I keep hearing the media call the faction that has caused the government shutdown”nihilists.” But that’s a misdiagnosis. They’re zealots, not nihilists: nihilists don’t believe in anything, but these guys are fanatics, true believers in the dogma of unregulated markets, minimal government, no social programs, and all the other unbalanced ideas of modern conservatism.
They believe there is an absolute truth about governing, and that they have it. And it’s their zealotry that makes them so destructive, not any supposed nihilism.
Polls show that more Americans blame Republicans than Democrats for the shutdown, and they’re right. Of course, it’s also the case that there are different factions within the Republican Party, and much has been made about the disproportionate dominance of the tea party wing over against the moderates. These factions do have somewhat different beliefs and motivations. Some are in it mainly for power, self-aggrandizement, or ego. Modern conservatism, with its ethos that “greed is good,” attracts more than its share of narcissistic sociopaths with no beliefs or principles other than those which promotes their interests in the moment. But for a generation the Republican party has been shaped and propelled by its many fanatical Social Darwinists and culture warriors who believe in reactionary economics and/or “Heartland Americuh” for the sake of these beliefs themselves, regardless of personal gain. And of course many in the party combine selfishness and zealotry. But the zealots, with the energy and determination that fanaticism gives them, are the driving force behind the shutdown — not the merely greedy wing of the party.
While most American conservatives are strong in their beliefs, the tea party are the hard-core and are well-represented in the House. They really believe that Obama is a Muslim sympathizer, that Obamacare is creeping socialism (this Heritage Foundation plan with its market insurance exchanges!), that social programs endanger the republic, and that they are making a heroic stand for America. They’ve dug in to oppose Obamacare because they see it as an existential threat: they associate it with socialized medicine, which to their minds puts the country on the road to serfdom. Indeed they see themselves as victims and probably have something of a martyr complex. Unfortunately as with all martyrs, their self-destructive impulses are dangerous for those around them, which in this case means the whole country.
The centrist media has needed to think of these fiscal vandals as nihilists because they are attacking institutions and norms that insider journalists identify with. The media elite see themselves as of a piece with technocrats who emphasize stability and professionalism in government — and there’s nothing more technocratic in government than the ordered numbers of a balanced budget, passed like clockwork every year by a well-functioning legislature. That the current Congress is failing to pass a budget, and may fail to raise the debt ceiling, is an affront to all that the centrist media feel and imagine a Congress should be. And with the centrists’ penchant for interpreting all political events through the lens of false equivilance, of “both parties do it,” they have a tendency to forget that one faction in our present politics is much more irrational, fanatical, and delusional, and consequently causes most of our country’s political paralysis and self-inflicted wounds. At least this time popular opinion is placing the blame where it properly belongs, and the media is having to go along.
This misdiagnosis of nihilism matters because it underestimates the potential harm, and minimizes how hard it is to root out the problem. Fighting nihilists and fighting zealots are two different things, and require two different strategies. I’ve never met any real nihilists, actually, that is, people who truly don’t believe in anything, and I doubt that you’ve met any either; and if one did have to fight a group of nihilists politically, it probably wouldn’t be too hard. Without beliefs to guide and motivate them they would fold like paper at the slightest opposition to whatever their plans might be. Zealots, on the other hand, have all the stubbornness that their absolute convictions give them. They dig in their heels when opposed; when reality doesn’t go their way they inflexibly cling to their faith and drive forward anyway. This all too often carries them through to victory, even when their goals are foolish. Fighting zealots requires reason and good strategy, but above all it requires firmness, patience, fortitude, and determination in the service of reason and good strategy. You have to be as strong as they are, for they do not fold easily; and you have to expect them to persist in their destructive positions with extraordinary obstinacy. While one can simply roll over nihilists who don’t believe in anything, one must decisively defeat zealots, and break their spirit in the process so that they don’t come back to cause further harm.
The tea parties zealots know this: Ted Cruz has been saying for a while that the way to win the fight on Obamacare is to simply “not blink.” And his supporters believe him. It’s a game of chicken to them, and they believe — with good reason, given the past pusillanimity of liberals — that this fight will be like any other over the past thirty years, and all they have to do is stick it out longer than the historically irresolute Democrats. This time, however, it looks like the Democrats have found some backbone; probably not because they’ve really become stronger in character, but because they have a better tactical position, and because President Obama is not going to give up his signature domestic achievement.
I always get annoyed when nihilists or relativists get the blame for causing all the moral problems in the world. They never cause the trouble. It’s the zealots who do, the absolute believers who are convinced that they have the truth and/or God on their side. They are the ones who spill the most blood and cause the most destruction.
Such zealots are stubborn as jackasses, and have to be faced with determination, strength, and tenacity.