Most Americans are still relatively rational people, despite the fact that roughly one-third of the public is awash in conspiracy-laden cultism. That sane American majority also expects congressional lawmakers to make relatively reasonable decisions on behalf of voters to avoid something like an economic catastrophe.
Enter the debt ceiling standoff currently playing out between the White House and House Republicans. Polling around the debt ceiling and the consequences of not raising it is complicated by the fact that the concept is complex. For example, many voters aren't familiar with the fact that failing to raise the ceiling will automatically result in a U.S. default on debts—and a hit to our country’s credit rating.
In recent CBS News polling, for instance, only 46% of respondents favored raising the debt ceiling when they were asked about it without any qualifying information. But when respondents were asked if Congress should raise the debt ceiling to avoid defaulting on its current debt, fully 70% supported a ceiling hike—more than two-thirds!
The problem for the majority of Americans relying on Congress to use sound judgment is the fact that Republican lawmakers no longer operate on a rational continuum. In fact, it’s entirely possible that many congressional Republicans would view the chaos of a global economic meltdown rippling through the nation as politically more useful to them than avoiding a default.
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To most of us, that reality seems unthinkable. But as we edge closer to default—potentially as soon as June 1—it’s worth considering two ways in which Republicans might view defaulting as advantageous: one through a democratic lens, and the other through an autocratic lens.
For congressional Republicans who still at least minimally believe in democracy, the electoral landscape is bleak. Their party is increasingly courting a decreasing share of the electorate by continually doubling down on wildly unpopular policies such as banning abortions and books.
As Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg summed it up in his Hopium Chronicles Substack:
Their anti-woke, crime stuff isn’t working as they hoped. Their 2024 frontrunner mounted an insurrection against the United States, is a serial criminal, and remains unnaturally beholden to Putin. Their potential savior, DeSantis, sucks. Biden’s reelection rollout was very strong, capable, compelling. Their crazies keep doing crazy things. ... Their extremism on abortion could be the biggest political mistake we’ve seen in decades. The war in Ukraine is going pretty well for Biden and the West.
The disrepute of GOP policies leaves Republicans little to work with other than the economy, and they desperately need that economy to be remarkably bad in order to hang it around the necks of Biden and Democrats next year.
The two easiest ways to tank the incredibly resilient economy Biden has built is to force spending cuts so austere that they tip the U.S. into a recession. That basically sums up the dead on arrival measure House Republicans just passed tying a debt ceiling increase to budget cuts. Neither the White House nor Senate Democrats will touch it.
The other option for House Republicans is to go nuclear and blow up the economy by allowing the U.S. to default—which could have catastrophic effects globally as well as here at home. In 2011, President Obama and House Republicans narrowly avoided default, but the mere threat of it shook financial markets and resulted in both a credit downgrade for the U.S. and higher borrowing rates for consumers.
In the event of default, President Biden and Democrats would go into overdrive trying to rightfully pin the blame on House Republicans. But regardless of who’s at fault, many or even most of Americans’ lives will take a terrible—perhaps even tragic—turn for the worse. And that would simply be an entirely different political landscape on which to fight the 2024 cycle.
Right now, one of Biden’s key problems is educating voters about all the truly impressive legislation he has ushered through and how it’s translating into more jobs, better jobs, and hopefully a better quality of life. Robbing Biden of that message would upend the dynamics of the presidential contest.
Decimating the U.S. economy could also sow the type of chaotic environment authoritarians can leverage to seize power. As historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes on her Lucid Substack:
As an autocratic entity, the GOP would gladly unleash a “shock event,” as I call coups and other cataclysmic occurrences that have allowed authoritarians to damage or destroy democracies. Today's GOP is a far-right party beholden to a violent cult leader. It no longer respects or operates within democratic norms, having liberated itself from democratic ideas of accountability. And it has no interest in bipartisanship or in sustaining a democratic political system—quite the contrary.
Destroying the nation’s thriving economy would allow Republicans to “delegitimize” the president and, indeed, democracy itself. If the “shock event” proves traumatic enough, it could put the country on a search for stability amid dark times—priming the electorate for an autocratic ruler.
Whether congressional Republicans prove to be manipulative believers in democracy or would-be autocrats, the bottom line is that Democrats must prepare for the prospect that their GOP counterparts are more interested in tanking the economy than sparing it. As Daily Kos’s Joan McCarter has written, President Biden must be prepared to go it alone.
House Democrats are also taking meaningful steps toward potentially enabling themselves to unilaterally avert a default crisis.
One way or the other, Democrats should assume Republicans will be bad actors in this extremely volatile scenario. It’s the only sane course of action.
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The past week seems to have packed in a month’s worth of news. Markos and Kerry tackle it all, from Joe Biden’s big announcement to Tucker Carlson’s early retirement from Fox News.