With some exceptions, the media has decided that it is well and good to frame the government shutdown as a hostage situation perpetuated by a small band of Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
But is that what's really going on here?
There are surface similarities. In a hostage scenario, a small band of thugs threaten to harm people unless they get their way. Yes, that is the negotiating tactic Republicans are using. Give us what we want, and then we will release the government back to you.
But what's happening in Washington is not a hostage situation.
For one thing, and this is very important to keep in mind, Republicans are not in any way abusing the rules or breaking the law. Generally, hostage situations are easy to infuse with moral judgments. The bad guys break the law. They have violated norms that everyone has agreed to.
What Republicans are doing is different. They are using the rules in a way that violates traditions and customs. They are breaking an agreed-upon covenant that, at the very least, the government should be open and operating as a precondition for all other political debates, even those about the nature of said government. Moreover, one person — the Speaker of the House — can change the rules on a whim.
This is an important distinction. And it is a distinction, I think, that Republicans who want to hold out are fair to point out. The Tea Party movement was empowered to force the Republican Party to get serious about its own pledges and promises about reducing government. Until now, cutting government has meant something very different to those who actually governed: A trim here and there, an entitlement reform elsewhere. Governing Republicans never took their anti-government rhetoric to its logical conclusion. They also underestimated what years of denigrating the government would do to the public's perception of it. Being a "small government" Republican doesn't mean what it meant six years ago.
How does this relate to the hostage metaphor? It means that the hostage-takers have already won. And they will get away with it, too, because there is no reason for them not to. They will emerge from this crisis, however it ends, with a much heavier center of gravity than before. Hostage-takers don't usually get away.
What's my preferred metaphor? What's really happening here, I think, is a revolution. It's not a coup, as tempting as that word might be to those who prefer the old order. A revolution occurs when internal and external circumstances combine to produce a significant change in the way people are governed. A small band of stalwarts usually leads the way. I don't support this revolution, by the way. I think the potential and actual damage to the American economy is significant. I also think it is simply cruel to take benefits away from people who need them, or to prevent people from getting the help to which they are entitled by law, as well as a basic sense of dignity, to obtain.
The "hostage-takers" have already succeeded in:
1. Closing the government at will;
2. Smashing the hierarchy of one of America's two major political parties;
3. Redefining the meaning of small government conservatism and significantly changing the expectations of small government conservatives;
4. Cutting the government with a hacksaw;
5. Ensuring their re-election.
Democrats will not be able to participate in the practice of governing until they understand that, to a large extent, their opponents have won.