A few months ago, the United States experienced its longest government shutdown in history. Shutting down for 34 days starting December 2019, the federal government rocketed past the previous benchmark of 21 days in 1995.
Included throughout these 34 days when workers were furloughed and agencies were closed, a messaging war ensued over who should receive the blame for this shutdown: President Donald Trump or congressional Democrats. Overwhelmingly, the public sided with the Democrats, causing Trump to lose this blame game. With this case in mind, political scientist E.E. Schattschneider said, the “spectators are an integral part of the situation, for, as likely as not, the audience determines the outcome of the fight.” Author Juan J Linz seemed to also echo this argument in The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes when he wrote that members of a society have the power to grant or withdraw legitimacy to governments also. In other words, public trust (or the lack of it) in democratic institutions can determine the fate of a democracy.
With this in mind, it is interesting to note that, in 2018, the Pew Research Center reported 58% of Americans to say that democracy is working well in the U.S. In March, 17% of Americans said they trust the federal government. And. in the beginning of 2019 and in the midst of this longest shutdown, 33% believed the country was heading in the “right direction.” With this data and research in mind, I argue that a government shutdown and subsequent recovery constitutes a “near miss” for American democracy. Using research done by Tom Ginsberg and Aziz Huq, I use their definition of a “near miss” as a case when “a democracy is exposed to social, political, or economic forces that could catalyze back-sliding, yet somehow overcomes those forces and regains its footing.” Due to the public’s power to grant or deny a government legitimacy, I am asserting that the trust placed in governmental institutions can determine if democracies can overcome “a near miss.” I argue this because when people lack trust in the government, they withdraw legitimacy even to the independent institutions like the courts: a lifeblood to a functioning and free democracy.
Thus, Governmental shutdowns per se are not the danger as the U.S government has been shut down some 21 times since 1976. The danger lies in an ever-increasing public perception of an American government (as a whole) which can no longer meet the needs of her citizens. Moreover, public perception in the apparent increase of government shutdowns within the context of the unpopular Trump administration is undermining faith also.
This 34-day shutdown has been spoken of and criticized by pundits, commentators, and politicians. When people, including elected officials, speak out against the government and each other with vitriol and hostility, this constitutes a “near miss” because it exacerbates polarization and erodes trust in America’s independent institutions. It becomes a danger socially and politically. A “democracy under threat depends critically on support from unelected and nonmajoritarian actors,” wrote Ginsberg and Huq. “[These] can make all the difference between a near miss and a fatal blow.”
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