Apocalyptic thinking turns up so rarely in the public sphere that when it appears it may not be immediately recognised for what it is – the belief that if everything were destroyed, a better world would arise from the ashes. Such beliefs became widespread in Europe between the two World Wars. Today it is what may bring the United States to default on its borrowing, as a result of the Republican Party’s refusal to pass the relevant legislation.
The fascism that gripped Continental Europe in the years leading up to the Second World War, which held Germany and Italy in its grip and had a substantial influence in France, was a lethal variety of apocalyptic thinking. In France many had dreamed of a counter-revolution since the events of 1789. The counter-revolutionaries got their wish in 1940 when Marshal Pétain concluded an armistice with the victorious German invaders and established a fascist state in the two-fifths of France that remained free of German occupation.
The American re-working of apocalyptic politics is not as lethal as the pre-war European variety, but it does have the capacity to be very destructive. It also starts with wanting to undo a revolution – what the Republican Party calls the cultural revolution of the 1960s. In the view of many Republicans, the events of that period destabilised the family with the promotion of sexual freedom, encouraged feminism and homosexuality – both alike odious to ‘“right-minded” people – opened the door to pornography and popularised drug use. By the 1990s the more rabid Republicans had taken to discussing “end times” – the notion of a period of tribulation that precedes redemption.
Now, finally, in 2013, battle has been joined with what seems to British minds a surprising issue – the limited extension of a free health service to poorer Americans. “Obamacare” became law in 2010. Its legality in relation to the constitution was later challenged in the Supreme Court with the result that some changes had to be made. But the bulk of the legislation survived and is unquestionably the law of the land. Now the Republican Party says to the President: either reduce the federal funding for Obamacare or delay it if you wish us to renew the legislation that would allow the US Government to pay its bills and service its debt. If this were not done there would be a default, a truly frightening event for the entire world. Even the Chinese government has made known its worries.
How and why the United States has arrived at this point is well explained in a report on some focus group work done with Republicans of the three main tendencies – evangelical, the more libertarian Tea Party, and moderate. The talented political analysts Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Erica Seifert wrote up the findings. They argue that the emphasis on Obamacare goes to the heart of Republican activist thinking about the political battle.
Many activist Republicans think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government, so as to increase dependency on the state, that would in turn expand electoral support. This Democratic drive, they believe, started with food stamps and unemployment benefits. It would expand further if there were an amnesty for illegal immigrants. And Obamacare, by providing government insurance for those who cannot get health cover from private insurers, would dramatically expand the number of people dependent on federal help. Republicans, according to the three authors, believe this is an electoral strategy – not just a political ideology or an economic philosophy. In short, if Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may, in their view, be lost.
The authors also argue that there is a racial dimensions to Republican thinking. The full-on supporters are conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. “Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican Party” is the conclusion.
My opinion, which is directed to whether there will be a debt default or not, is becoming more pessimistic. I cannot share the sang-froid of financial markets, which, while subdued, show few signs of panic. The head of fixed income trading at a Wall Street firm expressed himself of the opinion yesterday that “this is something that is not going to happen”.
Unfortunately it could. For now I see that the opposing forces – the President and the Republican Party – are engaged in an existential battle. If Mr Obama makes the necessary concessions, he will be reviled as a weak leader and his presidency ruined. The Republican leadership and Congressional troops fear something very similar – that their voters will kick them out if they bend the knee.
I once engaged in a negotiation in which I reached an agreement that afterwards made me feel very fed up with myself. And then I discovered that the other party felt exactly the same way. Perhaps it was the best deal that could have been done in the circumstances, but the experience was unpleasant. That is the process that Mr Obama and the Republicans are going to have to go through. It’s not nice, but it’s necessary.