9 min read

How Democracies Shatter—Like America's is Now

How Democracies Shatter—Like America's is Now

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the biggest issues—the ones that matter most. If you like what you read, please consider sharing the Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

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Today's Read: 9 Minutes.

The US Government Shutdown: How Democracies Shatter. We trace the downward spiral from democracy to autocracy, at the hands of extremists, fanatics, and lunatics, and discuss how it hardens at each stage, into coercive, authoritarian control.

 1. Louisiana asks for a federal emergency, saltwater threatens Mississippi (NPR)
 2. The UK’s rollback of climate policies will cost its citizens and the world. (Nature)
 3. What would a government shutdown mean for me? (AP)
 4. People in their 20s aren’t supposed to be this unhappy. (NYT)
 5. NYC Is Totally Unprepared for Climate Disaster. (New Republic)

Today's Issue. Extremists. Fanatics. Power. Democracy.

By now, you've probably heard about the looming US government shutdown. The fanatical, extremist wing of the GOP's taking the basic machinery of democracy hostage. For what? For...nothing.

Listen to the Post's excellent, surreal, bleakly tragicomic coverage of it:

"U.S. braces for ‘first-ever shutdown about nothing’"

“We are truly heading for the first-ever shutdown about nothing,” said Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. Strain has started referring to the current GOP House-led impasse as “the ‘Seinfeld’ shutdown,” a reference to the popular sitcom widely known as “a show about nothing.” “The weirdest thing about it is that the Republicans don’t have any demands. What do they want? What is it that they’re going to shut the government down for? We simply don’t know.”

“I frankly don’t understand it — I think it’s sort of nuts. There are times people vote yes one day, and then they come back and vote no the next day, and can’t explain why they switched,” said Newt Gingrich.

Grover Norquist chastised the current group of House insurgents for failing to coalesce around an intelligible set of demands. Now, Norquist said, far-right members throw out so many different demands — an end to Ukraine funding, tougher immigration restrictions, dramatic spending cuts, changes to House procedures — that it is impossible to know what they want.

Washington Post

What's really going on here?

This is what happens the lunatics take control of your society.

This is how democracies shatter, in a downward spiral of lunacy.

Let me explain. Note the names above. Grover Norquist. He's the guy who declared in the 1990s that government should be "drowned in a bathtub." Pause for a moment to take in how ugly such a statement really is. How you can draw a direct line from such rhetoric to Jan 6th, perhaps—"drowning," of course, is a form of violence. He might say he only meant it metaphorically, as in, let's not have much government.

So here we are. This is Norquist's dream come true. You see, before us, we have a set of distinctions which are important for all those who value democracy to really understand. How do democracies fall? At the hands of extremists, fanatics, and lunatics, usually in that order.

Extremists have the vision. Fanatics translate it into a mission. Lunatics turn it into a burning crusade. If you want to understand how polities decline, remember those three sentences. Now let me explain them.

The extremists are figures like Norquist, who adopt, well, extreme positions. Absolutist, black-or-white, all-or-nothing ones. Like let's not have much of a government—hey, who needs, it. What kind of a thing do you drown in a bathtub, after all? A monster? A hated enemy? A...scapegoat.

The extremists inspire fanatics, who turn their grand visions into everyday missions. Those are figures like Gingrich, who then took Norquist's mission to heart, and pioneered many of the tactics the GOP would become infamous for. Obstructionism, gumming up the works of democracy, smear campaigns, outlandish disinformation, obsolete not-even-theories, like trickle-down economics, all condensed into a thing that looked like an agenda for governance, but was in fact its opposite. Today, America doesn't have a social contract precisely because fanatics like Gingrich turned the vision of extremists like Norquist into a a hard political reality, transforming the GOP into a party whose sole, singular, obsessive agenda was to shred any last remaining semblance of governance, public good, functioning institutions, the idea that a society shouldn't be a thing of factions pitted at each others' throats.

The fanatics, in the end, give way to the lunatics. What's this government shutdown about? Nothing. Even Norquist and Gingrich are horrified and baffled and startled, and yet that only reveals what political fools and naifs we're really dealing with here. They're America's Dr Frankensteins, who looking on at their own creation, running out of control, shudder in despair. But they created this monster. What else does "drowning government in a bathtub" look like, if not...exactly this sordid spectacle of crackpots laughing gleefully at shutting a country's basic institutions down...over nothing?

Nothing tangible, that is. You see, Norquist and Gingrich's horror is about this new generation not even having "demands," to hold government hostage over. They don't get the monster they've created. It's not operating at that level anymore. Now it's about raw power. Power in itself. The power to withhold governance and democracy itself.

And isn't that what Jan 6th was also about? If we can't have it our way, we'll burn it all down. Hang Mike Pence! Get them. Destroy them. Kill them, even. Precisely the same purpose ran through that bloody day's chaos, turmoil, and bloodshed. The power...to withhold...governance...and democracy itself. Remember the point of it: to stop the certification of electoral votes. In other words, a government, or at least a governance, shutdown. After which Trump could call for a new election, under the auspices of martial law, and the rest of the surreal plan we know now.

So. The extremists cook up a vision, an absolutist one—"drown government," which, translated into plain English, even though they're so painfully foolish, they might not even know it at the time, just means, no more democracy. The fanatics turn that vision into a mission, making it The Party's One True Agenda, it's Only Idea, the end to which all its pursuits are dedicated. And then along come the lunatics.

What do the lunatics do? They go one step further still. They turn that mission into a crusade. The mission's now become holy gospel, which no form of reality can penetrate. And they consider "by any means necessary" its central tenet. So they pursue the accomplishment of this crusade through an escalating onslaught means.

Like shutting down the government, without even a list of demands, which even hostage-takers will usually give you. But when they don't? That's when you should shudder, because now you're dealing with ideologues, True Believers. In thise case, shutting down the government without a list of demands isn't really "crazy," there's a logic to it. It sends a message. A message of authoritarian power.

This is how far we're willing to go. We'll burn it all down. Ha-ha! We have the power to withhold this from you. If you think about how abuse works, of course, this is a classic tactic: withholding. The abuser withholds all kinds of resources from the abused—from relationships with others, to care and concern, to elementary freedoms.

When we're dealing with political elements who are gleeful at shutting down governance, just to send the message that they can, without even anything to negotiate over, that's when you know you're dealing with the highest category of crackpots there are—lunatics. Who are willing to burn everything to the ground, because if they can't have it, absolute power, then nobody can have anything at all. Think of how abusers work. If I can't have you, nobody can. Then the hammer blow comes. This is precisely the same. The willingness to resort to destruction to accomplish absolute power, in final, unmistakeable terms, that everybody can witness, and so nobody can deny. The message is to assert authoritarian, coercive control.

Remember how we just talked about Negative Politics? This is the apotheosis of Negative Politics—which are about taking rights and freedoms away. Shutting down governance over nothing? Just to send the message that "I'll burn it all down if I can't have absolute power over it," coercive, authoritarian control? Think about this in those terms. What does all this say? If we can't have the power to take rights and freedoms away, then we'll just take everyone's power away to have democracy at all, by shutting governance down, whatever the price. This is Negative Politics unmasked as pure authoritarianism. That's what it's really about, where it goes, so take a hard look, and witness it.

And yet this, too, is just part of a larger pattern of an escalating spiral of Negative Politics in America. Remember, this is about coercive, authoritarian control, to take rights and freedoms away. The government shutdown over "nothing," meaning to send a message of commitment, willingness to destroy—that's just one form of this crusade. But where else do we see just such a crusade? Authoritarian, coercive control is precisely what growing violence in America, from this end of politics, is about, too—think of shootings at synagogues or gay clubs or schools or where have you, the institutions of an open, liberal society, targeted, to be made examples of, in ways everyone see. You are not safe here. You don't have the right to exist in peace anymore. We can take everything away from you, right down to your life.

Negative Politics ends in crusades of authoritarian, coercive control. Sure, that message can be seen in the form of government shutdowns. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, and the tip of the spear is usually that such breakdowns are accompanied by growing violence, from radicalized figures, right down to proper terrorists. The political wings of such factions send the message: you can't have a functioning polity anymore, a modern democracy. While the militant wings of such factions send the message: you aren't safe in your houses of worships, schools, even your homes. All of these have the same purpose: they're messages of authoritarian, coercive control.

We Can Take Everything Away From You. Your rights and freedoms. And if you stop us from trying to do that, then we'll take that power away from you. Your Democracy. Your Society. Right down to Your Life.

This is the message that the lunatics send, and usually, they keep escalating, and never stop. Think about what the message is here in another way: you can't negotiate with us. Chilling, no? That's the reality of what America's dealing with. What kind of people...can't you negotiate with? People who definitely don't consider you an equal, because to them, anything less than authoritarian power isn't acceptable—they'll just burn the house down instead, since you don't belong in or to it, anyways. If they can't have it—nobody can.

So: democracy shatters at the hands of a vicious spiral of a certain kind: extremists, fanatics, lunatics. Vision, mission, crusade. Authoritarian, coercive control in the form of violent rhetoric, which inspires waves of violence in the streets, aimed at the hated scapegoats—while the political wings of the faction basically attempt to stop governance from happening, until and unless they can seize control. It's a classic pattern, seen the world over.

The looming government shutdown is, in this sense, an inverse January 6th. A coup attempt by omission, rather than comission. Sure, blood isn't being spilt here—but make no mistake, the price will be steep. In everything from financial terms, to economic ones, to social ones. Americans, foolishly, blame the Democrats for the looming shutdown—and yet they'll be the ones to pay the price, quite literally, in everything from the pocketbook to the pantry to the struggle to pay the bills.

Let me put all that together now.

Want to really understand how democracies perish? Then think about it this way. People used to wonder whether or not America had much of a future. But now? Never mind having a future. The question's more immediate. Does America have a present? That's the difference, in a truer and simpler way, between extremists, fanatics, and lunatics, too. The extremists want Grand Transformations, usually regressive ones, to happen over the long term, in some utopian future, like Norquist. The fanatics want them to happen in the medium term, this decade, through political shocks, like Gingrich. But the fanatics? They want to destabilize society, right now. For kicks, for giggles, for LOLz, for authoritarian, coercive control, absolute power, or else.

The extremists and fanatics have spent decades usually, pouring gasoline all over a society. They make their threats and showboat and grin and applaud each other. And then the lunatics show up, and throw a match.

In a staggering display of baffling stupidity so impossible and immense it might break the cosmos itself, the extremists and fanatics often then cry, "My God! What are they doing? We didn't want anyone to actually...set it all on fire! It was just supposed to be a...a bluff...for show...a ploy! We never meant for this to happen! Why, these guys are crazy!" And yet it takes an idiot at the level even the archangels can barely muster much sympathy for not to be able to see a straight line....in soaking a society dripping-wet in gasoline...to...laughing like a maniac, and throwing a match.

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