Congress recently passed a short-term spending bill to narrowly avoid entering a government shutdown. The formal deadline to pass spending legislation was September 2021, but due to divisions in the Senate between Republicans and Democrats, neither side has been able to agree on the allocation of funding. As a result, months and months of temporary spending bills have been passed, with no clear end in sight. Who knows if the official spending bill will get approved by the new deadline of March 11 that Congress has established for themselves?
Congressional gridlock and party polarization can easily cause the country to fall into a government shutdown, an experience we know all too well. The last government shutdown was the longest shutdown in history. Starting in December 2018, it lasted for 35 days during the Trump administration and reduced the country’s economic growth by $3 billion. For the sake of the 2 million government workers who would be affected by another government shutdown, it’s clear that politicians should agree on federal funding. But it’s less of a matter of should, and it’s more of a matter of could. Could politicians respect one another enough to agree to pass a bi-partisan piece of legislation? And if not, what does this polarization mean for the future of democracy in the United States?
Based on the current political climate, it’s become rapidly clear that politicians are unable to come to a consensus on policy issues. The rise in party polarization at the elite level and lack of regard for democratic norms makes one thing evident: The United States is experiencing symptoms of democratic erosion, and government shutdowns are just one example of this backsliding of democratic values.
Just take a look at the history of government shutdowns in the United States and how they occur. Prior to 2013, the last government shutdown was in 1996. But since 2013, there have been 4 government shutdowns, the one in 2018 being the longest. This increase in governmental shutdowns is a direct result of growing Congressional division. Why? Well, it’s because shutdowns happen when Congress can’t agree on the spending bill for the fiscal year. This often occurs when Democrats and Republicans introduce “policy riders,” which are legislative amendments and partisan priorities that are added to a budgetary bill. These policy riders can cause disagreement among political parties because of polarization on the elite-level, which is when politicians clash on policy and legislative issues.
However, there are measures in place within the United States that encourage compromises between political parties and promote bi-partisan legislation. Known as the soft guardrails of democracy, these are the democratic norms of mutual toleration and forbearance . These democratic norms are critical for sustaining a thriving democracy. Mutual toleration is when political parties accept and honor the legitimacy of their opposition. Forbearance is considered as politicians practicing restraint and not maximizing their own partisan advantage if they are in control of government institutions.
In the United States, we’ve seen how these democratic norms preserve our political climate. Democrats and Republicans alike would confirm Supreme Court Justices with overwhelming bi-partisan support. But nowadays, political parties and politicians are failing to follow the tenets of democratic norms due to extreme partisan polarization . The growing divide between Democrats and Republicans has led to violations of mutual toleration, forbearance, and the collapse of the soft guardrails of democracy . And in its wake? A country experiencing symptoms of democratic erosion, and a nation that prioritizes polarization over principles.
At this point, we might ask ourselves: can politicians ever find anything to agree on? Will there always be polarization at the elite-level? If it’s any consolation, it appears that both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have at least the same goal: to prevent the U.S. government from shutting down and to pass a spending bill.
As Senator and Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) states, “Let’s show the United States of America and the rest of the world that we can stay open.” But in order to stay open, the Democrats require the support and agreement of the Republicans. However, as we’ve seen with the current state of party polarization, this is no easy feat. Under a divided Senate with 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and 2 Independents, it will be imperative for these political parties to compromise in order for them to make any progress. In terms of whether or not these politicians can agree on the partisan issues necessary to pass a comprehensive piece of legislation, well, that’s up to whether or not they can abide by the democratic norms of mutual toleration and forbearance.
Extreme polarization at the elite-level between politicians has significant consequences for democracy in the United States. As political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write, “And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies” . This is largely because the foundation of our democratic culture is rooted in norms of practicing respect, honoring legitimacy, and employing restraint. When these norms are violated and thrown away for the sake of advancing a partisan agenda — such as including polarizing legislation in a spending bill — the country’s democratic values are at stake. The rise in government shutdowns over the last decade is just one instance of how deep these political divisions run within our country, and they ultimately indicate that the values that used to preserve our democracy are at risk. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 9.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 60.  Robert Lieberman et. al, “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis,” Perspective on Politics 17, no. 2 (June 2019): 1-10.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 10.