The controversies of Washington, DC: government shutdown and no more Redskins

There is mounting evidence that the GOP’s hopes of taking the Senate in 2014, which seemed high a few months ago, are diminishing by the day.

Arriving in Washington, DC to start a fellowship at the Library of Congress, I have found myself a victim of the US government shutdown – locked out of the library and forced to join the ranks of aspiring screenwriters in Starbucks. With most of the furloughed government workers based in the nation’s capital, the effects of the shutdown are more apparent in DC than any other city. National monuments and public parks are shut and joggers who venture in risk being fined by overzealous rangers.

Yet the place is hardly reeling. The bookshops, bars and coffee shops are brimming and native Washingtonians note with pleasure that the traffic is much improved. One innovative federal worker has used the enforced holiday to compile an exhaustive database of happy-hour drinks prices inside the Beltway. Meanwhile, the conservative shock jock Glenn Beck and a team of Tea Party supporters kindly volunteered to clean the National Mall over the weekend, descending en masse with rakes and plastic bags.

The devil makes works for idle hands. The last shutdown, in 1996, was also the occasion of Bill Clinton’s encounter with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. As the Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone reminded me, though, one forgotten outcome of that saga was that Clinton’s approval rating went up 20 points – albeit only after Republicans began impeachment proceedings.

It is that echo – of an American public fed up with partisan politics going one step too far – that resounds through the current imbroglio. Polling figures make it emphatically clear that the Republican Party is bearing the brunt of the blame.

While the Republican leadership in the Senate (a minority) seems willing to countenance a deal, those in the House (who boast a majority) have been playing hardball. It was the latter’s insistence that they would approve a spending bill only if severe dents were made in Barack Obama’s health-care reforms that first led to the impasse. For the most conservative representatives – referred to by some as the “Hell No” caucus – brinkmanship remains the order of the day.

Obama has responded by abandoning direct negotiations with the congressional Republicans, and now all hopes are pinned on the White House striking a deal with the more moderate Republican leadership in the Senate. The chances of a “grand fiscal bargain” between the parties are remote; this debate is not over and is likely to be revisited in six months’ time. What is most likely in the short term is a sticking-plaster solution, along the lines of the deal that ended the previous crisis over the debt ceiling in 2011.

Essentially, this would involve Senate Republicans agreeing the terms of a new bill with the White House – as seems likely – and forcing it through the House with the acquiescence of a sufficient number of Republican votes to make an overall majority. Those Republicans who do support a deal can expect a severe backlash from the right of the party.

Indeed, the gap emerging between Republicans in the House and the Senate is in many ways a sign of the deeper chasm that has been opening up in the heart of the GOP and threatens to swallow it. In recent years, a redrawing of electoral boundaries in Republican-held districts (gerrymandering, in effect) has created a new dynamic in the party, whereby local Republicans are often well protected from a Democrat challenge but face a hard battle in the primaries, where activists have the initiative and the Tea Party is the most effective mobilising force.

The price of local dominance has become national credibility. The type of uncompromising message that works in a Republican primary does not translate well to the circumstances of general elections, which are usually won on the centre ground. There is mounting evidence that the GOP’s hopes of taking the Senate in 2014, which seemed high a few months ago, are diminishing by the day. If it has been so irresponsible in control of the House, it is asked, how can it be entrusted with control of the Senate, too?

Ruffled feathers

Another ongoing squabble in DC, undoubtedly of more interest to its inhabitants, concerns the town’s beloved American football team – the Washington Redskins. The Redskins’ owner, Daniel Snyder, is coming under pressure to change the name of the franchise on the grounds that it is offensive to Native Americans, for whom Redskin – as opposed to other appellations such as “Chief” or “Brave” – has pejorative connotations. Snyder remains defiant that he will not rename the team and points out that most Native Americans polled say they are not offended. But the issue will not go away. Obama has come out in favour of a change. More important, in a “half-time essay” on Sunday Night Football, the influential NBC anchor Bob Costas made a strong case that the name was indeed offensive and it was time find a new one.

In a bifurcated city – with affluent suburbs but some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the US – what does unite Washingtonians is their football team. The downtown bars were packed on Sunday night as the Redskins attempted to kick-start their stuttering season against their great historical rivals, the Cowboys, in Dallas. Hopes were pinned on the star quarterback Robert Griffin III (affectionately known as RG3), who continues his comeback from reconstructive surgery on his knee. Despite glimpses of his former brilliance, RG3’s game collapsed in the final quarter and Dallas held on for a victory.

However, the rising star on the DC sports scene is a real “football” player: DC United’s goalkeeper, Bilal “Bill” Hamid. Despite being in a team cut adrift at the bottom of the table, he was superb against Philadelphia Union in a rainy Saturday-night game at the RFK Stadium. He will be in the English Premier League before too long.

The US Capitol building in Washington, DC. Image: Getty

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.