Is China the only issue holding the US together?
Washington’s political gridlock on the national debt ceiling benefits Beijing, fearmongers warn.
If some headlines are to be believed, the United States is on the verge of default. Well, technically.
With US national debt ever rising, the congressional debt ceiling is set to be breached by the end of this month. Although normally Congress simply votes to raise it even higher, spinning the money printing machine ever onwards, this time the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has opted for a political showdown and to make life for the Biden administration difficult. The casualties of this emerging standoff have included a Quad summit in Australia, as well as Biden’s proposed trip to Papua New Guinea, which would have been the first ever for a US president.
In the end, there’s little doubt that a deal will be reached to raise the ceiling, but not without some dramatic political theatrics and perhaps some hard-fought concessions too. With the House of Representatives controlling the “power of the purse” (the budget) of the US, it has become the norm in these politically divisive days when the House is controlled by the party opposing the president, to try to humiliate him by creating a crisis. For example, when Nancy Pelosi blocked Trump’s funding for a border wall in late 2018 and created a month-long government shutdown. The objective here is not to crash the US economy, but to weaken Biden.
That being said, there has been an ever-growing chorus of US politicians and officials who have called for the debt ceiling to be raised, saying if they don’t do it, it will “help China,” or sometimes even Russia. These claims are bizarre. Are they truly suggesting that the only reason to maintain basic political unity and compromise in the US is Beijing? And that this is the reason they should comply to keep the mountain of US debt and spending going? Such a statement says a lot about US politics, both past and present. First, it tells us that beyond exerting aggression and fear of foreign adversaries, there is very little to keep US politics together these days and its environment is essentially toxic. Secondly, it also tells us how the US system sustains its power as a whole.
The US is a vast and diverse nation. It has a population of over 300 million people across a territorial expanse which is the third largest in the world by some definitions. Across its 50 states, a variety of different ethnic and social backgrounds can be found. Your Baptist pastor from Alabama has nothing in common with your ambitious young middle-class banker living in New York City, and even less with your struggling African-American family in the same city. In incorporating such diversity, the political system of the US is also by constitution decentralized, delegating power into multiple branches of government dispersed across federal, state and local levels.
It is no surprise that this has produced a political system which is beset by often bitter division and intense ideological and value-based conflicts. This has been enough, as history demonstrates, to plunge the country into a civil war. The development of mass media and social networks has only made it worse. Thus, starting in the 20th century, the American elite structure has sought to maintain control over its nation by vesting itself in the politics of fear mongering, which forces a continual emphasis on “American values,” namely democracy and liberty, in the bid to maintain a basic consensus for the justification of the state itself.
Every single foreign adversary the US has encountered has always been depicted as an “imminent threat” to American values in a way articulated to provoke fear amongst the population, as if to constantly remind them of what they have. This has ranged from the Soviet Union, to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to North Korea, to Russia and to China. Every adversary is depicted as almost omnipotent, with power to infiltrate, sabotage, and subvert the US. In doing so, as we are seeing now with the debt ceiling crisis, every single one of these adversaries is deemed to benefit from whatever fundamental disagreement US politicians may be having, subsequently forcing them to coalesce around a position of unity for the “greater good” – as if it doesn’t exist otherwise.
When analyzed through this lens, if the US runs out of adversaries and threats, politicians genuinely might have difficulty justifying the existence or unity of the nation altogether in its current form. The US centralizes itself through fear and hysteria, because if not for those things constantly looming, Americans wouldn’t have a whole lot to agree on, be it guns, abortion, LGBTQ rights, immigration, or anything else.