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July 31, 2013 5:20 PM Nihilism Or Principle?

By Ed Kilgore

As the distinguished Washington Monthly alum James Fallows warns at The Atlantic today, the impending fiscal collision in Washington this autumn is already getting a heavy dose of the False Equivalency treatment in the MSM, with much talk about the “fiscal policy standoff” and both parties “digging in their heels.”

That’s one way to describe what’s going on: Another damned partisan flap! Can’t these politicians grow up and stop squabbling? To hell with all of them. This is of course the tone that runs through most gridlock/ dysfunction stories — another standoff, charges back and forth — and it’s so familiar that this story can allude to it as an understood truth.

But there’s a different way to describe the situation. That would be to say that the 44th president, like his 43 predecessors, believes that the United States should honor its sovereign debt, as part of maintaining the “full faith and credit of the United States.” He also believes that the policy on government spending first applied under George Washington and in force since then should still be the policy now: once Congress has voted programs or benefits into law, then the government is legally and morally obligated to carry out those programs, until and unless they are repealed.

Fallows is referring, of course, to the threat of a debt limit default, and to the popular conservative argument that “de-funding Obamacare” is an acceptable goal to adopt (and very few of the GOP leaders disclaiming that intention actually think it’s unacceptable as opposed to achievable) in threatening a debt default or a government shutdown.

Maybe you could argue that such drastic threats are sensible. You wouldn’t convince me, but you could make the case. What you shouldn’t do is pretend that this is a normal “agree to disagree” difference of perspective. It’s not; it’s nihilistic.

Now while I agree entirely with Fallows that unreasonable and unprecedented demands are nothing “normal,” I’m not so sure the “nihilism” characterization—very popular among progressive analysts since Jonathan Chait applied the label in an influential TNR article in late 2009—is exactly right, at least for the activist “base” of the GOP. Yes, today’s conservatives are rigid and talk endlessly about defending “conservative principles” that seem to have no positive content. Yes, as Chait pointed out, they tend to react with identical levels of “apocalyptic hysteria” to every kind of proposal embraced by the hated progressive foe, regardless of its subject-matter or origins. Undoubtedly, a lot of current Republican positioning is based strictly on an impulse to oppose Barack Obama on every available occasion, with maximum heat.

But I for one take “constitutional conservatism” seriously, as an ideology that treats most of the progressive policy legacy of the current and the last century as fundamentally incompatible with America’s founding traditions, and for some, with obedience to the revealed truth of Almighty God. Perhaps such reactionaries disagree or cannot articulate an exact golden age to which they wish to return, but it shimmers on the horizon of history some time before 1965 at the very latest, and for many, before 1934.

It’s not an accident that so many conservatives treat fiscal issues with the same passion associated with cultural issues like abortion; they think of them as part of the same pattern of national degeneration. Indeed, fiscal issues are cultural issues.

I’ll quote once again a telling comment about a potential debt default by Rep. Tom Cotton, the rising House star who announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate today, as reported in Politico early this year:

In an interview in his still-bare office a few hours before being sworn in, Cotton told us he would have voted against both Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” tax on millionaires, and the final tax hike that got the country off the fiscal cliff. He vowed to vote against raising the debt limit in two months, absent the sort of massive cuts the president opposes. He said he is more concerned about the “cataclysmic” consequences of inaction than the “short-term market corrections” of default. “I’d like to take the medicine now,” he said.

To people like Cotton, defaulting on the national debt is a matter of “taking medicine;” a salutary moral tonic that will punish Americans (or at least those most affected) for the soul-destroying perfidy of dependence on government. He’s hardly alone: the 2012 vice presidential candidate of the Republican Party likes to talk about slashing the social safety net as essential to the “moral fiber” of the poor people who depend on it for survival. And it’s become a regular habit for all kinds of Republicans to chortle over the prospect of a government shutdown, not just because they enjoy destruction, but because they are convinced it will teach Americans a lesson.

You can call this nihilism if you wish, and it may well come down to that for the Republican pols who aren’t really “constitutional conservatives.” But what’s driving the whole crazy train is not any absence of belief in anything, but a dangerously powerful belief that a very different America, in which “socialism” is permanently taken off the table along with “baby-killing,” is the only country worth having.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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