The government shutdown did not happen by accident. It is the latest manifestation – an extreme one by any measure – of divisions long in the making and now deeply embedded in the countrys politics.
At some point, presumably, the current standoff will end. The federal government will reopen, the ceiling on its borrowing power will be lifted and some stalled legislation could pass. Some sense of normalcy will return to official Washington.
But it also could be a new normal, as confrontation remains commonplace and true compromise rare. Meanwhile, the ideological, cultural and political differences that led to this moment of extreme governmental dysfunction are almost certain to shape elections and legislative battles in the near term.
That is the conclusion of politicians, political strategists and scholars who have been living with a deepening red-blue divide in America that they say has made this era of politics the most polarized in more than a century. However bad it may have seemed in the 1990s, the last time there was a shutdown, or after the contested presidential election in 2000, or a decade ago during a divisive war, the fundamentals are worse today.
Some may rightly blame politicians in Washington for behaving badly, but in reality the clashes in the nations capital reflect conflicting attitudes and values held by politically active, rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats across the country. Add to that a faction of conservatives in the House who are determined to disrupt business as usual and the current stalemate in Congress becomes almost unavoidable.
The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent worldviews and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago. Many activists describe the stakes in apocalyptic terms.
In the states, the red-blue divisions have for now produced governments largely controlled by one party or the other. In Washington, they have produced a divided government and could continue to do so for some years to come. Nothing in politics is permanent, but Democrats now enjoy some advantage in the Electoral College competition, while the alignment of congressional districts gives Republicans the upper hand in controlling the House. Divided government has resulted in a breakdown in governance.
Another major factor in the current stalemate is the degree to which the country has polarized around the Obama presidency. Conservatives see the president as someone who came to office preaching unity and post-partisanship but who has been, as one Republican put it, a hyperpartisan with an agenda deliberately designed to increase the power of the federal government. There is virtually no middle ground when it comes to assessments of President Barack Obama.
There seems to be no easy way out of all this, absent some large external shock to the system. But the system has been shocked any number of times over the past two decades – from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to the massive recession in 2008 – and each time has quickly reverted to partisan conflict.
In the current standoff, Republicans are more at risk of suffering any political fallout or public backlash. That is because of the insistence by hard-line conservatives in the House, who are deeply opposed to Obamas Affordable Care Act, that their leaders adhere to the tactics that led to the shutdown.
Many Republicans outside the House, and some inside, are uneasy about the shutdown and fear it could badly damage the party. Still, most of them share with the hard-liners the same hostility to the president, his health care law and the bulk of his agenda. Their disagreements are more over tactics of shutting down the government to stop the new health care law, not ones of philosophy or ideology. Democrats, for their part, are determined to hold the line in this and future battles.
What the future holds is subject to debate. Depending on how the shutdown-debt ceiling battle ends, it could shake the status quo, creating a voter backlash – right now Republicans are more blamed for the standoff than Obama and the Democrats.
Much lies in the hands of the public. If at some point enough Americans decide they no longer want a country as divided as it is now, they could vote to give one party overwhelming control of the machinery of government. Maybe the aftermath of the shutdown will produce that kind of decisive shift.