How the Government Shutdown Illustrated the Issues with American Politics that Run Deeper than Trump

In a way, it’s somewhat fitting that the one-year anniversary of the inauguration was marked by a government shutdown. For all the other scandals, crises, embarrassments, and general insanity of the Trump era, the government shutdown ultimately underscored just how much Trump has failed (if he ever even really tried) at the one thing his more non-deplorable voters hoped from him: shaking up politics as usual.

Once again, government was brought to the brink of crisis by the inability of Congress to work through its differences and work for the good of the country as a whole. The notion that Trump was some sort of dealmaker that could break through Congress’s gridlock ended up seeming laughable – not that it wasn’t already,¬†following a year where, despite the Republicans controlling the Presidency, House, and Senate, the only major piece of policy they were able to enact was a large-scale tax “reform” that primarily benefits their rich donors, while packing the courts with Republican ideologues. The idea of Trump as dealmaker now seems to ring as hollow as… well, the notion of Obama as someone who could break gridlock through bipartisanship.

The problem facing Congress is really the same one that put Trump in the White House to begin with: America is increasingly splitting into two nations that care only about advancing their own values at the expense of the other one’s. The Republicans have established that bipartisanship and standing for the good of the country doesn’t pay off electorally, only appeasing and energizing the base while entrenching your own power as much as possible, and the only way to stop them is for the Democrats to play the same game. Most people deeply disliked Trump and what he stood for, but he energized a significant portion of the American electorate, while even the Democratic base only voted for Hillary Clinton – if they even did – because she was the only viable alternative to Trump. Gridlock is no longer a disastrous fate to be avoided, but an actual political strategy, and the Democrats’ unwillingness to follow through on it once again has left the left bemoaning that the Democrats don’t really fight for them by playing by the Republicans’ rules.

But the left has no real alternative but to vote for whoever the Democrats give them while working to change who that is from within, and the same is the case for the rest of the country, many of whom may not like the Republicans’ shenanigans but not enough to vote for the Democrats. There is not a truly “free market” for votes, because despite what supporters of third parties may claim, there really are only two viable options on the ballot due to the realities of Duverger’s law; there is no realistic option other than the Democrats that would be effective at pushing the country to the left or even just correcting the Republicans’ depredations. Third parties that don’t realize this reality can’t do better than three percent of the vote in the most third-party-friendly Presidential race in decades; none have seen the opportunity to build a party from the ground up by focusing on actually winning elections in uncompetitive districts and leaving the Presidency to secondary importance until later. Without structural incentives to avoid gridlock, thanks to a Constitution written under the assumption parties wouldn’t exist at all, the only thing preventing us from reaching this point until recent decades has been an unspoken agreement between the parties not to take advantage of it, one inevitably torn to shreds the instant the Republicans broke it¬†as much as Democrats have been loath to admit it.

That’s why I’ve argued that the true solution to our problems requires something more radical than either side wants to admit and which I’m not convinced we’re suited to pull off: a large-scale overhaul of the Constitution. Dating back to the eve of the election, I’ve called for a Constitutional convention to update the Constitution to reflect our values and the realities of our experience under 220+ years of the Constitution, while reaffirming the Founders’ goals for those realities – creating true structural incentives for compromise, rebalancing the powers of the branches of government, and correcting some of the more corrosive Supreme Court decisions of recent years. For well over a year – really for the past year and a half – I’ve tried to bring myself to elaborate on my ideas for how to fix the system, with my most sustained successes coming in the period between the election and the inauguration as linked above, but mostly failing with the enormity of the task hanging over my head even as I’ve already done most of the work. This week I intend to try again and hope to succeed, because without the sorts of reforms I propose, we’re just going to have more gridlock and more shutdowns – and potentially, presidents that make Trump seem normal.

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