The United States government has shut down for the first time in 17 years. A small group of Republicans absolutely opposed to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the signature legislative achievement of President Barack Obama’s first term in office, believe that they can force the president to abandon or delay launch of the plan, and they are willing to shut down the government to accomplish that objective.

It is an anti-democratic spectacle unworthy of the U.S., yet one that looks set to drag on for some time.

Opposition to the ACA has mounted over time. Despite more than a year of debate, the passage of the bill by both houses of Congress and its approval by the Supreme Court, a hard core of GOP members refuse to accept its legitimacy. For them, it is socialism, the destroyer of the U.S. health care system, the bankrupter of the U.S. economy, or another entitlement that will destroy the moral fiber of the American people.

Perhaps most worrying for them is the fear that “Obamacare,” as it pejoratively referred to, will work and by the time Americans go to the polls next year for midterm elections, they will have accepted and even begun to appreciate the program. This hard core of Republicans will do anything within their power to prevent the ACA from coming into effect and undermining their electoral prospects in the 2014 election, when they hope to repeal the law outright after winning a majority in both houses of Congress.

Both Mr. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a fellow Democrat, have refused to bend to GOP demands for a delay. Instead, they demand a “clean Continuing Resolution” — a bill to fund the government that has no conditions attached. The absence of the two houses of Congress to reach an agreement means that the government has shut down.

The irony of this stalemate is that substantial numbers of Republicans in the House of Representatives — perhaps even a majority — are prepared to back a clean CR, but they fear a backlash from the right wing of their party if they were to do so, a threat that would take the form of a challenger from the right in the GOP primary for next year’s election. As a result, a hard core of GOP legislators, most of them members of the tea party and elected in districts that are dominated by extremely conservative voters, control the House of Representatives.

The ostensible leader of this stalwart band is Texas freshman Sen. Ted Cruz. A fiery orator, Mr. Cruz has made a name for himself as the representative of the tea party. He has been reaching out to House GOP members in an attempt to stiffen wobbly Republican spines, an unprecedented step and one that has earned him the enmity of moderate Republicans in the House and the Senate. Mr. Cruz is indifferent to that ill will: His eyes are on the 2016 presidential race.

The question is how long the shutdown will last, which is likely to depend on who the public blames for the stalemate. Thus far, and as occurred in the only previous shutdown 17 years ago, the GOP appears to be the guilty party. In an attempt to lighten the damage, the House of Representatives has approved several bills that fund the most popular parts of the government. The Senate has rejected them all.

The shutdown is painful. While “essential” services such as the military, food inspectors, law enforcement and social security checks continue to be provided, “nonessential” services such as supplementary food assistance, health programs, housing aid, environmental and financial regulators will be halted. Some 800,000 government workers will stay at home.

If this shutdown lasts as long as the last one — 21 days — it could cost the U.S. economy $55 billion.

More troubling still is the fear that this stalemate could drag on and prevent the Congress from agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. In a few weeks, the government will be obliged to borrow more money to pay for bills it has already accrued pursuant to budgets it has had approved. Here, too, the opponents of ACA smell opportunity. They believe that they can make increasing the debt ceiling — again, to be clear, to pay for spending that was previously approved by Congress — conditional on suspension of the health bill. This game of legislative chicken could ruin the global economy as U.S. debts become suspect.

The ultimate problem is the failure of a hard core of the Republican right to accept the rules of democracy. The ACA has been extensively debated, adjudicated and found both legal and to represent the will of the majority of the American people. The ACA was at the center of the 2012 presidential campaign; GOP candidate Mitt Romney pledged to revoke the bill as his first act as president. He lost the election. Yet a hardy band of holdouts now believes that the legislative process and the electoral results are irrelevant.

To get their way, they are prepared to paralyze the U.S. government, to cripple its creditworthiness and to embrace a campaign of calumny and outright distortion that threatens to discredit democracy itself. The U.S. deserves better than this.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.