Playing Politics with a Government Shutdown

We have no federal government. Well, not really–there is still a skeleton of administration, security and, of course, Congress. Based on your political views, you will probably have an opinion about whom is to blame for the shutdown. I, too, have a view, but it’s not the point of this article. No, I’m interested in why this has happened, and in the possible long-term results.

The inability to agree on funding for normal government operations is at minimum a democratic failure. This ought not happen in an effective system of governance. Whatever the problems of democratic politics–and there are many for any democratic system–a shutdown is not normal, but a concerning extreme. Even if you are a libertarian, this should concern you: a government shutdown indicates that our political system cannot produce policy. It demonstrates that the ideological divisions are so deep and wide that they cannot be bridged in our current extreme circumstances. (Anarchists and localists may rejoice, as national-level gridlock opens up faint possibilities of fracturing the US into small, self-governing communities. However, this is extremely unlikely to happen.)

The problem we have is simple. The government shutdown is the result of a situation in which neither side can accept the other’s desired outcome. The obvious parallel is the winter of 1860–61: South Carolinians could not accept the result of a Republican President. Lincoln, for his part, could not accept the expansion of slavery in the Western territories. And the war came.

A large segment of today’s Republican Congressional caucus cannot accept the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and they want it repealed. As it is his signature piece of legislation, the President cannot accept its repeal, and neither will the Democratic caucus. The current crisis probably could have been avoided if a segment of House Republicans had not tied a continuing resolution to de-funding the ACA–but they did, and from a political perspective, that is probably good for most of those Representatives. They generally represent very conservative districts and their constituents want the ACA repealed, or at least de-funded. Now that the Republicans have nailed their colors to the mast, there is no going back. Politically, to back down now would be to lose face in a very significant way. Both sides, from partisans watching TV on their couches to those battling in front of a keyboard to the legislators in halls of Congress, have dug in their heels.

As an historian, I am intrigued by how this episode will be treated in fifty years’ time. It is a striking (and disastrous) event in American history; it is one with a precedent, but it feels without parallel with respect to the vitriol on both sides. While, in fairness, I was too young to remember the previous shutdown, my hazy political memory does not include the same level of hatred for the other side. This event is more than an individual instance, and I suspect that, looking back, it will form just part of an arc of government crises: from the debt ceiling near-calamity of summer 2011 to now to the next debt ceiling crisis (and yet more crises unimagined). This is a recurrence of the same problem: neither side can accept the other’s desired outcome. The Democrats cannot accept only spending cuts. The Republicans cannot accept any tax increases. And so the cycle continues, with the state limping to the next deadline.

Our government is not functional, and the process is reflective of the nation as well as the legislature. Something has to give, and since neither side looks to be shaking in resolve, we are left with the following possibilities: 1)One side is punished electorally for these crises and the other major party benefits; 2)Both sides are punished by the emergence of a successful third party (very unlikely, hasn’t happened in 160 years); 3)Economic turmoil and federal inefficacy results in increased state divergence in policy and increases in state power (weakness at the center allows growing strength in regional centers; also unlikely); 4)Charismatic centrist president gets elected and uses the constitutional convention clause of Article V to re-formulate the government system (I’d suggest this is more likely than it may at first appear); 5)Breakdown of state authority leading to anarchy (most probably not going to happen, but worth putting on the list for comprehensiveness). (Please feel free to add more possibilities in the comments, I haven’t gone into all the potential results, I am sure.)

As I have said: this ought not happen. A government shutdown is not necessary, and serves the interests of very few people. To invoke Lincoln again, one would hope that the mystic chords of memory would draw the relevant parties towards a conclusion–but that seems unlikely now. Too many lines have been drawn in the sand.

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