There is a spectre haunting Washington: When does a contentious political struggle cross the line and become a corrosive political spectacle?
More than border security, more than the symbolic imagery of a barrier against immigrants in a nation of immigrants, more than whether the President gets to give his state of the union address (and fulfill a constitutional mandate) or whether members of Congress got to go to Brussels and Afghanistan (to perform their legal oversight responsibilities), the question that is coming into focus is whether Washington’s public displays of defiance have become public evidence of deviance.
Indeed, as the U.S. government shutdown settles into its fifth week – it already has surpassed all records, a dubious achievement in itself – the inescapable conclusion may be that this could be a struggle with no winners, and with collateral damage all around, including the 800,000 federal workers who are affected by the shutdown and the millions of Americans whose quotidian functions, from visiting government offices to applying for home mortgages, have been disrupted.
But the more dangerous effect – the one that will have long-term implications for America’s position in the world, for public trust in government, for democratic self-rule more broadly – is the threat that the way the principals are comporting themselves is undermining the very institutions they represent and draining moral authority from their positions.
“This fight is personalities run amuck, and these leaders are endangering themselves, government employees and the government itself,” said Kristen Coopie, a Duquesne University political scientist. “It’s an absolute mess and I can’t see how they get out of this unless one side breaks."
Right now, neither seems poised to break. In fact, the opposite seems the case. The two sides seem to be digging in even deeper, as if they were girding for an American political equivalent of trench warfare – repeated offensives from one side and then counteroffensives from the other that end up leaving the opposing lines basically unchanged. That was the denouement of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Saturday afternoon proposal to link funding for his border wall to extended protections for temporary immigrants and those taken to the United States as children, a deal dismissed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as ‘’a non-starter’’ even before the President started speaking.
No democracy is ever held up as an avatar of efficiency, but its principal appeal is that, in its often balky and sometimes mysterious ways, it generally reflects the public’s desires and realizes the public’s goals even as it embraces the public’s highest values.
For a half-century, the American government – stung, in succession, by a war in Vietnam, a political debacle at the Watergate, ineffectual leadership from Jimmy Carter, a frustrating combination of high inflation and interest rates, a presidential impeachment, an election that took 36 days to resolve and a terrorist attack that spawned two additional lengthy wars – has failed these tests but took succour, and maintained support, by winning the Cold War and remaining the pre-eminent global superpower.
But now Washington – facing a newly resurgent Russia, fresh trade and security threats from China, and impatience from traditional allies in Canada and Western Europe – is in a state of paralysis that has shut down the operations of government, eroded public confidence in government, and shaken the confidence in U.S. democratic government.
The ascendancy of Mr. Trump is both cause and consequence of this unsettling phenomenon, just as he is both repository of some of the public’s desires and repudiation of others.
To his base, Mr. Trump’s defiance of presidential norms and his undermining of decades of conventional international behaviour represent a long-overdue repudiation of the country’s and world’s elites. To his opponents, Mr. Trump reflects Benjamin Disraeli’s 1878 contemptuous view of William Gladstone: “A sophisticated rhetorician, inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination, that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign his opponents, and glorify himself.”
And while commentators might argue that the shutdown showdown demonstrates to both Mr. Trump and the Democratic congressional leadership the difficulty of divided government, the struggle between the parties and the two branches of government – in modern times the norm far more than a departure from the norm – once were welcomed as incentives to compromise.
But in an age of social media and roiling resentments, this is no longer a culture of compromise.
A generation ago, Democratic senator George McGovern and Republican senator Robert Dole of Kansas – one regarded as a left-winger, the other a right-winger, both fated to be remembered as failed presidential candidates – compromised to produce food stamps, the nutritional subventions for the poor that exist to this day. Republican senator Jacob Javits of New York and Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin co-operated to produce a jobs program for the unemployed. Even earlier, Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, who two months later defied his party and ardently embraced the president’s Lend-Lease Program to provide Second World War military assets to Britain.
And in a matter as fundamental to traditional American values and to the prevailing culture of the 1950s and 1960s as immigration is today, Republicans combined with Democrats to produce landmark civil-rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 – and even took a vital preliminary step in 1957, when the White House was occupied by a Republican (Dwight Eisenhower) and both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats and led by southerners (Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, both of Texas).
There is not a single example of such bipartisanship in Washington today, when the parties are more ideologically disciplined and when the zeitgeist regards compromise with scorn. “I thought it would be easier,” Mr. Trump said in April, 2017 of governing in the modern United States. It isn’t.