(The Root) — At some point, the federal government will reopen, and the country will go back to a kick-the-can paradigm that runs the budget on a series of back-to-back manufactured crises. This we know, since for the most part most people — left and right — accept the governing construct.
But a larger philosophical problem remains unresolved. The root issue left dangling like a broken branch on a dead tree is the size of that construct and how essential it is. The evidence for that answer will come not so much from the shutdown itself but from the length of it. Each day it lasts is a day's opportunity for someone to prove that we can all get along just fine with government resembling two cups on a string.
The nation, reasonably frustrated, continues asking reasonable questions: Who would want a government hanging by a string? Who could conceive it, and why go that far? We know that blaming this twisted idea on talk-show conservatives and fake libertarians just doesn't cut it anymore.
We also can't use the typical line about gerrymandering gone wild or red states dug in. That's a lot like baby Stewie bugging Lois on Family Guy. Tell us something we didn't already know. It's like covering your eyes during a slasher film but making a peephole with your fingers after reconciling that it's, well, just a movie.
Our mistake has been assuming that the Tea Party army gearing up was nothing more than conservatives enthusiastically rebranding their political participation. That's what healthy democracies do, right? However, after getting a lane, they rolled over us like 18-wheelers hogging the highway. Giving these fractious Republican fanatics the benefit of some normal political doubt is like a broken flashlight under the blanket. We're still trying to engage in a largely partisan conversation, when we should have a deeper, Freudian-based psycho-social session that straps these cats down on a couch.
Plainly put, we're not dealing with sane folks here. We'd like to think it's all just a badly produced Crossfire episode, but it's not. Just because they manage to wear suits every day doesn't prove they've got it all together up there. And just because they're elected officials doesn't prove their constituents are any less crazy. Politicians are reflections of where they're from — you can take Billy out of the barn, but you can't take the barn out of Billy.
What we have trolling the halls of Congress these days is a redneck subculture specially brewed and designed for the times. Tragically, we missed its stirrings while we were amused by the rise of pop South. American Idol voters were as captivated by a string of neo-country rockers and rural swooners as cable was by the twang of hit shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and 19 Kids and Counting.
We've blindly watched the expansion of a soft-power Confederacy (if you will) celebrating rural culture and small-town values in a nation where 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas. We've become desensitized to pickup trucks with rebel-flag bumper stickers, failing to consider the historical ramifications of treasonous paraphernalia.
But a closer examination will reveal that these are places where a stubborn contingent of anti-big-government, anti-Obamacare, red-meat Republican legislators reside. And while they represent only a fraction of the country's living space, they've managed to dominate a large chunk of our collective discussion on the role of government. Not only do they get license from rural and exurban voters who've backed them into rhetorical corners during town hall meetings and impromptu conversations at the Waffle House, but their language and cultural standard infects national discourse.
We assume that they, like everyone else who goes to Washington, want to participate in a spirited federal or national political process. But do they really?
Instead, they're forcing our modern political process to fight a new Civil War. We're now recognizing scablike geographic divisions we didn't want to acknowledge at first. An anonymous GOP congressman quoted by the Washington Examiner's Byron York slightly admitted it when he likened the shutdown debacle to "Gettysburg, where a Confederate unit went looking for shoes and stumbled into Union cavalry, and all of a sudden found itself embroiled in battle." "Stumbling" is an understatement. Ideological positions and voting patterns are now very much concentrated according to fixed compositions of red and blue.
Behind the effort to shut down government is the mindset of playing-for-keeps lawmakers from distant and remote lands. It is based on a rugged frontier mentality of largely rural whites satisfied with little-to-lose beliefs, many making up a lion's share of people on government assistance but too proud or racially indignant to admit it. (Sixty-one percent of those on food stamps [pdf] and 40 percent in Head Start [pdf] are white.)
Candidate Obama was somewhat prescient in 2008 when he described the small-town unemployed as "clinging to … guns and religion," predicting the battles that loomed ahead once he became president. The thoughtless condemnation of his statement as a gaffe was less media-cycle clowning than it was nationwide denial of something truly ugly on the horizon. It's the banality of Duck Dynasty adventurism dressed in congressional ceremony, Redneck Heaven transformed into disastrous aberrations of everyone-on-their-own governance.
These folks, as folksy and harmless as they might seem, want it to all fall apart. They are the Doomsday Preppers living off the garden, bunkers and basements ready, hunting guns loaded, closets full of canned preserves and ammunition stocked for the apocalypse. They scoff at us city slickers who live off the government dole, and hungrily await the day when they can prove that they have always been ready for the day the Four Horsemen arrive. One more day that government is down and the debt ceiling comes closer to cracking is one day closer to a world shaped like a Book of Eli fight scene.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. When not stocking "potted meat and Tang," he's reachable via Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.