The level of dysfunction characterizing our political elites has reached a new high yesterday when the Senate failed to agree to a House-passed bill to keep the United States government funded for another month. Although the Republicans have the majority in the Senate, they don’t have 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster by the Democrats. Worse, not even all Republicans support the bill.
Predictably both sides are blaming each other. Donald Trump tweeted:
Democrats are far more concerned with illegal immigrants than they are with our great military or safety at our dangerous southern border. They could have easily made a deal but decided to play shutdown politics instead.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Minority leader in the House, had a different view:
Despite controlling the House, the Senate and the White House the Republicans were so incompetent, so negligent that they couldn’t get it together to keep government open.
And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said
There’s no one more to blame for the position we find ourselves than President Trump. Instead of bringing us all together, he’s pulled us apart.
But as I have argued in Ages of Discord, the problem we are facing is larger than Trump versus Schumer. One of the indices of intraelite fragmentation that I track is political polarization in Congress.
The twentieth century low point was in c.1950, but it was followed by a very gradual increase. The actual breakpoint was 1980, when the index of polarization started growing very rapidly. Other measures of intraelite polarization and conflict show very similar dynamics (Figures 11.4 and 11.5). Especially after 1980, politics at the federal level have become increasingly contentious and uncooperative (page 205 in Ages of Discord).
Here’s the curve of polarization in Congress over the past two centuries:
There is some roughness in the beginning because the numbers of legislators were small, but the curve clearly indicates the two “Eras of Good Feeling” (the 1820s and the 1950s), when polarization was very low and US political elites cooperative; and the two Ages of Discord (1860–1920 and today). In other words, the decline of the elite consensus and cooperation started much earlier than 2016, when Trump was elected.
And here’s another proxy for political dysfunction:
As you can see, after an initial uptick during the 1970s, the threat, or actual occurrence, of filibusters has been trending up. Interestingly, the first government shutdowns also took place during the late 1970s. I am thinking that I should add them as yet another proxy of government dysfunction.
Keep in mind that what is at stake now is only an extension of government spending for another 30 days. So even if the current impasse is overcome, then we will have another one in February, and who knows for how long. Then we get to the next fiscal year, and it’s deja vu all over again. In fact, given the degree of intra-elite conflict we currently have in the US, I wouldn’t be surprised if we are soon in a permanent state of government shutdown.