People used to worry that democracy would encourage the tyranny of the majority. With the US federal government shutdown this week, what we are seeing is the tyranny of a fanatical minority. It appears even the moderate and mainstream politicians within the Republican Party did not want a shutdown, but are too afraid to act against the wishes of the extremist "tea party" types who now dictate policies for the rest of Lincoln's once-great party.
The world looks on bewildered and confused as to how the only superpower and largest economy could be dragged down by a budgetary fight that makes no sense to most outsiders, nor even many American citizens. Surely the smooth functioning of government services is the first responsibility of political leaders. Yet many Republicans in Congress are willing to go through with a shutdown in their fanatical opposition to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which has become the law of the land and has withstood repeated challenges in Congress and through the courts, including the US Supreme Court.
Also, by winning a second term, Barack Obama clearly has a mandate to make health care nearly universal for Americans. Indeed, it is difficult to see how anyone with compassion and decency - and who is not driven by blind ideological hatred - to act against a health scheme that gives medical coverage to 32 million uninsured people and ensures those with pre-existing medical conditions are not denied protection.
But a federal shutdown, depending on its duration, is still less damaging than the looming fight over the debt ceiling, which will come in the middle of this month. If it is not raised, the US is likely to go into a technical default. If the world's richest nation fails to honour its debt obligations, the nascent recovery of the world economy, including that of the US, may be severely undermined. Nothing less than the full faith and credit of the US government is being called into question by the fanaticism and recklessness of the "tea party" extremists and their allies in the US Congress. As his signature policy achievement, Obama is absolutely right in refusing to give in to what amounts to Republican blackmail.
Perhaps the best we can hope for is that a shutdown now will calm Republican anger; and fearing a public backlash, the moderates will come to their senses and allow the debt ceiling to rise. Otherwise, the consequences - for the US and the world - are too dire to contemplate.