What to do when your government won’t run

One reason why “greenwashing” is such an effective marketing strategy is the fact that it offers consumers the feeling that they are doing something to fix a crisis. The crisis in question is global environmental catastrophe, principally represented as climate change, and the satisfying solution is to spend a bit extra on recycled toilet paper, airfare carbon offsets, and so on. This commoditized virtuousness may well be a hoodwink, but it feels good all the same, for when we’re genuinely worried that things are going badly wrong, to sit idle is tortuous. That’s why we feel so anxious when characters in movies mess up in obviously-avoidable ways (whether because they are comically buffoonish or tragically flawed)—trapped on the other side of the screen, the viewer is absurdly powerless to avert the inevitable conclusion.

Today marks the beginning of the second week of the government shutdown, and, more than anything, I feel this exact kind of absurd powerlessness, as if I’m screaming at a character in a movie not to press this button or walk through that door. Congress has, by all reasonable accounts, gone utterly insane, with the Republicans refusing to approve one thing they’ve already won on (federal government spending) in order to demand the repeal of another thing they’ve already won on (a market-based healthcare system), and threatening to burn this mother down if they don’t get their petulant way. We’re shuttering research labs and demolishing structural economic supports at a time when we should be championing these programs as growth engines. To make it worse, we’re making life measurably worse for the most vulnerable in an age where inequality is surging upwards. It’s infuriating, it’s depressing, and it’s utterly backwards, and there’s a whole ream of good commentary to back up those feelings.

There’s a lot of writing about how bad this situation is. There’s a smaller, but important, body of research about how we got here. But there’s almost nothing in the mainstream press suggesting what we, as citizens, ought to do about it. And what can we do about it? I already didn’t vote for Republicans in the last elections. In the wake of this sorry episode, I’ll probably never vote for Republicans. But my promise to keep furiously not-voting-for-Republicans feels like it has a pretty weak pull on whether or not the country defaults on its debts in a few weeks. And, since I’d really like that not to happen, I feel like I ought to be doing something. What?

It seems like a forlorn question since these are forlorn times for hopeful ideas. (Startup idol-worship has permanently screwed up the contours of the word “ambitious.”) Just like an organic frozen dinner feels like it doesn’t quite match up to the magnitude of global environmental change, the individual vote no longer feels like it has much purchase on the mangled and self-replicating logic of electoral politics as they now stand. Of course, the vote is still one of humanity’s greatest inventions, and we must all keep using it. But the majoritarian system of government is clearly in trouble right now, and, with no clear procedural way out of a legitimation crisis, it’s a surprise that more commentators aren’t calling for some wholesale Constitutional reform.

Beyond this, though, I think we need to start getting serious about what is happening with our neighbors. The logic of combative elections portrays politics as a campaign for dominance—if only we can keep the other side out of power, then the country will get better. I think that’s an anemic view of social change. What we really ought to be wondering is why so many Americans think that taking food out of the mouths of poor infants is wise public policy in the first place. The kinds of ideas that are now widespread in the Republican Party are ideas that belong at the very outer fringes of what is socially acceptable. Only a few decades, this was the case; now, we have come to accept this kind of paranoid nihilism as just another voting bloc. We need to think harder not just about how to beat this bloc electorally, but about how to reverse this kind of thinking from the moment it takes holds in citizens’ minds.