Lessons from the US government shutdown

The shutdown of the US government and the brinkmanship of the Republican Party are a useful reminder that advanced democracies also have serious political dysfunctions. Beneath the tawdry theatre of the current standoff there is real drama, for what is at stake in Washington is not only the immediate question of whether the Obama administration can enact health care reforms and raise the debt ceiling, but whether it can retain control of the legislative agenda for the rest of the president’s second term.

The Tea Party, and the diffident GOP leadership that notionally controls it, have shown how quickly a few implacable ideologues can derail a political process, but the harder work of restoring normal service will likely take several months. As the standoff drags on, both sides have found themselves painted into a corner and despite opinion polls indicating that the public has lost patience with the shutdown, neither side seems capable of effecting a workable compromise.

Part of the reason for the stalemate is the public relations battle being waged on US television. A generation ago the media critic Neil Postman warned that the shift from a public discourse that relied on printed arguments (and emphasized detached, logical arguments) to one dominated by televisual exchanges ran the risk of producing an “information glut” which obscured debates in a welter of decontextualized facts. In the new media landscape the disoriented public would cling to simplifying narratives that lend emotional colour to complex, difficult issues, but present them so reductively that serious debate becomes impractical. “The pseudo-context,” wrote Postman “is the last refuge, so to say, of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence.”

Television ads attacking “Obamacare” and Fox News’ insistence on calling the current standoff “The Obama Shutdown” are vivid illustrations of how dangerous these disingenuous narratives can be. Those misrepresentations have helped the Republicans to recast their obstinacy as a principled stand against the encroachments of an over-reaching government, rather than opportunistic obstruction to a law duly passed by Congress and endorsed by the president’s re-election. Leaning heavily on their specious interpretation, and inflexibly righteous in their defence of the status quo, a new breed of know-nothing Congressman, safely immured within electoral districts that make them practically invulnerable, has brought the system to a complete halt without much fear of the consequences.

While Washington dithers, senior officials in China and Japan — the countries holding the largest amounts of US debt — have tactfully signalled their anxiety about the prospect of an unprecedented debt default. The current head of the World Bank has warned Congress that further inaction could seriously affect “poor mothers in Africa, trying to feed their children.” Meanwhile US treasury secretary, Jacob Lew, has said his department will soon exhaust the “extraordinary measures” used to service debt during the shutdown, leaving the US perilously close to a default that would cripple long-term confidence in the its economy and unsettle financial markets much further afield.

What might a divided, quarrelsome political culture like our own learn from the mess in Washington? That democratic governance is hard work, easier to sabotage than repair? That political quarrels have unforeseeable consequences? (Among hundreds of other minor crises, the shutdown suspended cancer treatments for children and death benefits for US servicemen.) That political ploys can have national and international repercussions sooner than we anticipate, even in the world’s largest economies? Perhaps we might learn something much simpler: that governance cannot function when there is an excess of bad faith, that it requires a certain level of maturity and a certain absence of petulance, and that, unfortunately, most cultures produce the governments they deserve.

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