May 31, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The new debt ceiling deal reflects a permanent feature of democracy in these United States

The Republicans stand behind it and punch it in the kidneys.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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I don’t like doing this, but for the sake of democracy in these United States, I’m going to use a classic scene from a classic movie to illustrate my thinking about the agreement that prevents the United States from defaulting on its debts. The problem isn’t what we think it is. It’s much deeper than that.

The classic movie I’m talking about is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (released in 1989). The classic scene I’m talking about is a long one that involves a tank on which the hero, his dad and a Nazi are riding. The hero’s dad trips and falls onto one of the tank’s treads. Using his whip, the hero lassos his dad’s leg to prevent him from being pulled under and crushed to death. While the hero is holding on to his dad, the Nazi is standing behind him, punching him in the kidneys. 

That’s where the hero finds himself – between the desperate need to save his dad’s life and the desperate desire to retaliate against an enemy that is cruelly exploiting his desperate need to save his dad’s life.

I don’t like doing this, but for the sake of democracy in these United States, I’m going to use a classic scene from a classic movie to illustrate my thinking about the agreement that prevents the US government from defaulting on its debts. The problem isn’t what we think it is. The problem is much deeper than that.

Eventually, conditions change. The hero retaliates before the Nazi and the tank, which has been careening toward a cliff, meet their end.

I don’t like doing this, because movie scenes as metaphors for politics are annoying. They often spiral off in directions I don’t intend them to. 

At the moment, however, I can’t think of a better way to illustrate my view. The problem isn’t the debt ceiling. That’s the law that limits the amount of money that can be borrowed to pay for things that the US Congress has said shall be paid for. The problem isn’t the Democrats. They have lifted the cap for Democratic and Republican presidents alike. The problem is the GOP. The problem is always the GOP. 

Like the Nazi on the tank, the Republicans are so focused on their enemy, and on inflicting suffering on their enemy, that they don’t know, or don’t care, that the tank – in this case, the US government – is careening toward a cliff – in this case, toward a default on its debt.

They refuse to take responsibility for solving the shared problems of democracy, because shared problems, from the Republican view, are never shared. They are their enemy’s problems. They are their enemy’s problems because only the enemy believes that democracy is a collective effort. Democracy is indeed a collective effort. It can’t not be. So they aren’t punching the enemy. They’re punching democracy. 

From behind. 

In the kidneys.

Unlike the movies, however, there is no moment of truth in American politics. The Democrats do not retaliate. (It’s too risky, politically and practically). The Republicans do not careen toward their (political) deaths. Instead, the kidney-punchers are put on the same plane as the problem-solvers – or worse. The problem-solvers are typically the only ones expected to solve democracy’s shared problems while the kidney-punchers are never expected to stop kidney-punching democracy.

This is, I think, a permanent feature of American democracy. While one party is eager – sometimes too eager! – to solve the shared problems of democracy, the other party can’t think of a problem that’s worse than the opposition party trying to solve the shared problems of democracy. While one party tries, and risks failing in the attempt, the other party risks nothing — until the whole shebang careens off a cliff.

The Washington press corps, as a matter of professional convenience and political self-interest, usually depicts the plane of politics as if it were level, as if the parties had incentives that are more or less equally matched. They are not equally matched, more or less or otherwise. The Democrats are focused on solving problems while the Republicans are focused on the Democrats focusing on solving problems.

One party has incentive to at least try to solve the shared problems of democracy while the other party has incentive to sabotage its enemy’s attempts to solve the shared problems of democracy. One has an incentive to act like grown folks. The other has an incentive to act like children. One party accepts the collective burden and responsibility of hard work. The other party rejects hard work in all its forms – unless it’s the hard work that goes into punching democracy in the kidneys.

I said the hero of the movie is stuck, until conditions change, between a desperate need and a desperate desire. The change is Indiana Jones’ friend, Sallah. He enters the scene, riding a horse, to pull the hero’s dad to safety. Then the hero can turn his attention to the Nazi who’s been punching him in the kidneys. He retaliates, then jumps off, just in time.

What does Sallah represent? What in our politics is the change that can liberate democracy to do what needs to be done to the people who are making the work of democracy nearly impossible. I don’t know. Like I said, movie metaphors are slippery. The answer is probably no one. This isn’t a Hollywood story. There is no deus ex machina. Democracy in these United States means living with being punched in the kidneys.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Bob Heister on June 5, 2023 at 5:20 pm


    All I want for Christmas is a press corps that doesn’t engage in false equivalence, one that enables Republicans. A press corps that drops “falsehood” from its dictionary and uses the correct word, “lie”.

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