Skip to main content

Shutdown mess? No, it's democracy

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 6:32 AM EDT, Tue October 8, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Many think U.S. politics gripped by madness on shutdown, but it's not so
  • He says Democratic Congresses responsible for majority of shutdowns in the past
  • He says current debate is part of democracy, and the positions of all parties today are logical
  • Stanley: U.S. founders built serious checks into system, and it's supposed to be complex

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- A common view is that U.S. politics have gone into shutdown, that the whole system can no longer function and deliver the kind of government that Americans want and need. That's certainly the opinion in my native Britain, where I'm regularly told the United States -- particularly the Republican Party -- has been gripped by a kind of madness.

I can't agree. The current crisis is certainly traumatic for those involved and bodes badly for the next round of debt ceiling negotiations. But it's not historically unique or a symbol of conservative insanity.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

First of all America has gone through shutdowns before. Andrew Stiles notes in National Review that the U.S government has shut down 17 times since 1976. The vast majority of those shutdowns happened when the Democrats controlled the House. They happened under Jimmy Carter over abortion policy (remember when that divided the Democrats?) and under Ronald Reagan, mostly about budget priorities -- including efforts to nix Reagan's pet projects (sound familiar?). During the 21-day face-off between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, unemployment fell slightly and America emerged with a welfare reform deal. Not too bad.

Those shutdowns remind us that U.S. politics have always been partisan and rancorous -- as the two-party system was established with the intention of being. Honest, heated debate is part of being a democratic nation.

Before the 1960s, progressive legislation in the House was constantly stonewalled by coalition of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans -- a bloc that it took a civil rights revolution to undo. In the 1940s, Harry Truman found his legislation blocked by a "do-nothing" Congress of Republicans (although that Congress still got a lot done). Of course, in the 19th century, partisan divisions reflected the battle lines of a bloody civil war. Abraham Lincoln's superhuman effort to get a ban on slavery through Congress testifies to the timelessness of the battle between executive and legislature.

Obama: Won't 'negotiate' under threat
Treasury chief on shutdown, debt ceiling
Panetta: Shutdown a 'tragic moment'
Shutdown drags on, debt ceiling looms

And Congress in recent decades has rarely been popular. True, today a shockingly low 10% of the population approves of its performance. But its rating never exceeded 40% throughout the 1970s and 1980s and sunk to 20% in 1979 and 1992.

Today, no one is denying that we find ourselves in an almighty mess with the potential for disaster as the clock ticks toward default. But there's logic to the arguments of everyone involved. Barack Obama and the Senate Democrats refuse to give up on Obamacare, especially since the president's re-election. John Boehner is indeed being held hostage by members of his Republican caucus, but those tea partiers have a right to argue that the polls show Obamacare is unpopular, that they have evidence it will threaten the economic recovery, that they can use their sway in the House to say how the money should be spent, and that they are pursuing a valid constitutional strategy to get what they want.

The polls also show that the shutdown is bad politics, and that the public blames the GOP for it. But would we rather the House do exactly as the president tells it to and not follow its conscience on the vital subjects of health care and finance?

America is not Britain, where a party's control of one aspect of government (the House of Commons) effectively guarantees control over the entire system. The American way has the potential for divided government built into it, precisely because its founders wanted to protect against the growth of the state and to keep it in check by making it hard to pursue utopian manifestoes through to their glorious end. Passing lots of laws and spending lots of money ought to be a difficult, complex business.

But for anyone dreaming of a government so hamstrung that it can't do anything at all, I have some sad news to impart. The Internal Revenue Service has stopped sending out refunds but is still collecting money.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT