Broken Windows, Broken States

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Last week TPM hosted a rooftop party atop our DC office to celebrate the launch of our new publishing platform and the relaunch of TPMPrime. There I got a chance to meet Jamelle Bouie, one of several young journalists whose work I admire greatly but who I hadn’t yet had a chance to meet in person. We got to talking about the under-appreciated dangers of what amounts to our current Tea Party governance.

Years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase ‘defining deviancy down.’ James Q. Wilson popularized the conceptually related “broken windows” theory of crime and crime prevention. Whether or not these theories and catch phrases work as sociology is separate question; subsequent research has not been kind. But they capture the toxic consequences of the normalization and expanded acceptance of destructive behavior – something that not only applies to individuals and communities but to states and their internal workings. Stepping back from the latest Washington debacle, you quickly see how far down this road we’ve gone without really even realizing it.

It has started to feel normal that two or three times a year we have a major state/fiscal crisis and maybe once every 18 months or two years, there is a true breakdown with fairly grave consequences. The last time was in the summer of 2011. We have a very good chance of another next week and something even more catastrophic next month.

Despite the fact that it hasn’t occurred since 1996, at this point, given the possibilities on offer, a government shutdown seems almost prosaic. Countless citizens are inconvenienced in ways large and small. But you can start the thing back up again in a week and apart from a mini-shock to the economy probably everything goes back to working fine. The thing with truly catastrophic potential and permanent damage is defaulting on the national debt – the possibility of which is mind-boggling in the absence of actual state bankruptcy, war or civil disorder.

I’m not even sure what to say about it because it’s the new normal. We know it. We live it. But this is really unprecedented stuff – deep attacks on the state itself inasmuch as the state requires for it to function a penumbra of norms surrounding the formal mechanisms of government.

Right now you might theorize that ‘Obamacare’ has somehow become such an idee fixe on the American right that some sort of cataclysmic confrontation is inevitable. But that theory doesn’t really hold up because for the previous two years it was austerity and dramatic fiscal retrenchment that merited threatening to default on the federal debt to deal with.

For all the ubiquity of political polarizing and heightened partisanship, no honest observer can deny that the rise of crisis governance and various forms of legislative hostage taking comes entirely from the GOP. I hesitate to state it so baldly because inevitably it cuts off the discussion with at least a sizable minority of the political nation. But there’s no way to grapple with the issue without being clear on this single underlying reality. Sufficient evidence of this comes from 2007 and 2008 when Democrats won resounding majorities in Congress and adopted exactly none of these tactics with an already quite unpopular President Bush. This is the reality that finally brought Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, two of DC’s most arbiters of political standards and practices, fastidiously sober, even-handed and high-minded, to finally just throw up their hands mid-last-year and say “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.”

Many people say that the danger is that the Democrats, reasonably enough, will adopt the same tactics once they are back in a comparable position. I worry about that too. But not that much. I think the reality is that they won’t because the sociology and mores of the parties are just different.

It has become so pervasive that I believe it’s lost on many of us just how far down the road of state breakdown and decay we’ve already gone. It is starting to seem normal what is not normal at all.

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