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.
Part of complete coverage on
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
Today's five most popular stories