Are voters responsible for a government shutdown?

A federal government shutdown isn't only a function of leaders who are unable to balance principles and interests. Voters also add to gridlocked government rather than Goldilocks cooperation with a winner-take-all view and by being politically disengaged.

Students visit the Liberty Bell at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia Sept. 30. National parks face possible closure under a shutdown of the federal government.

A government shutdown is a mighty weapon to wield in American politics. It towers over a Senate filibuster, the gerrymandered district, or the walkout of one party in the House. It goes far beyond the tools of blockage provided in the Constitution, such as the presidential veto or the Supreme Court ruling overturning a law of Congress. It is gridlock writ large upon the daily lives of the American people.

Yet even as blame for a shutdown is assigned to one party or both – or only the tea party – Americans need to recognize how much they created this gridlock instead of a Goldilocks government of not-too-hot-not-too-cold cooperation.

One icon of common-ground governance, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, warns that democracy only functions with engaged citizens. But, she points out, one-third of Americans can’t name the three branches of government – let alone say what they do. More people know the names of judges on “American Idol” than on the Supreme Court.

Even for those who have passed a civics exam, a shutdown is a wake-up call to the cost of assuming politics is only winner-take-all. The just-released edition of “The Almanac of American Politics” explains why Washington has all but ground to a halt because of that Manichean belief:

“After the 2004 election, there was speculation that the country was headed toward a permanent Republican majority, and after the 2008 election, there was speculation that it was headed toward a permanent Democratic majority. The results of the 2006 and 2010 elections ended such speculation. The results of the 2012 election revealed an electorate that is closely divided, as it was during the years from 1995 to 2005, and increasingly polarized, demographically and geographically.”

The humility to find a balance between standing by one’s principles and accommodating the principles of others does not begin in Washington. It comes from each voter. The Constitution’s ability to force compromise was not designed only for political parties or the three branches of government. It also demands a virtue in all Americans to examine the facts and assumptions behind their strong opinions and to understand the facts and assumptions of others. Otherwise, as the Constitution’s great designer James Madison warned, people will be “more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”

Recent research by Philip Fernbach of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder shows that voters think they understand how policies work better than they actually do. When forced to explain their views – then realizing how little they know – they become less extreme and polarized.

A government shutdown comes close to challenging the Constitution itself. It represents a massive failure of understanding of how the founding document was the result of delegates balancing principles and interests. Benjamin Franklin appealed to delegates during their deliberations with these words:

“I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present; but, sir, I am not sure I shall never approve of it, for, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise....”

Not every compromise is principled. Americans ended up rejecting the Missouri Compromise, which preserved and extended slavery. And not every principle is closed off to compromise. Even free speech can be restricted in cases of danger to lives.

A government shutdown might end up having one redeeming value. It could act as a mirror, revealing to Americans the need for greater political maturity among themselves. Washington needs more “adults” to avoid its drastic politics. That task now more clearly rests on voters.

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