Skip to main content

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT