To most outsiders, the US federal government shutdown and the fight over lifting the debt ceiling must seem crazy and dangerous. At least that's how it looks to me. It appears a small number of tea party right-wing radicals have hijacked that nation's budgetary process and threatened its ability to service its debts purely for their blind ideological fury.
It appears they are undermining the whole democratic process. And, as my fellow columnist Michael Chugani argues in his op-ed today, they are putting democracy in a bad light and make you think twice about it.
Except for jihadists, such American extremists are probably furthest from most liberal-minded people, American or not. So it's fascinating to try to get into their heads to imagine how the more intelligent of them actually think, not as extremists but as human beings.
To this end, I was helped by two Americans, one a University of Hong Kong scholar who points to Henry David Thoreau's notion of the majority of one, and the other a Post editor, who argues the tea party fights are at heart a fight over state rights against systematic and continuous federal incursions throughout US history. Placed in this light, you have to admit the tea partiers have a philosophical case, however misguided or even racist they may be against US President Barack Obama and specially, against Obamacare, which offers near universal health insurance.
"Any man more right than his neighbours constitutes a majority of one already," Thoreau famously wrote in Resistance to Civil Government. In the preceding sentence, he wrote that meant having "God on their side"; and the one before that, he wrote slavery abolitionists - and he was one of them - were already in "a majority of one". The abolitionists happened to have the right cause.
Many tea partiers believe they can sidestep the whole democratic and legislative process to go against Obamacare because it is fundamentally wrong. But what if that headstrong minority, thinking it is right, is actually wrong? The tragedy of Thoreau is that writing against the tyranny of majority government, he failed to see it could just as well degenerate into a tyranny of a minority who thinks they have God on their side.