The US shutdown: democracy at high rise or big low?

By Noort Bakx

While We Should Name This Soon is back in business, America is still under shutdown. Yes, the government shutdown, with more than a week of closed business, those who have not lived under a stone have been spammed with it the last days. Due to the incapacity of the Democrats and the Republicans to reach consensus over the budget, the non-essential government facilities have been closed and thousands of officials have been sent home. I think we can all agree on the ridiculousness of the situation, the closing down of the United States of America. As far as my research has shown, an unique situation as well.

pic obama

In countries like The Netherlands, the UK and Canada, either certain established laws or the nature of the government system prevent anything like a shutdown from ever happening. So besides the unavailability of the national parks, museums and the National zoo (ooh, poor Panda), the more interesting question addressed the last week seems to turn around the weird uniqueness of the US government. The shutdown being the product of the US democratic system (where the president is dependent on votes from two legislative bodies chosen separately, and thereby, not necessarily consisting of a majority from his party) can we say this situation is as democratic as it can get, or maybe just the opposite, as failure of democracy?

Yes, some say, this is democracy in ultimate form. If you cannot reach consensus in a Congress serving the ‘will of the people’, then not following any legislation and action is democracy. Debate and discussion are key parts of a democratic nation. So debates about the current issues that provoked the shutdown are simply part of the democratic process. The American system is built to control the government through certain checks and the option of closing the government is for the same reason of control built into that system. In other words, it’s how the founding fathers of the US envisioned democracy at work.

On the other hand, the shutdown is spurring quite some citizen reaction, who are expressing their dissatisfaction with the current affairs. Hash tag #DearCongress has been in popular use on various social media. Trust in the government has reached a new low, and citizens are trying to strengthen their voice with their own new initiatives. Take the Citizen Cabinet, a platform ‘’to create a policy-making simulation with the U.S. citizenry sitting in the driver’s seat’’.  People are stepping into the debate, and if we learned one thing in our democracy class, it’s that democracies rise and fall with citizens participation and engagement. How can we argue looking at the rising voice of the people, a fundamental value of democracy, if not democracy at its highest point?

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Well, of course another part of the people do argue with that (oh the beauty of democracy), whereas the other side claims we’re dealing with a failure of democracy. The federal government is closed… it’s closed! Instead of passing a law, the system is on lockdown, meaning no functioning government, no democratic system. The Financial Times referred to the shutdown as a blackmail of democracy. Blackmailing threats of the Republicans to give in to their wishes make it impossible to run a government. ‘’In a democracy, people overturn laws by winning elections, not by threatening the closure of government’’.

From the academic perspective, political scientist Juan José Linz affirms that the whole of the US system is self-destructive, as quoted in several news media this week (Slate, NY magazine). Linz argued in his academic work that the presidential system that makes use of separate election for the legislative and executive bodies is unstable. Without support of a majority coalition, when conflict rises, there is no way of resolving this, no democratic principle to deal with the conflict at hand. In all, a breakdown of the entire democratic order in the US might be at hand in the future, going on the flaws of the presidential system described by Linz.

Symbolically, any tourist going to New York this week is taken away the opportunity to visit the Statue of Liberty. One of the most significant icons of freedom in the United States of America is closed, and that might be speaking for itself. Whether democracy is booming or failing, the greatest US symbol of democracy is down.

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2 thoughts on “The US shutdown: democracy at high rise or big low?

  1. Pingback: Proximity explained | We should name this soon

  2. Ah! Poor Panda!
    I do think that there shouldn’t be an option at all to shut down a government (any government), there is nothing democratic about not taking action and ignoring the basic responsibilities that are part of what they represent. the Checks and balances system in the US should prevent just that – to ensure that every branch – the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary branch will continue functioning,
    Loved the meme 🙂

    Well written 🙂

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