Shutdown: Don’t Hate the Players, Hate the Game

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’ve been reading around the internet the myriad reactions to the US government shutdown. Seemingly universally, these reactions all assign blame for the shutdown to someone. Most are blaming congressional republicans, but some are blaming senate democrats and the administration, while others are blaming both at once. I wish to challenge this entire way of talking about the government shutdown by arguing that the shutdown is the result of structural forces outside the control of any of the participating factions. I will argue that instead of blaming republicans, democrats, or both, we should blame none of the above. Instead of hating the players, we should hate the game–the political institutions that have failed us.

In order to establish my claim that the shutdown is the result of structural failures, I need to provide an explanation of the behavior of both camps that establishes that neither camp is acting malevolently in a blameworthy way. This means I need to show the reader that neither the republicans nor the democrats could have been expected to act other than how they did. I must then go on to show that the reasons the parties act as they do are structural, that they proceed from the nature of our governing institutions.

The Republicans Are Behaving Reasonably

Why are the republicans making this stand against Obamacare? There are two groups of republicans, each of which has its own reasons:

  1. True Believers–these republicans genuinely believe that shutting the government down to stop Obamacare will work. They believe this because of Barack Obama’s long history of giving into similar ultimatums (most famously in 2011, when they got him to sign the Budget Control Act in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling–which was indeed a mistake by the administration, because it contributed to normalizing and encouraging fights of this kind).
  2. Cynics–these republicans do not think that this tactic will work, but they do think that they need to make a show of attempting it in order to appease their voters back home. They are concerned about maintaining office, and have more reason to fear opposition from true believers (in the form of Tea Party challengers) than they have to fear from moderates or democrats, due to relentless gerrymandering by republican dominated state governments.

The true believers are making a mistake, but it is a rational, explainable error. Because Barack Obama has a history of caving, it is not unreasonable to think that, despite his rhetoric, he will cave again. There are specific reasons why Obama will not cave in this instance, but true believers are ignorant of those reasons and consequently can’t consider them when choosing their course of action. The cynics, for their part, are acting entirely rationally. Gerrymandering really has made it in the interest of republicans to be more extreme than they otherwise would be, because their home districts really are much further to the right than the nation as a whole. I would argue that while republican grass roots campaigners tend to be true believers, the congressmen themselves, with few exceptions, are overwhelmingly cynics. They are acting in their electoral interest even though they know they will not be successful. Commentators miss out on this, because they still imagine that these republican congressmen are going to return to home districts that look like America on the average, and so they perceive the republican effort as self-destructive. It is self-destructive collectively–the nation as a whole will tilt against republicans as a result of this–but each individual congressman is still better off playing to the right to avoid Tea Party challengers. The only republicans who personally do not benefit electorally from the shutdown are the congressmen in the marginal seats, and those are the ones opposing the shutdown. Thanks to Gerrymandering, there are no longer enough of those to tilt the balance.

The Democrats Are Behaving Reasonably

Why will Barack Obama not negotiate with congressional republicans this time? The Obama administration has been faced with stiff congressional opposition since the 2010 midterm election and as a result it has failed to pass much legislation. Consequently, Obamacare is the administration’s one lasting legislative accomplishment. The particular part of Obamacare that the republicans are attempting to delay is essential to the function of that legislation. Why? Obamacare can best be explained as a combination of three reforms, all of which are necessary in order to achieve the objective (universal coverage)

  1. No exclusion due to pre-existing conditions.
  2. Individual mandate, to ensure enough healthy people join the pool for insurance companies to remain profitable while doing #1.
  3. Aid to the poor, to ensure that people who otherwise couldn’t comply with #2 can.

Obamacare cannot succeed without the individual mandate, because the individual mandate is necessary for private insurance companies to remain profitable under the current model. Obamacare is the most important policy the administration has successfully enacted. Consequently, it is reasonable for the administration (in conjunction with senate democrats) to defend the individual mandate to the death. True believers point to Obama’s postponement of the employer mandate as evidence that he can be intimidated, but the employer mandate is not one of the essential policies that allows Obamacare to function–it merely spreads some of the cost of insuring people with pre-existing conditions onto firms.  The individual mandate and state aid can manage the project without the employer mandate, it just means that costs to the state and to individual consumers will be slightly higher than they otherwise would be.

This is a Structural Problem

In cases like this in which all parties are acting reasonably yet the outcome is still disastrous, we need to look for perverse incentives–reasons individuals or groups have to act in ways that are ultimately harmful. In other words, what are the rules of the game that are causing our players to play in this destructive way, and how might we amend them?

First, there is the already mentioned gerrymandering. Gerrymandering creates congressional districts that are highly polarized. The result is a congress that is in turn highly polarized–elected leaders reflect the populations that elect them. Historically, gerrymandering was limited because state governments typically had either divided governors and state legislatures or had large enough minorities in state legislatures to prevent the most egregious use. However, in recent years, state governments have become gripped by one party rule with both the legislature and the governorship controlled by the same party. Here’s what happened after the 2010 mid-terms, when the Tea Partiers came in:


With the majority of state governments under one-party control, Gerrymandering has run amok. Since republicans control more states than do democrats, republicans have moved further to the right than democrats have moved to the left, although both have become more polarized, according to a long-term, on-going study:

So this is one source of our trouble. Making matters worse, most one party states are Gerrymandering districts within themselves as well, to preserve their one party control. This means that the only way to do much of anything about this would be to bar state legislatures from setting district borders and to instead give that task to a non-partisan third party (e.g. the courts/an NGO).

Polarization also makes it more difficult for divided governments to do much of anything–as I mentioned above, Obamacare is the primary legislative achievement of this administration in no small part because it only maintained a united government for two years (2009-2011). Ending Gerrymandering would likely reduce polarization and consequently increase the capacity of the government to legislate in the absence of legislative/executive unity.

Another way of attacking this issue structurally is to eliminate debt ceiling fights as a viable tactical possibility for the parties. Aside from Denmark, no other wealthy country has an equivalent to the American debt ceiling, which separates spending authorization from borrowing authorization. In most other countries, the government is always authorized to borrow to meet whatever spending obligations its legislature agrees to impose upon it. If we got rid of the debt ceiling and instead approved spending and borrowing together in the same legislation, it would be impossible for a political party to pursue this tactic and consequently we could not get this result.

That said, there are other, more radical things we could do. The gridlock in government is itself a consequence of the possibility of legislative/executive division. It is possible to unify the executive and legislative branches in a permanent way that expedites the political process. Most European countries do this–the one that comes most readily to my mind is Britain. In Britain, the party that controls the legislature automatically controls the executive branch. The Prime Minister is by definition the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament and simultaneously himself a voting member of parliament. The British have elections every five years, so each administration is guaranteed 5 years of control over both branches, giving it considerable ability to make big, sweeping changes. The Obama administration only enjoyed two years like that, and even then it operated under the specter of filibustering, something the British government does not need to worry about.

Reforming Gerrymandering has a long fuse and adopting a British conception of the legislative and executive branches is quite radical, so the most efficient and pragmatic of the options I offer above is the elimination of the debt ceiling altogether. Nonetheless, the United States could benefit from all three of these suggestions. That said, can you see congress voting not merely to raise the debt ceiling, but to eliminate it and consequently the tactic of refusing to raise it? Our structural problems are so severe and so intractable that our political institutions are wholly incapable of reforming themselves. If a system cannot self-correct, its quality can only stagnate or deteriorate further, until, eventually, a system that could have survived had it been reformed is instead doomed to die altogether. In the long-run, that’s the direction we’re headed with our structural institutions as they are.