, Salem, MA

October 10, 2013

Column: Distrust fuels the debt ceiling crisis

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — The United States has got itself into an awful place. The country is polarized, the government is paralyzed, and too much anger and righteousness are on display in our politics.

Too many citizens don’t trust anybody or any institution, and too many other citizens trust only those people or news sources who do one of four things:

1. Describe things as citizens already see them;

2. Promote a political viewpoint or ideology that citizens already hold;

3. Appeal to the fears, insecurities, prejudices or emotions that citizens have;

4. Encourage the division of the citizenry into an us-versus-them framework.

Additionally, too many citizens have become cynical or have disengaged completely from following or participating in political activity.

I am prompted to consider the condition of the American citizenry because the federal government is shut down, and the debt-ceiling crisis is imminent. If something in the current political dynamics doesn’t change, I fear that — for the first time ever in the history of the United States — the government will start to default on debt payment obligations.

If that were to occur, it would happen because — again, for the first time ever — one political group placed its opposition to a law ahead of the responsibility of our nation to honor its existing financial contracts. That would be an extraordinary development.

In this case, it would be congressional Republicans who oppose Obamacare who would be responsible for the failure to raise the debt ceiling. It may be true that they are only responding to Obama’s faults, or Obamacare’s unknowns, or the hardball politics of the legislative process that passed the law, but nonetheless, they would still be initiating — quite possibly — a chain of events that could unravel the economy.

If ordinary citizens cannot understand why congressmen in the past refused to issue default ultimatums, then I fear that Washington politicians will feel empowered to let default occur. For it may be that only public opinion can change the dynamics of this standoff.

But how can that happen? How can public opinion change? Given the realities of distrust, news sources and polarization that I outline above, how could all Americans come to see that it would be unusual and dangerous to use debt deadlines as just another political leveraging tool? Won’t anybody who speaks up against using “deadline” tactics just be dismissed by those who oppose Obamacare?

That is a distinct possibility. Some citizens so dislike Obama, or so dislike Obamacare, or are so hostile to the government or government social spending, that they don’t care to listen to anybody who may try to tell them that using debt default as a threat is risking chaos.

Nonetheless, there may be hope in the large number of Republican senators and representatives and reliably conservative news sources who are speaking up and stating their disagreement with the threat of inaction on the debt ceiling. They are making clear that while they too have doubts about Obamacare, or see areas where it could be modified, they do not believe that those objections justify any and all means in the name of resistance.

There are many solidly Republican leaders who are speaking up. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, among others, have all indicated their disapproval of linking the defunding of Obamacare to the funding and financial obligations of the government.

Solidly conservative news sources like the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s Magazine (the Dow Jones business weekly) have described why the debt ceiling deadline is an inappropriate tool to use as a negotiating lever. The national Chamber of Commerce — impeccably conservative — has said the same.

Some citizens want to characterize this whole imbroglio as standard political fighting and posturing and want other citizens to feel that each party is equally to blame for the impasse. Those citizens who fervently oppose Obamacare want you to believe that either side in this impasse could compromise. They do not want you to ask why this stalemate differs from others.

I believe that those citizens who are most distrustful of politicians, news sources, institution, and other citizens — and who also oppose Obamacare — could contribute to making a change in the dynamics of the current political polarization. To do that, they would have to find a source that they are willing to trust and who could vouch to them why the ultimatum that the House Republicans have issued — essentially to the entire country — is a threat to whatever is left of orderly governing.


Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at