Government Shutdown and Collapse: A Constitutional Crisis Caused by Rural America

As this government shutdown has come to absorb not merely the day-to-day functioning of government but also our national health care policy and the looming debt ceiling, it becomes harder and harder not to see this episode as the beginnings of a legitimate constitutional crisis.

By all accounts, this shutdown was formally instigated by 80 Republicans House members who wanted the Speaker to more aggressively work to “defund” Obamacare.  Whatever one thinks of Obamacare, of Big Government, these Republicans are hardly representative of the public as a whole:

These eighty members represent just eighteen per cent of the House and just a third of the two hundred and thirty-three House Republicans. They were elected with fourteen and a half million of the hundred and eighteen million votes cast in House elections last November, or twelve per cent of the total. In all, they represent fifty-eight million constituents. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just eighteen per cent of the population.

I actually thought one of the big takeways from November’s election was that the United States and our public policies increasingly faces a vast landed majority that is very much a numerical minority.

While its easy to ascribe our problems to partisan polarization, this is not really even a case of partisan gerrymandering.  No, this shutdown crisis demonstrates the excessive influence rural America continues to enjoy in national politics.  It can no longer dictate presidential elections, and as we’ve seen in a number of high profile senate races, the countryside has much less influence over statewide offices.  A great example of this is my home state of Iowa, which easily voted for the President twice but has produced legislators like Rep. Steve King.  One can see a bit of the dynamic I’m getting at by looking at this profile comparing Rep. King with his fellow Iowa Republican, Tom Latham, whose district is far more urban.

It is easy to portray this entire episode as merely a case of political dysfunction or a failure of leadership (see Jennifer Rubin’s surprisingly good “How Could We Have Avoided All of This?“).  Seeing politicians on both sides use the World War II Memorial as a literal soap box suggests there is some truth to that, but I think there’s more to it.  In this fight, Democrats are actually allied with Big Business, which leads me to believe this really is an urban versus rural conflict–Joan Walsh went so far as to suggest there was a significant kernel of racism in play.

Maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but we certainly are watching a tiny minority with little interest in the national (or international) welfare react viscerally at what they view as threats to conservatism.  Case in point is this scary story about freshman House Republican Ted Yolo (R-Swamps in the Middle of Florida), where he claimed that a default would lead to global economic stability.  That’s not just inaccurate–it’s crazy.

International accounts of this shutdown make America look like a superpower without its house in order, but this may well be the inevitable result of a constitutional structure that has always given outsized influence to the country’s most agragian, least modern elements. If my thesis holds, rural Republicans already think the America they love is dying or dead.  If that’s the case, Republican victory may be watching as Rome burns, and I’m not sure how anyone navigates these waters.

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