn't have gone up and as well as bank penalties. After all, don't you forget - they control the House of Representatives. On the contrary, thanks to pernicious regulations imposed on the banking community by Mr. Obama, the total loans provided to small and medium enterprises, which by the way spawn large chunk of jobs in the US, have gone down from over 4% of GDP two-years ago, as reported by the magazine, to under 3.5% in 2013. This is in spite of the Federal Reserve running an expansionary monetary policy since 2008.
So, where is the problem?
Many have pointed fingers at Mr. Obama implying that it is his duty as the President to find a consensus which is amicable to both sides and to pull the country out of the rut. While others put the blame squarely on Republicans and more specifically on the conservative pressure groups like the Tea Party, and the right-wing think tanks such as the Club for Growth, and Heritage Action, among others. In my opinion, as a neutral observer of American politics, the problem, as many would reckon, is in the electoral system which desperately needs some reforms. The current electoral system is simply defunct. Where else have we seen the government allowing the politicians to draw their own electoral maps? It happens only in America! Yes, the gerrymandering, thanks to Governor Gerry - the process of dividing and redrawing electoral districts in such a way so as to favour one political party over the other. Each Party wants to gain as many districts as possible in a state to set themselves up to win even more districts in the future. This means that most of the electoral constituencies are idyllically safe seats, thus dramatically increasing the incumbent's probability to win elections. What then becomes important for the Congressman is not the final election, which is anyway taken care of thanks to gerrymandering, but to win the nomination through Party primaries. This is where conservative pressure groups like the Tea Party movement have captured the Republican Party with all their clout. Many moderate incumbent Republican Congressmen were defeated by primary challengers staunchly backed by the Tea Party. In fact, the Republican Party Congressmen are so terrified of the influence the Tea Party movement wields over the Party primaries, that they either toe the Party line or risk losing their nominations. The result being heightened polarization of American politics! So, what can America do to address this problem? Well, all they have got to do is look south. America could take a few lessons from its neighbour to the south whose President Mr. Peña Nieto has recently proposed a new Electoral Commission which will be a bi-partisan institution responsible for not only conducting free and fair elections but will also be in-charge of drawing the electoral constituency maps. In fact, this has been the norm in some of the poor but reasonably well functioning (and uninterrupted) democracies like India, the world's largest democracy, where drawing and reshaping the electoral constituencies is purely under the prerogative of the Election Commission of India. The political parties (both national and regional) simply comply with the electoral maps laid out by the Commission without questions being asked. Whereas in the US redrawing the map of an electoral constituency is virtually a bloodsport and this has to stop. Instead of blaming the Republican Party for anything and everything which goes wrong in the country, if civil society, social and political activists, and media could devote half of their energies in launching public awareness campaigns on this issue and vehemently demand their politicians for electoral reforms there could be an outright chance that American politics could suddenly become much less polarised than what it is today. Governance as a result will not be a casualty any more, as less polarization means more cooperation across the isles on various contentious issues plaging America today, some of which could have global consequences in the near future.
When our government shut down it was a joke. No employee lost anything. Illegal Obama was just playing his criminal games. Facts will set you free.