The United States government has shut down twice, albeit briefly, in 2018, and again in the not so distant past of 2013. Many individuals in politics and the media have rushed to blame increasing party polarization for these shutdowns, and have signaled them to be a dangerous sign for democracy when the government cannot compromise on basic issues, especially when day-to-day functions of the government are at risk. This is also highlighted by the fact that the most recent shutdowns have occurred under a unified government, calling into question how much of a grip the majority party even truly has now that the power is in their hands. While increasing polarization of the major two parties is certainly a concern to have in modern America, in the context of whether these shutdowns should give us pause, it is helpful to take a look at the past of governmental shutdowns when asking whether or not we should be worried.
To consider firstly the problem of polarization, it is hard to deny that American politics have seen a shift in both major parties retreating heavily into their own bases and the rise of refusal to compromise on either side. And yet despite this shift, third parties have still struggled to break through the barrier of dysphoria associated with voting for them due to a mentality of not wanting to “waste a vote”, and so there stands no legitimate opposition to Democrats or Republicans. This allows each party the room it needs to entrench itself in their own ideological positions, leading to even more distrust of one another and lack of room for compromise. Juan Linz lists extreme party polarization in two-party systems as a tell-tale sign of a democracy in danger, citing the civil wars that broke out in Colombia and other Latin American countries as examples. This is not to suggest that third-parties in America are the answer the polarization, as Linz also points out that extreme multi-party systems are also subject to democratic breakdown, as these types of governments can allow extremists to gain political power, but rather to point out that the two-party system in America is here to stay for the foreseeable future and susceptible to rising extremism on both sides.
Following this shift, there has been a surge in concern over what this polarization can mean for the functioning ability of the government following the recent shutdowns. In fact, some have even made the claim that political polarization has erased the typical incentives for avoiding governmental shutdowns. Should it concern the average American that the powers that be are not only unable, but unwilling to compromise in this way? Probably not, because as we can see, this has happened before. In American history, the government has shut down twenty times since 1976, with the longest shutdown lasting twenty-one days under President Clinton in 1996, and the shortest only weeks ago under President Trump, lasting nine hours total before a compromise was reached. Of these shutdowns, seven of them have occurred under a unified government, including five total shutdowns under Democrat Jimmy Carter backed by a Democratic Congress. The other two unified governmental shutdowns are the ones which have occurred in 2018 under Republican Donald Trump with a Republican majority. Many have wanted to frame these most recent shutdowns as a sign of incompetence of the modern Republican party and the President, but a look at the past makes it clear that both parties have fallen victim to failure in the case of governmental shutdowns.
Just because the government is under control of a single party does not make it any less susceptible to falling short, as we have seen over the last month or so. However, that is not what should concern us. What is essential to consider is how the opposition is acting in respect to the institution itself. Where one can find comfort in the status of American democracy is in the relatively quick resolution to the shutdowns as of late, with one only lastly a few days and the other only hours. This serves to reiterate the respect that the opposition party has for the government functioning as normally as possible, despite their objection to the Republican stance on DACA. For now, the Democrats can be considered “loyal” opposition, as defined by Linz, because they have a sincere commitment to gain power by electoral means and a legitimate trust in the democratic process. While their objection has been successfully voiced through the forced government shutdown, they only held out for a few days to make their point and then conceded, even though they did not get much for their efforts. However, they have faith in the institution of democracy, and this faith gives them the belief that they will eventually be able to return to power and enact their own policies. This makes them feel more comfortable conceding to the Republicans for now, and is a hallmark of a functioning democracy. Cause for concern would arise if the opposition parties started to ignore the laws in place that restrict their power. At present, this has not happened. And so, while we should probably be on alert for the effects of polarization now more than ever, we can assume that in this case at least, our democracy is safe for now.