Hostage Taking: A New Quirk in Our Democracy


The Republicans should be congratulated for their success in securing a deficit deal that includes unprecedented spending cuts. Despite only controlling the House of Representatives, the GOP was able to enact much of its policy agenda over the objections of the Democratic senate and a Democratic president. But how did they do it? How can future politicians in both parties replicate the GOP's stunning success? After careful analysis, I believe that the key to the GOP's victory was their threat to intentionally destroy the economy.

Let's say you're the Democratic party and you control the House of Representatives. You want to pass a cap and trade bill, but it faces overwhelming opposition from the GOP Senate and a Republican president. Their intransigence is stopping you from passing an important piece of legislation. It is an outrage! Should you give up, make the case to the American public, and attempt to win an election to improve your legislative odds? No. That's the old model for governance. There's a much better way to pass legislation: Threaten to destroy the economy unless your policy agenda is enacted.

It is not as simple as it sounds. First of all, why would anyone believe that liberals will intentionally destroy the economy? After all, that's not very patriotic. Hostage takers are only successful when they convince their victims that they are irrational. For example, the president was forced to make a deal with the GOP because most in the Tea Party believe that default was a good thing or that it would not happen. The Tea Party's willful ignorance of facts like "when you stop paying creditors, you damage the economy" strengthened their position in the negotiations. In my toy example, liberals must both threaten to destroy the economy, and convince the GOP that they don't understand basic economics. It would be a tough needle to thread, but I have a few suggestions.

The GOP ingeniously tied their deficit reduction demands to a mechanism that is vaguely related to deficit reduction: the debt ceiling. What better way to reduce deficits than to just stop spending all together? Either way, it was a win-win for the Tea Party. Here's my radical suggestion: Liberals should do the same thing in order to pass climate change legislation! Refusing to raise the debt ceiling will destroy the economy for a generation. Since economic development is one of the biggest producers of carbon, liberals will face a similar win-win situation. If they pass climate change legislation, they can reduce carbon emissions through legislation. If they prevent the debt ceiling from being raised, they can halt economic activity and reduce emissions that way. If people are unemployed, they certainly aren't driving to work. If we increase homelessness, we can cut back on the billions of tons of carbon emissions created when we heat and cool houses.

The GOP created a new template for governance. From here on out, policy changes will be made through threats and coercion. It is a brave new world. Instead of high-mindedly condemning this new paradigm, Democrats should simply adopt the GOP's playbook and threaten to destroy the economy. 

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