This week, the US government stopped working. Not figuratively—that happened a long time ago. No, it literally stopped working. Suddenly, pre-planned high school field trips to our nation’s capital had to be rescheduled because monuments and museums were closed. Air traffic controllers had to take longer than usual coffee breaks. Congress had to forfeit its salary. Oh, sorry, I meant Congress had to forfeit other people’s salaries. My bad.
There are two rational responses to all this. The first response is to panic. The US federal government is now less functional than the government of Yemen. Last I checked, there isn’t a whole lot of infrastructure there.1 The second response is to blame one party or the other. The Republicans are to blame for taking their quest to end Obamacare to the political limits. The Democrats are to blame for not renegotiating an existing law.2 This is the political equivalent of kids fighting over who gets to play the Nintendo first—and then deciding they will be better off if they just throw the TV out the window. No one is winning.
But there is a third response, one that I haven’t seen too much of: to feel blessed.
The government shutdown is a chance for us to remember exactly what it is our government does for us. (Europeans and anyone else with state-sponsored healthcare, please try to stop laughing.) Imagine you’re a teenager again. You think everything is stupid, including your parents. You openly ponder how you can be liberated from their reign of free food, shelter and clothing. Now, imagine that your parents begin arguing heavily. Your father yells and storms out of the house. Your mother slams the bedroom door. You find this argument highly troubling. After all, you wonder, Who’s going to make me dinner?
The US federal government is now less functional than the government of Yemen. Last I checked, there isn’t a whole lot of infrastructure there.
It is in something’s absence that we realize its utility. When mom and dad fight, we understand that we can sometimes take our serene home environment for granted. When the government shuts down, we realize that the prospect of anarchy, while Uncle Jeb is in favor of it, isn’t that appealing after all.
There was a moment a few days ago when it looked as though select parts of the government might be kept running, but Harry Reid nixed the idea, saying, “Now they are focusing on cherry picking the few parts of government they like.” All the better, I say. You can’t say you hate the Super Bowl if you love the commercials. Half measures would allow us to relax, to say it’s not so bad, and to go back to dissecting the Breaking Bad finale. That’s exactly what we don’t need right now because it would mean we are shirking our own responsibilities.
We Americans need to be reminded, once in a while, that nothing is certain. The financial crisis a few years ago scared us, but we’re not exactly elephants in the memory department (even members of the GOP) and we’ll soon forget that we are not assured prosperity. We are not owed a better standard of living than our parents. And our government? It doesn’t have to do shit, thank you very much.
We forget that we are responsible for all of this. Our government, however faulty, is a democracy. We voted, either through our ballots or our apathy, for the people who are “leading” us in this mess. And what a fine job we have done. We have the world’s largest military to protect us from an invasion by Cuba, but no healthcare system to protect us from illness. We have some of the world’s largest companies, who must fill their ranks with the products of a sub-standard, yet increasingly expensive education system. Our energy consumption is three and a half times that of Russia (and only a bit behind China, whose population dwarfs us), but we have no game plan for climate change.3 We should use the government shutdown as a chance to pause and reflect on our own record.
We forget that we are responsible for all of this. Our government, however faulty, is a democracy.
The idea at the founding was that the Senate would be composed of the elite members of society. The House of Representatives would be the lower house, which is why its members have two-year terms instead of six. It is also why US senators were originally elected by state legislatures rather than state citizens. Our founding fathers didn’t have tremendous faith in Americans to govern themselves. As James Madison put it: “The use of the Senate is to consist in proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.” Indeed, James, indeed. Try looking at our Congress and saying with a smile, “Yes, these people are the best America has to offer.” Now, try looking again and this time remind yourself that your Congressperson is literally called your representative.
Think about that the next time election season rolls around. Better yet, think about that now. How many times have you found yourself saying “they’re all the same” when referring to Democrats and Republicans? It’s probably because it’s true. I’m a lifelong Democrat. I’d rather sell my first-born child into indentured servitude than register Republican, but I must admit that the differences between the two parties are often negligible and shift depending upon the moods of their constituents—our moods. We know they’re all the same. But I’m from a country that prides itself on being the best, so why should I just shrug my shoulders and blame the shutdown on the guy I chose to represent me?
The shutdown is a reminder of what our government does for us, but it is also a signal of what is missing from our government: our active involvement. I am responsible for the government shutdown. And so are you. Now what are we going to do about it?
- Although its capital did give its name to actress Sanaa Lathan, for which we humbly thank the people of Yemen. [↩]
- But we all know the Green Party is really to blame because, well, Ralph Nader. [↩]
- For those who say that private enterprise can fill this gap, I say, Hallelujah. But it’s not an either-or proposition. Private enterprise and government must work in partnership. Government must be willing to regulate the private sector, unless we don’t mind the taste of tainted beef or the feel of lead-based paint. [↩]