The Government Shutdown Has Created a New Word: Snollygosters


Before you ask, I present the definition of "snollygoster," courtesy of

One, especially a politician, who is guided by personal advantage rather than by consistent, respectable principles.

While not born of this crisis, snollygoster is an antique in the American political lexicon, tracing as far back as the 1840s and allegedly inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch folk monster, the snallygaster. How does it apply to our current predicament?

Whatever else one might say about the Democratic Party, its members are more or less united in their support for President Obama and the preservation of the Affordable Care Act at this time. The perceptive might claim they're partisan, the paranoid that they're socialist, and the historically uninformed that they're un-Constitutional, but certainly they are genuinely motivated by the ideals they profess. On the immediate problem of the government shutdown, they're arguing (as Obama said earlier this week) that "one faction of one party in one house of Congress, in one branch of government, does not get to shut down the entire government just to re-fight the results of an election." When it comes to the moral and practical impetus behind the Affordable Care Act, they might as well be parroting Dwight Eisenhower's language when he described his "Middle of the Road" ideology nearly 60 years ago:

The very fact that man is a spiritual thing makes it impossible for any durable governmental system to ignore hordes of people who through no fault of their own suddenly find themselves poverty stricken, and far from being able to maintain their families at decent levels, cannot even provide sustenance. Mass production has wrought great things in the world, but it has created social problems that cannot be possibly met under ideas that were probably logical and sufficient in 1800.

What I mean by the 'Middle of the Road' is that course that preserves the greatest possible initiative, freedom, and independence of soul and body to the individual, but that does not hesitate to use government to combat cataclysmic economic disasters which can, in some instances, be even more terrible than convulsions of nature.

The conservative and libertarian ideologues responsible for the government shutdown, on the other hand, are behaving like a bunch of snollygosters.

For an unmistakable sign that this is the case, one need look no further than the recent polls which show a plurality of Americans blaming the Republicans more than either Democrats or both sides. In large part it's because they have better memories than cynical politicians expect; they recall that this mess started because the Tea Party overrode the influence of moderate Republicans and pressured Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) into not calling a vote on a new budget that they knew they would lose (at least insofar as their goal of defunding Obamacare was concerned).

More important, however, are the glaring inconsistencies they can see in the rightist arguments. To whit:

1. The party of so-called "fiscal conservatism" is risking a state default in the name of killing Obamacare. Even if one sincerely opposes the Affordable Care Act, it is hard to argue that triggering a severe economic setback in order to stop it would constitute anything other than a Pyrrhic victory. Not only would it exacerbate the hardships already being felt by small business owners and the working clsas (whose interests rightists ostensibly have at heart), but it would destroy what shreds of a reputation for financial rectitude America has managed to maintain up to this point.

2. The supposedly "pro-America" party is disregarding the will of the people. I'm hardly the first pundit to observe that, while Americans may not agree with all of the particulars of Obamacare, the nation's voters have repeatedly refrained from putting a Congress and president in power who would repeal it. Between Democratic retention of the Senate in 2010 and 2012, Obama's reelection, and the Supreme Court's upholding of the measure, the proper mechanisms of our democratic polity have reinforced this law. It is unconscionable — and arguably unpatriotic — to subvert the stability of America's republican institutions simply because you're displeased with a outcome they yielded in a specific situation. Indeed, it is telling how these same rightists glibly gloss over the critics who point out that they could simply wait until the 2014 and 2016 elections to campaign against Obamacare and put Republicans in both branches of government to repeal it. One might even suspect that they're afraid that, once the major provisions of that bill are implemented later this year and throughout next year, voters will benefit and want to keep them in place....

3. Extreme conservatives and libertarians distort the terms of our national debate. One of the most unfortunate trends in political discourse today is the tendency of rightists to depict their cause as one of "freedom" versus "statism," of "liberty" versus socialism, or of "Americanism" versus those who they shrilly insist oppose the Constitution. Not only do these claims often depend on timeworn logical fallacies, such as the slippery slope fallacy or straw man characterizations of progressive programs, but they are motivated by the desire to vilify progressives with polemical stigmas (opposing freedom and the Constitution, lacking patriotism for America, being socialist) instead of engaging in substantive debates on the merits of specific programs. When one's ideology depends on being able to cast the other side in McCarthyesque terms, it is doubtful that they are underpinned by any "respectable principles."

This is not to say that there haven't been periods in American history when Democrats have behaved like snollygosters and Republicans have acted with principle (indeed, one could argue that the first election between the two parties in 1856 provided ample examples of this). When the story of the 2013 government shutdown is written, however, it will be viewed as the tale of a party that, held hostage by its own fringe elements, risked bringing America to its knees in the name of a blinding partisan hatred that overrode even their own avowed convictions. Even if some kind of temporary stopgap solution is agreed upon by both sides (as seems to be shaping up now), it still won't offset the dangerous recklessness of the Republican Party's recent behavior. One can only hope the same Americans who correctly place fault for this mess on the shoulders of the extreme conservatives will vote those snollygosters out of office in the next election cycle.