Shutdown mess? No, it's democracy
October 8, 2013 -- Updated 1032 GMT (1832 HKT)
- Timothy Stanley: Many think U.S. politics gripped by madness on shutdown, but it's not so
- He says Democratic Congresses responsible for majority of shutdowns in the past
- He says current debate is part of democracy, and the positions of all parties today are logical
- Stanley: U.S. founders built serious checks into system, and it's supposed to be complex
Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."
(CNN) -- A common view is that U.S. politics have gone into shutdown, that the whole system can no longer function and deliver the kind of government that Americans want and need. That's certainly the opinion in my native Britain, where I'm regularly told the United States -- particularly the Republican Party -- has been gripped by a kind of madness.
I can't agree. The current crisis is certainly traumatic for those involved and bodes badly for the next round of debt ceiling negotiations. But it's not historically unique or a symbol of conservative insanity.
First of all America has gone through shutdowns before. Andrew Stiles notes in National Review that the U.S government has shut down 17 times since 1976. The vast majority of those shutdowns happened when the Democrats controlled the House. They happened under Jimmy Carter over abortion policy (remember when that divided the Democrats?) and under Ronald Reagan, mostly about budget priorities -- including efforts to nix Reagan's pet projects (sound familiar?). During the 21-day face-off between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, unemployment fell slightly and America emerged with a welfare reform deal. Not too bad.
Those shutdowns remind us that U.S. politics have always been partisan and rancorous -- as the two-party system was established with the intention of being. Honest, heated debate is part of being a democratic nation.
Before the 1960s, progressive legislation in the House was constantly stonewalled by coalition of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans -- a bloc that it took a civil rights revolution to undo. In the 1940s, Harry Truman found his legislation blocked by a "do-nothing" Congress of Republicans (although that Congress still got a lot done). Of course, in the 19th century, partisan divisions reflected the battle lines of a bloody civil war. Abraham Lincoln's superhuman effort to get a ban on slavery through Congress testifies to the timelessness of the battle between executive and legislature.
Obama: Won't 'negotiate' under threat
Treasury chief on shutdown, debt ceiling
Panetta: Shutdown a 'tragic moment'
Shutdown drags on, debt ceiling looms
And Congress in recent decades has rarely been popular. True, today a shockingly low 10% of the population approves of its performance. But its rating never exceeded 40% throughout the 1970s and 1980s and sunk to 20% in 1979 and 1992.
Today, no one is denying that we find ourselves in an almighty mess with the potential for disaster as the clock ticks toward default. But there's logic to the arguments of everyone involved. Barack Obama and the Senate Democrats refuse to give up on Obamacare, especially since the president's re-election. John Boehner is indeed being held hostage by members of his Republican caucus, but those tea partiers have a right to argue that the polls show Obamacare is unpopular, that they have evidence it will threaten the economic recovery, that they can use their sway in the House to say how the money should be spent, and that they are pursuing a valid constitutional strategy to get what they want.
The polls also show that the shutdown is bad politics, and that the public blames the GOP for it. But would we rather the House do exactly as the president tells it to and not follow its conscience on the vital subjects of health care and finance?
America is not Britain, where a party's control of one aspect of government (the House of Commons) effectively guarantees control over the entire system. The American way has the potential for divided government built into it, precisely because its founders wanted to protect against the growth of the state and to keep it in check by making it hard to pursue utopian manifestoes through to their glorious end. Passing lots of laws and spending lots of money ought to be a difficult, complex business.
But for anyone dreaming of a government so hamstrung that it can't do anything at all, I have some sad news to impart. The Internal Revenue Service has stopped sending out refunds but is still collecting money.
Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.
Join us Facebook/CNNOpinion.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.
Today's five most popular stories
Part of complete coverage on
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend