The slash-and-burn methods used by Republican leadership in the debt fight are distressingly undemocratic and seriously undermine the remnants of this republic.

When I arrived in Washington just as the debt ceiling crisis was approaching its climax, all the flags surrounding the capital’s Union Station stood at half-mast. I blackly joked with my brother and sister-in-law that maybe they’d been lowered to mark the death of the New Deal. (In fact, they honored the recent passing of former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John Shalikashvili.)

As for those throngs of sightseers, defying the malarial heat and clogging the D.C. streets and sidewalks? I imagined them engaged in that phenomenon known as “last chance tourism” — getting to a location before it disappears, like the melting glaciers of the Rockies.

But my bleakest fantasies aside, Washington and America still stand, although the shining city on a hill Ronald Reagan liked to extol has been graffitied with the intemperate sloganeering and mudslings of Tea Partiers and others of the right who believe the best government is none at all, and selfishly would have those in need huddle, jobless and hungry, in the dark. (What’s the old joke: how many laissez-faire economists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None — the market will take care of it.)

Like so many progressives, I tried, really tried to find a silver lining in the deal that finally was brokered, much as one occasionally hears news reports on the “upside” of global warming. (Wider shipping lanes in the Arctic! Hooray!) Programs for the poor seem to be protected, for now. Medicare cuts allegedly don’t affect beneficiary payments. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy still expire in 2013! (I’ll believe it when I see it.)

All cold solace at best. Because it’s impossible not to shake the idea that in their unthinking zeal to slash spending, carve down the deficit, and destroy the opposition, Republicans are like the guy drilling holes in the hull of his foundering lifeboat to let the water out, despite the objections and pleas of the other passengers.

Which reflects a larger problem. As Jonathan Bernstein wrote in Monday’s Washington Post, “… The GOP’s incentives are skewed. Rather than caring about policy, they appear to care more about symbolism, such as a Balanced Budget Amendment, than about actual policy. Rather than caring about cutting the best deal they can get, they appear to care more about proving their loyalty to the cause …
“This requires them to oppose Democratic presidents regardless of what it means in substantive gains or losses. The result is that Republicans wind up following the lead of hucksters and talk show hosts, even when it leads them to strange places. And that, not anything inherent in Congress even in polarized times, winds up yielding a dysfunctional legislative process.”

Like it or not, arcane and abused as some of its procedures are, corrupted by money and influence, complicated beyond reason and in gross need of reform, what’s left of our system only works if there are rules of procedure and behavior. Sometimes those rules are unwritten, more tradition than codified in law, mutually accepted by all concerned. Lose that, as we now have, and everything else goes straight to hell.

The don’t-give-a-damn, slash-and-burn, hostage taking methods used by Republican leadership in the debt fight are distressingly undemocratic and seriously undermine the remnants of this fragile, representative republic. Worth it, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the other day. In fact, he could imagine a repeat performance.

And so they will keep doing it again and again because, as we’ve just seen, it works. President Obama and many of his fellow Democrats have let them get away with it and even acted as accessories to the crime, caving in and buying into the notion that at a time when further government stimulus is crucial for jobs and growth, the main thing to do is to cut spending. It wouldn’t surprise me if future legislation from the GOP came in the form of ransom notes, words and letters torn from newspapers and magazines and pasted on the page, more threat than law.

The only way to defeat truculent bullies and extremist ideologues is to fight back, stand up, say no. And much as it may go against your accommodating soul, Mr. President, that means you, too. Please step up to the plate.

Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of “Bill Moyers Journal” on PBS.