Shutdown

Buried under the commotion of the US government shutdown and the tension about the impending debt-ceiling crisis, a big question is lurking – and its answer building in importance. It is the question on the lips of every banker, every politician and every broadsheet editor. Is America governable?

Quite possibly not. Indeed for much of this week, America simply didn’t have a government. 800,000 federal employees had to take unpaid leave, while over a million more were asked to continue working for nothing. All non-essential government work was put aside for another day. As the Economist declared, this is no way to run a country – let alone the most powerful one in the world.

The shutdown was borne of the inability of House Republicans to pass a budget, demanding instead the defunding of the 2010 law commonly known as Obamacare (which, shockingly, provides healthcare to the poorest citizens of the world’s richest country). Therefore, at midnight on the 30th September, the government simply ran out of money.

There is nothing unusual about fraught budget negotiations – indeed, a formal budget hasn’t been passed since 1997. Nor are government shutdowns unheard of, although the last one was 17 years ago. But these were not normal negotiations. The Republicans weren’t simply trying to stop a measure from being passed, they were trying to destroy a law that was enacted three years ago – and holding the government hostage at the same time.

Not only is Obamacare already the law of the land, it has survived a challenge in the Supreme Court. Republicans therefore have no legal basis on which to base their opposition to it, leading to a bizarre situation in which the usual defenders of the constitution are ignoring its provisions in the name of ideological militancy. In short, a main party of government has lost respect for the law. That cannot be good.

It was not always so. There was a time, not so long ago, when Republicans and Democrats could and did work together, honouring the spirit of compromise enshrined in the constitution. But a combination of events and changing circumstances forced the Republicans to the right. Firstly, America has seen its place in the world fall. Although still the only superpower, it is beginning to be challenged by the growing might of China and, to a lesser extent, India. Republicans have responded to this by re-enforcing their defence of what they believe makes America great – its Christian values – and have not kept up with the steady liberalising of Western opinion. At the same time, they have seen their American values fail to take hold abroad, both in Iraq and Afghanistan where it is possible to argue that democracy has done more harm than good. For the first time in several generations, there is a vulnerability to the American dream.

To make matters worse, America has also been through its worst economic experience since the 1930s. To combat this, George Bush effectively nationalised the country’s biggest mortgage companies and Obama issued a $700bn stimulus package. Deficit hawks suddenly had a lot to squawk about, as did small-government types. The Republicans are now loathe to spend any money, while Democrats still want to spend some. There is now a vast, empty expanse where the middle ground once was. And so the government is shut down.

There is a pretty easy way to fix this madness – remove Congressmen’s right to draw their own districts. Over the past decade they have been able to ‘gerrymander’ their districts and thus turn them into safe seats for their respective parties. Now, Congressmen fear primary challengers rather than actual opponents, and so are forced to pander to the extreme views in their parties. If they are seen to compromise, they will lose their seat pretty soon; House elections are held every two years.

If district boundaries were drawn by an independent body, many more of them would be contestable in general elections. Candidates would therefore have to appeal to the middle ground. Consensus politics would soon come back into fashion. And America would be governable once more.

Questions for America

To my great relief, absolutely nothing changed after America’s election this November. However, once the post-Romney-defeat euphoria wore off, the world realised that absolutely nothing had changed. The problems of a divided government rose up out of the swamp of campaign politics – most notably the ongoing saga of the fiscal cliff. Yes, that’s right, if Washington’s politicians don’t grow up a little in the next nine days, a culmination of tax rises and spending cuts will wipe 5% off the GDP of the world’s leading economy.

Forget the implications of this for a minute. The fact that America has ended up in this situation is crazy enough as it is. In recent years the Democrats and Republicans have moved further and further apart from each other on the socio-political scale; dividing the country along with its Congress. Why has this happened? Many cite the recession, but the trend began way before the sub-prime bubble so rudely burst. I would argue that what we are seeing is a conflict of ideas about how to redefine America as it sees itself being overtaken by China, Brazil and India. The Republicans appear to be founding this ‘new’ America on its 19th century predecessor. Sometimes it seems that the Democrats are merely trying to stop them from succeeding. That may not be a bad goal.

I realised recently that I can not remain objective about American politics. I have tried and I have failed. The Republicans are simply too balmy – too socially regressive. So from now on, I am not even going to try to hide my liberal bias.

And so the markets will spend this holiday season fretting about the fiscal cliff. I am going with most commentators and hedging my bets that a deal will be done. Surely not even America’s politicians would sacrifice the world’s economy in order to ‘keep face’? But a deal won’t represent a breakthrough – bipartisanship won’t thrive. Until America is on the road to somewhere, its politics are going to remain ugly.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the shooting of twenty children in a small town in Connecticut. America’s gun laws are almost unique – in some states guns can be brought in supermarkets by showing a driving license. These are the laws which allowed a teacher in Newtown to buy the gun her son eventually shot her with, before committing the multiple murders of her former colleagues and the children they cared for.

Why do these laws still stand more than 200 years after the need to fight the imperialist British was removed? Because ‘the right to bear arms’ was enshrined in the Second Amendment of the Constitution, making it sacrosanct in the eyes of many Americans. The National Rifle Association, in a press conference held on the same day as the first funerals of the children – called for armed guards in all school, declaring that violent video games, not the ready availability of guns, were the cause of the Newtown tragedy. Many Republicans – and, indeed, some Democrats – agree with the NRA. They will have to fight with Mr Obama, who this week finally declared his intention to reform gun laws.

And so we are left to wonder: will the deaths of so many six-year-olds achieve a change in sentiment not touched by the murders at Columbine, Virginia Tech or Aurora? Perhaps, but alas, perhaps not.