As the nation’s capital appeared to be heading towards another damaging federal government shutdown over the weekend, the American public seemed less interested and more preoccupied with other topics. Google search trends revealed that Americans were more curious about topics such as the shooting of Tupac Shakur, the reality show “The Golden Bachelor,” and the giant Powerball jackpot. Even National Coffee Day 2023 generated more searches than the possible government shutdown. This lack of interest may indicate that Americans now expect such crises to occur regularly in Washington.
Government shutdowns have become a modern phenomenon, highlighting the increasing division and dysfunction in the capital. While Congress occasionally failed to pass spending bills on time in the past, it did not result in widespread closures until the 1980s. Since then, Presidents from Reagan to Biden have all faced the threat of multiday shutdowns, making them seem almost routine.
The recent potential shutdown was unique in that it was not a fight between Democrats and Republicans but rather a fight between Republicans themselves. Speaker Kevin McCarthy lost control of his narrow majority and was pushed towards a shutdown by a few hard-liners who defied him, ultimately forcing him to turn to Democrats to avoid it.
Despite the political tensions, there hasn’t been much public outcry or concern from Wall Street elites, who typically worry about the economic consequences of a government shutdown. The financial markets seemed unfazed by the threat. However, experts believe that if a shutdown were to last for an extended period, affecting essential services and causing financial hardship for millions of Americans, there would likely be a stronger political backlash.
Some political veterans argue that a small minority within the Republican Party is willing to cause chaos and disruptions without facing any consequences. They believe that swing voters may punish these actions in the future. Surveys show that voters prefer their representatives to compromise rather than stick to principles if it leads to a shutdown. However, it remains unclear who will be held accountable for the recent standoff.
The current state of affairs in Washington, including shutdowns, impeachments, criminal trials, and internal revolts, has contributed to a broader sense of disillusionment with the direction of the country. This disenchantment has spread to the state level and is referred to as a “contagion effect.” Regardless of political affiliation, the majority of Americans believe that things are not going well in the country.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, warns that the public’s acceptance of government failures has lowered the bar for what they expect from their leaders. She believes that change can only occur if the public demands unity rather than outrage and holds their leaders accountable for the country’s wellbeing.