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US Opinion: Learning The Ideological and Political Lessons of "Armadebtdon 2011"

When the dust eventually settles on a deal to avoid Armadebtdon 2011, there will be plenty of long-term consequences, among them the recognition that American politics is now a 24/7 struggle. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it highlights that American political institutions, built on the ideas of separate powers and historically governed by the concept of compromise among those powers, is creaking under the weight of constant partisan scrutiny.

This is not the most contentious Congress in American history. Indeed, stark ideological divisions are more the norm than the unusual in American politics ---  they started with the first Congress, whose excise tax on whisky in 1791 to help fund the national debt produced the Whisky Rebellion three years later, as people demonstrated that they didn't like paying taxes to help pay for the obligations of a federal government.

But those differences had been somewhat pacified by the ability of political leaders in Washington to get things done without the incessant inspection of media outlets and interest groups. It was never pretty, and rarely idealistic, but you only have to look as recently as Republican Speaker of the House Tom DeLay and his pride in the "culture of corruption" that he fostered to see how backroom deals with the boys --- and threats --- were able to get things in Washington.

One of the stories emerging from current Republican Speaker John Boehner's failure to pass his bill  on Thursday nigh, was his lack of authority to strong-arm the reluctant into backing the leadership,  either through incentives like plum committee assignments or congressional earmarks or through the threat of withdrawing the support of the GOP machine at the next election. The conservative freshmen who held out against Boehner's entreaties concluded that they were more likely to be defeated at the next elections if they relied on a pork-barrel project that would be almost instantaneously publicised somewhere on the blogosphere --- their fate in 2012 is much more contingent on the financial and logistical support of conservative "outside groups" than on that of the Republican establishment. 

It is useful to take a brief look at the activities of the supposedly rabid John Birch Society during a similar period of resurgent grassroots conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s. They sent out a Bulletin once a month, with a recommendation for a book to read, and an agenda for members to follow at their chapter meetings. This agenda usually included a call for members to write letters of protest to an organisation or group of politicians each month, protesting a particular policy.

One of their continuing projects was to ''Get the US Out" of the United Nations, and in July 1964 the Society asked members to write directors of the Xerox Corporation to oppose their planned advertisements promoting the UN on the television networks NBC and ABC.  The head of the Society, Robert Welch, reminded members to:

Keep your letters friendly, informative, and persuasive. Remember it is not only possible, but entirely likely, that at least a decided majority of these and directors honestly believe that the United Nations is basically a desirable organization. It is our duty, and may well be our opportunity, to convince them otherwise. And if most of our members will each write to several or all of the names listed above, we'll certainly make them pause to take another look before they go ahead.

This faith in the power of a one-off letter to persuade seems almost quaint, especially as the Tea Party Nation has just sent out at least seven emails with details of what is happening in Washington --- on a couple of occasions, trumping the Washington Post or New York Times with their breaking news updates. The Nation urged members to keep the pressure on in Congress to, as the latest e-mail was tagged, 'Let the Debt Default".

In this new dynamic of American politics, the White House is still confident we will have a deal on the debt-ceiling by Tuesday's deadline. sent out an e-mail  last night promoting house parties to be held in all 50 states on the President's 50th birthday on Wednesday. The events, kicking off Obama's re-election campaign for 2012, are promising a live video conference with President Obama. That's a fool-hardy commitment if a deal hasn't been reached.

And it could appear naive if "politics as usual" is now undermined by the constant partisan tension created by outside groups. This week has seen a vocal minority in the Republican camp hold up a compromise deal on the debt ceiling, and the major cause of that intransigence has been the online appeals by Tea Party for conservative politicians to "hold the freaking line".

That has been a constant refrain of Erick Erickson of over the last two months, warning Speaker Boehner not to compromise over the debt ceiling, telling him to stay committed to passing "Cut, Cap, and Balance". Over the last year Erickson has emerged as the most prominent defender of Tea Party conservatism in the blogosphere, and he is an especially interesting example of the recent power of outside groups to influence politics in Washington. His constant pressure on politicians in Congress drew the attention of The Washington Post on Friday, which noted:

RedState’s traffic numbers aren’t huge — the site hosts about 178,000 unique visitors and one million page views monthly , according to comScore. But through a mix of incendiary posts, canny self-promotion (he has 24, 540 Twitter followers) and endorsement of conservative primary candidates, the 36-year-old former city councilman’s has made himself something of a conservative powerbroker. Rush Limbaugh, with his millions of listeners, often turns to Erickson for inspiration. At least one congressman — rising tea party star Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Illinois) — says he has asked Erickson for advice

Erickson has also helped provoke one of the more entertaining spectacles in American politics – a conservative "civil war". As usual, the sides have lined up along the principles of ideological purity against the need to compromise.

Two weeks ago, Erickson posted "Dear House Republicans, This is Your "Time For Choosing". In it he exhorted House Republicans to not fall for the persistent demands they compromise, and implored them:

You must win this fight. You must show you are not afraid. When Ben Bernanke brings the Grim Reaper in on August 1st to tell you we are all going to die, you must mock death and choose life — not bipartisan compromises that will keep growing government and ever more rapidly turn this nation into a third class banana republic. In short, you must hold the freaking line!

William Kristol's article in The Weekly Standard on Wednesday, "A Time for Choosing", is illustrative of the pieces that have tried to counter Erickson:

To govern is to choose. To vote is to choose. To vote against John Boehner on the House floor this week in the biggest showdown of the current Congress is to choose to vote with Nancy Pelosi. To vote against Boehner is to choose to support Barack Obama.

And that leads to another interesting correlation between the current renewal of conservatism and the movement of the early 1960s. In the conservative lexicon, Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech, the original "A Time for Choosing", is as important any of John F. Kennedy's more familiar orations. It begins with this eerily familiar denunciation of the federal government:

No nation in history has ever survived a tax burden that reached a third of its national income. Today, 37 cents out of every dollar earned in this country is the tax collector's share, and yet our government continues to spend 17 million dollars a day more than the government takes in. We haven't balanced our budget 28 out of the last 34 years. We've raised our debt limit three times in the last twelve months, and now our national debt is one and a half times bigger than all the combined debts of all the nations of the world. We have 15 billion dollars in gold in our treasury; we don't own an ounce. Foreign dollar claims are 27.3 billion dollars. And we've just had announced that the dollar of 1939 will now purchase 45 cents in its total value.

The full ramifications of the internecine battle between the pragmatists and the ideologists --- who point to speeches like Reagan's and say, "What has compromise ever achieved? Just bigger and scarier numbers" --- will not take full shape until this latest debate in Washington has concluded. But you can be sure that with the persistent scrutiny of Washington by incendiaries like Erickson, there will be significant casualties come next November's elections.

However, a more immediate and important concern is whether American politics, built on the need for compromise, can adjust to meet the demands of the recent intense examination and dissection of all that happens in Washington. Attention, at present, is centred upon the intransigent Tea Party Republicans who will not compromise on a debt ceiling deal, but it should also be remembered that some Democrats are finding it impossible to suggest meaningful reforms in entitlements because of the pressures brought to bear by liberal groups like MoveOn. And when a deal is finally reached on this occasion, who is optimistic that in a year's time, or a decade from now, politicians will have found a way to put aside partisan differences exacerbated by outside groups and face the tough fiscal choices facing the country?

Perhaps it is time for some changes in the way American government operates to meet the modern reality that compromise, on the important matters, is virtually impossible in Congress. Without them --- and it might be as simple, if controversial, as ending the filibuster --- it is impossible to see how Washington can avoid lurching from impasse to impasse. 

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