In general, Stratfor deals with U.S. domestic politics only to the extent that it affects international affairs. Certainly, this topic has been argued and analyzed extensively. Nevertheless, the shutdown of the American government is a topic that must be understood from our point of view, because it raises the issue of whether the leading global power is involved in a political crisis so profound that it is both losing its internal cohesion and the capacity to govern. If that were so, it would mean the United States would not be able to act in global affairs, and that in turn would mean that the international system would undergo a profound change. I am not interested in the debate over who is right. I am, however, interested in the question of what caused this shutdown, and ultimately what it tells us about the U.S. capacity to act.
That is one reason to address it. A broader reason to address it is to understand why the leading global power has entered a period when rhetoric has turned into increasingly dysfunctional actions. The shutdown of the government has thus far not disrupted American life as a whole, although it has certainly disrupted the lives of some dramatically.
It originated in a political dispute. U.S. President Barack Obama proposed and Congress approved a massive set of changes in U.S. healthcare. These changes were upheld in court after legal challenges. There appears to be significant opposition to this legislation according to polls, but the legislation’s opponents in Congress lack the ability to repeal it and override a presidential veto. Therefore, opponents attached amendments to legislation funding government operations, and basically said that legislation would only be passed if implementation of healthcare reform were blocked or at least delayed. Opponents of healthcare reform had enough power to block legislation on funding the government. Proponents of healthcare reform refused to abandon their commitment for reform, and therefore the legislation to fund the government failed and the government shut down.
Shutdowns and Shifts in the U.S. Political System
Similar shutdowns happened during the 1990s, and I am not prepared to say that divisions in our society have never been so deep or partisanship so powerful. I’ve written in the past pointing out that political vituperation has been common in the United States since its founding. Certainly nothing today compares to what was said during the Civil War, and public incivility during the Vietnam War was at least as intense.
What has changed over time is the impact of this incivility on the ability of the government to function. Consider the substantial threat that the United States might refuse to pay the debts it has incurred by consent of Congress and presidents past and present. In private life, refusal to pay debts when one can pay them is fairly serious. Though this is no less serious in public life, this outcome in the coming weeks seems conceivable. It is not partisanship, but the consequences of partisanship on the operation of the government that appear to have changed. The trend is not new, but it is intensifying. Where did it start?
From where I sit, there was a massive shift in the 1970s in how the American political system operates. Prior to then, candidate selection was based on delegates to national conventions, and the delegates to conventions were selected through a combination of state conventions and some primaries. Political bosses controlled the selection of state convention delegates, and therefore the bosses controlled the delegates to the national convention — and that meant that these bosses controlled the national conventions.
There was ample opportunity for corruption in this system, of course. The state party bosses were interested in enhancing their own security and power, and that was achieved by patronage, but they were not particularly ideological. By backing someone likely to be elected, they would get to appoint postmasters and judges and maybe even Cabinet secretaries. They used the carrot of patronage and the stick of reprisals for those who didn’t follow the bosses’ line. And they certainly were interested in money in exchange for championing business interests. They were ideological to the extent to which their broad constituencies were, and were prepared to change with them. But their eyes were on the mood of the main constituencies, not smaller ones. These were not men given to principled passion, and the dissident movements of the 1960s accordingly held men like Chicago’s William Daley responsible for repressing their movements.
The reformers wanted to break the hold of the party bosses over the system and open it to dissent, something party bosses disliked. The reformers did so by widely replacing state conventions with primary systems. This severely limited the power of state and county chairmen, who could no longer handpick candidates. These people no longer controlled their parties as much as presided over them.
Political parties ceased being built around patronage systems, but rather around the ability to raise money. Money, not the bosses’ power, became the center of gravity of the political system, and those who could raise money became the power brokers. More important, those who were willing to donate became candidates’ main constituency. The paradox of the reforms was that in breaking the power of the bosses, money became more rather than less important in the selection of candidates. Money has always been central to American politics. There has never been a time when it didn’t matter. But with the decline of political bosses, factors other than money were eliminated.
Through the next decade, reformers tried to get control over money. Though they had gotten rid of the bosses, getting money out of politics proved daunting. This put power in the hands of business, which by hook or crook, Citizens United or not, was going to pursue its interests through the political system. But in general its interests were fairly narrow and were not particularly ideological. Where before business gave to party bosses, it now donated to candidates and political action committees. Of course, if this route were closed down, still another route would be found. The candidates need money, businesses need to protect their political interests. Fortunately, most businessmen’s imagination stops at money, limiting the damage they can do.
An Unexpected Consequence
There was, however, an unexpected consequence. The reformers’ vision was that the fall of the bosses would open the door to broad democratic participation. But the fact was that the American people did not care nearly as much about politics as the reformers thought they ought to. Participation in presidential primaries was frequently well below 50 percent, and in state and local elections, it was far lower.
For most Americans, private life is more important than public life. There is only so much time and energy available, the issues are arcane and rarely involve things that will change ordinary citizens’ lives much, and there is little broad-based ideological passion. Citizens frequently don’t know or care who their congressman is, let