THE Republican Party was supposed to have learned its lesson.
When Barack Obama crushed Mitt Romney, the few thinking conservatives left in the United States were supposed to have understood, if dimly, just a few basic political and demographic truths.
The country was no longer exclusively white and Christian. It did not have a fit of the vapours at the thought of a gay person or a woman's right to choose. It did not believe that the very existence of a black president was an offence against the natural order. Above all, it had no taste for the utterly destructive politics of permanent opposition. The Reagan insurgency was over.
Republicans were supposed to grasp all of this for the only reason that ever matters to a political party. If they failed to accept that America had changed and continues to change they would never reclaim the White House. Those "ethnic" voters had passed judgment. The young had passed judgment. Anyone who believed in constitutional liberties had passed judgment.
The defeat of Mr Romney was no vindication for Mr Obama. It did not mean that America had succumbed to radical, "socialistic", or otherwise left-wing propaganda. It simply meant that citizens had observed the compromising black man and the tax-dodging corporate apologist with interesting theological views. Then America, in no great numbers, made its choice.
For the Republican Party, an existential issue was at stake. Those who didn't take pharmaceuticals with their tea could remember the challenges to Bill Clinton staged by Newt Gingrich in 1995 and 1996. Those didn't work. Asked the question, "Who do you blame?" Americans picked out the rancorous opposition, not the President. Mr Romney's failure then called the entire party's right to exist into question. America, in its heartland, is not as the ideologues would have you believe.
So what do elected conservatives and their cable-channel cheerleaders then decide? Astonishingly, they say "Let's do it all again". Let's take a Democrat's pitifully modest attempts at health care reform and turn them into an issue over which we will bring the business of government to a halt, in the last ditch, no matter what. Then let's lecture the rest of the world on what it means to be the essential nation.
You could laugh, in a haughty and European sort of way. You could observe, truthfully, that "Obamacare" is so meagre it amounts almost to an insult to the 20 or so million people who might get to stay alive for a few years. You could make a couple of jokes, if you like, about those crazy right-wing American types. But this is our "leader of the free world".
You would not want to sign that report card. Contrary to anything claimed by Britain's Coalition, the world has suffered a catastrophic economic failure less because Gordon Brown forgot to regulate banks than because of the collapse of American capitalism. Grant George W Bush his moment of native poetry over sub-prime and Wall Street: "This sucker is going down".
Then there are the wars. Even a quick glance at history says there have been a lot of those, none happy and glorious. What the late Gore Vidal called "perpetual war for perpetual peace" has not served many people well. History's first drafts have not been glowing. If the US insists on leadership, the rest of us might want to ask where exactly we are being led.
The Government of the United States is a prime actor in the global economy. Like it or not, that's a fact. Shut down "Washington", as the Republicans have just demanded, and you will see the effects in Wishaw. The planet should not be run in this manner, but that's tough luck. And conservative Americans are proud of this version of their "leadership".
Had Mr Obama turned his country into a remake of East Germany you could sympathise, if only a little, with the Minutemen of the Republican Party. The President's health care reforms are so minor, so footling, so frayed by compromise they would offend a British district nurse from the 1950s. The President in question was also re-elected convincingly, however, by democratic means. That was a choice.
So what are the Republicans after? Risking melodrama, it looks like a kind of coup d'etat. A faction that says we have diminishing support, lose elections and cannot convince a majority, then decides to halt the government. What would you call such behaviour? And because such behaviour presents a danger, clear and present, to the rest of us, what should we say?
Let's only say that the United States is not quite the inspiration it used to be. It is noticeable, for one thing, that none of the Republican voices quoted or broadcast on this side of the water gives a damn for "world opinion", or the world economy. This is their business. The assumption that the rest of us will have to suck it up, as the saying goes, involves other questions.
Here's another Americanism: running on empty. The attempt by the holder of the world's main reserve currency to print its way out of trouble since 2008 has served only to inflate the debt holdings of China, India and a few others. That's not a fact you can shout at. Those who claim to be the true idealists in the American story are causing damage to their own country. But they don't choose to see it. They insist on American expectionalism. They tell us - but who took a vote? - that they are our political, moral, military and economic leaders. Yet they run their country as though it was a third-rate metaphor from Breaking Bad.
They'll get to their party compromise in the end, of course. This is only a partial shutdown, after all, and America is the essential nation, the indispensable country. We cannot imagine a world without the US. That failure of intuition might be our biggest problem. Thinking harder might be the first task.
The world is run for the sake of the dollar, Cruise missiles, and whatever the folks at Foggy Bottom just thought of. At the same time, someone in Wishaw or Warsaw might be looking for a job because a junior demagogue from PigsKnuckle isn't happy about a socialistic fad for tending to the sick.
Republicans are wrong, according to the votes, about their own country. It's not clear what gave them the right to be wrong on behalf of the rest of us. When they begin to add that our opinions are not relevant, we need to wonder about representation. When they fail to deliver that fabled prosperity for all, we should check the fine print. Here, as there, people are growing poor and poorer. The promise is not being delivered. In America, an insensate demand for power causes the shutting down of national parks before those involved will admit responsibility. The British version will be different, but you can almost smell the panic.
The world as it was understood by America's Republicans has gone. They are - another Americanism - "in denial". But their condition involves the kind of destructive rage that cannot be ignored. As the cliche runs, what happens there happens here, sooner or later. If that's your understanding of democracy.
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