Post-Shutdown America

WASHINGTON, DC – After 16 days of closed museums, half-empty federal buildings, unnaturally quiet streets, and tens of thousands of workers left in existential limbo, the lights are back on in Washington. But, while the shutdown of the United States government, initiated by radical congressional Republicans seeking to block implementation of President Barack Obama’s health-care legislation, is over – at least for now – three enduring lessons have emerged.

First, the next time the eurozone crisis flares up, the US will simply have to bite its tongue; after all, the shutdown spectacle revealed pathologies no less severe than those that have characterized the European Union’s economic and political negotiations over the past five years. Irresponsible behavior threatening the health of the global economy? Check. Political posturing and outlandish claims foreclosing any possibility of compromise? Check. Breathtaking brinkmanship and 11th-hour decision-making leaving all bystanders wondering whether this time the cart might in fact go over the cliff? Check.

Few countries in recent years have been spared the pain of their domestic political spectacles being broadcast around the world. The United Kingdom had mass riots in London just two summers ago; strikes and demonstrations have paralyzed Paris on a regular basis; Greece has a rising fascist party; Mexico City has been practically shut down by teachers occupying the central square; and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan resorted to violence in June to quell weeks of protests against his increasingly autocratic ways. Among non-democracies, China had the Bo Xilai scandal, which was worthy of a spy novel, with illicit affairs, rampant corruption, murder, and a senior police official’s dramatic quest for asylum in a US consulate.

Against this backdrop, the US government shutdown looks a little different. Yes, it was a clear symptom of deep political dysfunction, stemming from the politicized demarcation of electoral districts and the distorting effects of America’s campaign-finance system. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that the entire crisis played out according to constitutional rules.