The government shutdown drags on long after passing the 21-day record for the longest period the U.S. has gone without an active, all-hands-on-deck force of public servants. Having preemptively rejected President Trump’s recent offer to provide relief for DACA recipients and temporary protected status immigrants in exchange for border wall funding, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has indicated that Democrats will presently pass a package of bills to reopen government.
…the federal government itself has become unwieldy and grown too big for its britches.
If Pelosi’s plan fails, U.S. citizens might be left wondering, how long this can go on. Well, how about 589 days? No, that’s not a prediction of how long Trump will feud with Democrats over the wall, but rather the length of time Belgium went without a government only a few years ago. Many would say that a government shutdown is one of the worst things that can happen to a country, while others claim that such an attitude is a sure sign that the federal government itself has become unwieldy and grown too big for its britches.
Of course, there are myriad examples of countries that sadly have fallen into chaos when governments or other key social structures come unglued. Competing warlords trying to fill a power vacuum are all too common across the world. But unless one of the many 2020 presidential hopefuls decides to take up arms and force his or her way into the White House, that seems an unlikely outcome for this particular shutdown. Rather, will the United States follow the pattern seen in other industrialized, “developed” countries with a concrete administrative system that temporarily lose their governments?
Belgium’s Bitter Rivalries
In 2010-11, residents in a small European nation discovered that when the government goes away, not much changes. A culturally divided country, Belgium has a population split into two major groups: the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has created a highly unstable social identity and a government in which political parties struggle to cooperate in coalitions necessary to gain a parliamentary majority. Indeed, the Belgian government recently collapsed again, falling prey to disagreements over the U.N. Migration Compact.
While two main factions in parliament spent 589 days bickering in “crisis” mode, The Telegraph reported in July 2011, “So far, the six million Flemish and five million francophones have remained largely indifferent, apart from a few protest marches and fun actions.” People just went about their daily lives, it would seem.
Spain Prefers It
But Belgium isn’t the only European country that has managed perfectly well without a bunch of politicians bossing everyone around. Spain spent around ten months in 2016 without a fully functioning government, but the only people who seemed to care were members of the elite. The Huffington Post wrote in October of that year:
“Spanish cities are boasting of packed cafes and restaurants, thriving fashion shops and art galleries, plenty of tourists. The overall impression is of a bustling, vibrant country.
“In fact, Forbes reported that the country’s economy actually improved during the period, with growth and employment numbers that showed a ‘rather better economic performance than the country had when they did have an activist government.’”
HuffPo went on to quote some Spaniards:
“‘I’m not especially worried about it,’ said retiree Goyito de Camacho. ‘I see it on the TV and in the papers but (politicians) are all the same. They’re all scum who don’t care about the people.’
“‘Politics in Spain is chaotic, the parties are only interested in themselves,’ said 52-year-old computer technician Jose Luis Alfonso. ‘They say it’s not affecting the economy, although I imagine it is. Maybe we’d be better off without a government.’”
Although naturally, university professors put a damper on things by predicting that the uncertainty eventually would prove to bring the economy down again.
Government or State?
Northern Ireland is currently in the midst of its own government shutdown, although as a part of the United Kingdom, London does hold quite a bit of regulatory power over the country. As the Irish politicians have spent the last two years squabbling instead of governing, society has continued, although not as cheerfully as in Spain; a “#wedeservebetter” hashtag has become a popular protest on Twitter, and newspapers have referred to life “trundling on” rather than thriving.
As one BBC article observes, “While unusual, Northern Ireland’s position is by no means unique – which might cause cynics to question what the point of a government is at all, if we can apparently cope without them so readily.” So, how are these European nations able to function pretty much as usual – except for the lack of new legislation – while their lawmakers are otherwise occupied with the very important business of quarreling, while the United States seems to be panicking?
One major reason is that government employees still got paid in all these countries. Much of the U.S. worry would surely be fixed if so many people weren’t worried about their ability to pay the bills or receive their welfare payments. But Raymond Smith at the Washington Monthly poses another interesting suggestion for the seeming existential difference in attitudes across the Atlantic. “Part of the explanation also lies in the healthy distinction that many European countries make between ‘the government’ and the ‘state,’” Smith suggests.
The European conception of the government refers simply to a transient group of elected leaders who make laws for a few years before going on their way. The state, on the other hand, takes care of business on a day-to-day level, with – at least theoretically – a politically neutral stance. Therefore, trust can be put in virtually all public departments to continue with the daily administration of the state unhindered by the changing whims of legislation. Whereas, Smith says:
“In the U.S., both in theory and in practice, the idea of the ‘the government’ is stretched far beyond just the incumbent presidential administration to include the House and the Senate; the federal courts as a ‘third branch’ of government; and also the huge bureaucratic infrastructure that runs the programs and services. Thus partisan tensions result not just in political stalemate but also complete ‘government shutdown.’”
Who could doubt the highly politicized nature of these U.S. branches after seeing the intense battle over the appointment of Supreme Court and other judges and the partisan nature of other key public servants appointed by a presidential administration?
Politics and ideological disputes permeate U.S. society in a way unseen anywhere else in the Western world – where it would simply be unthinkable to close museums or national parks over a matter of government policy. Is this shutdown proof of an ever-growing U.S. government hydra that seeks to wrap its tentacles around every aspect of public life, or is the politicization of the state the only way to ensure that it is continually under pressure to follow the will of the voting public?