In the five years since Barack Obama became the American president, the government has virtually come to a standstill. The daily business of Congress has reached a stalemate with the Republican Party blocking nearly every proposal or policy put forward by the Democrats. Gridlock has become the norm in Washington.
But that appeared to change this week, when a rare moment of compromise allowed the two parties to come together to pass a budget for the country. The new deal loosens some of the painful cuts that were imposed due to the parties’ failure to reach a budget agreement in 2011. It also means the wheels of government can continue to turn for the next two years, with federal agencies assured enough funding to pay their employees.
Agreeing on a budget sounds like one of the most basic jobs of any government, yet the two parties in Washington have become so polarized that the deal has appeared to push Republicans into an all-out civil war.
For several years, the Republican Party has been divided between establishment Republicans, those who have long occupied positions in Washington, and the party’s very vocal, conservative right wing, often known as the tea party. The far-right faction has had great success at raising money, and as a result has increasingly influenced decisions made by establishment Republicans. This has led to some disastrous strategy agreements for the Republican Party, including taking the country to the brink of financial calamity because Democrats wouldn't agree to scrapping Obama's health care law.
However, it seems the establishment Republicans have finally had enough. After conservative groups attacked the budget agreement, John Boehner, one of the most high-profile members of the Republican Party, accused them of "using the American people for their own goals."
Tea party groups shot back, saying those who had voted in favor of compromise -- the majority of Republicans in Congress -- were not being "true conservatives."
So the battle lines have now been drawn, with the heavily funded tea party faction once again threatening to challenge members of its own party in upcoming midterm elections, while the establishment Republicans look to distance themselves from the far-right groups that have been responsible for much of the national deadlock in recent years.
The notion of a divided Republican Party is certainly nothing new, with tensions between centrist members and its more ideological wing evident as far back as the early '60s. Yet the tensions have now been laid bare for the public, with Republicans focusing their attacks not on the president or the Democrats, but on each other. Whoever comes out on top in this civil war will not only have a defining role in the next general election in 2016, but will determine whether the citizens of the United States have a fully functioning government anytime in the foreseeable future.
The long-term implications are more profound. Should establishment Republicans hold sway, the tea party will likely splinter and fade, becoming just another footnote in the history of American politics. Should the far-right come to dominate, the party of Lincoln, Reagan and Bush could well find itself a party of opposition for more than a generation.