How GOP Extremism Shut Down the Government


The government shutdown shows the consequences of the GOP’s changing political tactics in recent years.

So the great shutdown of 2013 is upon us and everyone is throwing their two cents in as to who is to blame. While there has still been an unfortunate tendency to cling to “both-sides-do-it-ism” in recent coverage, it looks like more and more people are willing to lay the blame for this recent impasse on the GOP’s doorstep. And I would have to agree, but I would say that it’s the Republican Party’s increasing extremism in its approach to politics that resulted in this shutdown, which makes it that much harder to solve.

A lot of the criticism about Republicans in the House of Representatives is based on the idea that they are “too conservative” or “need to go back to the center” implying that it’s a preference for certain policy outcomes that is driving major dysfunction like the current government shutdown. But this is simply not true, after all there is nothing about being very conservative (or very liberal for that matter) that prevents you from engaging in regular political compromise when you have to.

Instead the problem with the House Republicans, and the Republican Party as a whole to a lesser extent, is that they increasingly approach politics with an extremist mindset and focus heavily on destroying what legal scholar Jonathan Zasloff once called the “informal institutions of American governance.” Which he defines as, “…those habits and customs outside of formal, written law that make democracy work.  Some things are simply not done; everyone agrees to resist the temptation for political advantage in order to make the system work.”

A fundamental truth about our democracy is that there exists a space between what the constitution technically allows and what it is proper for a majority party in power to do. In this “space” informal institutions work to keep political parties and actors in check to make sure the whole system doesn’t break down. For example the vast majority of us respect the Electoral College as the arbiter of who gets to become president, if only because elections only mean something if the losers agree to respect the results. But time and time again in the Obama er, Republicans have worked to destroy informal political institutions in order to maximize their short term political gains.

Under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the Senate has transformed the filibuster from a rare occurrence, only instituted when a minority feels incredibly strongly about something, to merely routine. The result is what some political scientist are now calling “the 60 vote Senate.” In addition the Republican Party has turned the debt limit (the next big crisis coming down the pike) from a routine vote used by Senators to scold the President of another party for “fiscal irresponsibility”  into a political weapon that could blow up the national economy if the GOP doesn’t get its way. Thus the Republicans created a national crisis because they couldn’t win the seats necessary to repeal Obamacare through conventional means. Where another party might move on and look for other fights they could win, the modern GOP looks for way to extort President Obama into ending his biggest achievement.

House Republicans have been working to try and create this crisis since the beginning of the year. As Jonathan Chait recently pointed out in New York magazine, the House Republicans decided back in January that they would refuse to negotiate with first President Obama and later Senate Democrats over the budget. This was done in order to try an provoke a shutdown or debt ceiling breach to extract concessions from Obama that normally legislative bargaining could never achieve. In fact the idea of blackmail as a policy tool was agreed to long before House Republicans settled on what their demands would be, which ultimately became defunding and then delaying Obamacare. Meaning that the national crisis now being caused by the shutdown was basically planned right after President Obama’s historic reelection. In short, destroying informal political institutions has unfortunately become a main organizing principle of the modern GOP, which logically results in national crises.

The question remains what can we do try and deal with this festival of dysfunction on Capitol Hill. In the short term, the best thing Americans can do is contact their member of Congress and tell them to end the shutdown. If they agree with you, thank them, if they don’t, complain. Most people don’t believe this but member of Congress really do pay attention to things like phone calls and letters. And when calls start coming in ten to one against something they start running for cover. Unfortunately in the long run, fixing the GOP is really something that only Republicans can do, meaning it’s conservatives being upset about the shutdown more than liberals or independents that will ultimately cause future Republican Congresses to avoid them.

Photo by Charles Tasnadi/AP

About John K. Anderson

John Anderson is a former student of political science and political professional who worked on a variety of campaigns in the Midwest and on the East Coast. He currently lives in Minneapolis where everyone is friendly and there are lots of lakes. He blogs at longwalkdownlyndale


  1. I think “partially shut down the government” would be more accurate

  2. AnonymousDog says:

    Everyone has known for months that more money would have to be borrowed about now if spending continued at the levels that it has. The administration has done NOTHING to alter the amount of money being spent by the executive branch, the Democrat controlled Senate has done NOTHING to try and mitigate the shortfall in the current fiscal year, which could be done by statute.

    The Democrats have based their political appeal almost entirely on how much public money they can spend for the last 70 years. I’d say they should have to shoulder a large part of the blame for the fiscal mess the country is in today. Borrowing more money so the government can service its pre-existing debts(which is what raising the debt ceiling is really all about) will not solve our problem.

  3. Of the 17 government shutdowns in our history, Democrats controlled the house in 15 of them. When you’ve got 3 equal branches of government this is an expected phenomenon. Concession hasn’t happened on ANY fronts- we’ve got entrenched people on both sides of the fence posturing away.

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