On a bus in Copenhagen traveling from the suburbs into the city center, I overhead the phrase “government shutdown” laughingly blurted amid a flurry of Danish. This was days before the Senate leadership had agreed on a deal that ended our government’s man-made crisis, and I had a good guess that this was what they were laughing about. I’ve never felt ashamed to be an American, but hearing this exchange was the closest I have ever come to feeling embarrassment over our form of government. Nationalism or pride for one’s country has become passé or associated with conservatism on our college campuses, but I don’t subscribe to that stereotype. I don’t believe that, to be proud of this country, one also has to be against gay marriage and in favor of limited restrictions on the sale of automatic weapons. We live in an exceptional country that recently has been behaving rather unexceptionally. It’s necessary to remember our history and the accomplishments of compromise that have preceded us in order to put today’s depressing events in perspective.
America has been a force for democracy and freedom since its inception. Our government has never been perfect, but it is the commitment to pluralism and the search “to form a more perfect union” embodied in our Constitution that has defined us as a people for over 250 years. A people whose delineation is not based on ethnicity or race but on faith. Faith in the justice of the democratic process and that the legitimacy of our institutions flows from the will of the people. A faith so powerful it has moved individuals from around the globe to travel thousands of miles for a chance at living out its promise. This heritage is something I’ve always taken pride in. Compromise is the life blood of our democracy and has sustained us through the turbulent years of our founding until the current day.
Yet, it is this faith that has suffered the hardest blow from the recent government shutdown. My ideological leanings aside, the Republican hijacking of the government process represents a tremendous setback for democracy in America. Elected officials are indeed beholden to the will of their constituents but also to the Constitution of the United States and to the general well-being of the American people. A shutdown of the federal government should not be a tactic utilized by the far right to wring concessions from a Democratic administration. It’s a sign of dysfunction and more reminiscent of a toddler refusing to share his toys rather than the governing body tasked with running the world’s largest economy and military.
Obamacare is a decisive issue that draws ire from large segments of the population. Yet, despite this opposition, it has withstood a Supreme Court ruling and two presidential elections. Republicans and Tea Party members are welcome to continue fighting its administration and implementation, but to have placed the credibility of American debt on the line for a series of unrelated issues is sheer lunacy. The global economy is still reeling from the fiscal crisis of 2008, and placing the sanctity of the American dollar on the line benefited no one. It has benefited Republicans least of all as they will largely be blamed for the impasse according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Governing by manufacturing crises is a new and troubling development in the history of our country. The politicization of the debt ceiling is a frightening precedent. It places unnecessary strain on financial markets and creates the uncertainty investors shun. Republicans raised the debt ceiling 18 times under Reagan and seven times under George W. Bush. The current concern over our national debt seems to be disingenuous to say the least.
Despite the common lamenting of pundits, the gridlock and partisan divide that characterize D.C. were intended by design. The founders were afraid of quick political change and created our system of checks and balances to prevent this. Republicans and Democrats have vastly different visions of how government should function, and this is a good thing. Debate and discourse are integral parts of the American system and should be cherished. What is not OK, however, is refusing to honor existing debts based on current political grievances. The time to have a debate about the nature of American debt is not after the spending has already occurred. It’s akin to refusing to pay for a meal you have already eaten. We need to curtail spending, but trying to enact changes to Obamacare by threatening default is irresponsible. We used to do it better. Monumental legislation has been passed through the American congress: Social Security, the Interstate Highway System, the Center for Disease Control and the backing of student loans are all products of compromise. Congress, as a whole, needs to remember that, in addition to sectional interest, they must also consider, as the constitution states, “the general welfare” of the citizens of this country.
Colin Scott is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.