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Shutdown mess? No, it's democracy

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
October 8, 2013 -- Updated 1032 GMT (1832 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

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.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

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