Blame Politics for the Shutdown

The Society convened for the ninth time this semester to debate Resolved: Our political system, not our politics, led to the government shutdown.

Keynoting for the affirmation were President Peter Prindiville  (SFS ’14) of Illinois and, making his induction, Mr. Riley Mellen (SFS ’15) of Rhode Island. The negation keynote speakers were Ms. Abigail Grace (SFS ’16) of Mississippi and, making his induction, Mr. Patrick Musgrave (COL ’16) of Indiana.

Mr. Mellen began his speech emphatically: “I’m here to talk about the shutdown. Capital ‘s’, capital ‘hutdown.'” He laid out three key reasons why the “bricks and mortar” of our government led to its temporary suspension, the first being an entrenched American tendency to idolize “Philosophical Kings,” as evidenced by lawmakers’ conviction that their refusal to fund the government would garner nation-wide reverence. Secondly, Mr. Mellen argued, our first-past-the-post and winner-take-all voting systems eliminate any incentive for competing parties to compromise. Finally, the Founding Fathers, in their naiveté, left the power to redistrict in the hands of the states. Two-hundred-plus-some years later, gerrymandering continually favors incumbents and guarantees that extreme radicalism will not carry any consequences. “Ted Cruz, after all, is only a rational actor following the incentive structures put in place by our government.”

Through his opening speech, Mr. Musgrave elucidated the Constitution’s ability to functionally govern the United States, as evidenced by 225 years of success. Pulling from James Madison’s 57th Federalist Paper, Mr. Musgrave explained that without virtuous leaders our society will not flourish, pointing to Ted Cruz’s reading of Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor. Yet just because our current leaders lack virtue doesn’t mean we can disregard times of flourishing, such as the collaborative-spirited 1950s and 60s. “Our union has been strong and functioned in the past. We need leaders of virtue.”

President Prindiville, however, argued that a structure is only as strong as its foundation. Any building that cannot weather the shocks of an earthquake is too inflexible, much as our government is. The system of checks and balances goes too far in preserving each branch’s independence, leading to stalemates and rigidity. Further, competing electoral mandates cultivate the ideological entrenchment epitomized in the seventeen-day shutdown. “Our 18th century brick and mortar foundation of government cannot bear the shocks of modern political divide.” 

“Our 18th century brick and mortar foundation of government cannot bear the shocks of modern political divide.”

Ms. Grace framed her argument under three causes of the steep bipartisanship that led to the shutdown, each of which is independent of our structures of government. First, twitter and the 24-hour news cycle encourage sensationalism, appeal to a certain slice of the political spectrum, and result in a news system that allows for factionalization and for pertinent but non-sensational news to slip through the cracks. Further, bipartisan frienships among Congressmen and among the public have fallen to the wayside, Ms. Grace argued, implying that social divide engenders political divide.

After reading the house rules, Vice President Spagnuolo opened the floor to debate. Mr. Warren Wilson reminded the society that both politics and the political system caused the shutdown, yet to place blame we must ask ourselves what it is we expect from our government and what we expect from our leaders. Mr. Wilson, quoting James Madison, suggested we ought to expect more from the former. “We must create a government of non-angels that can rule non-angels.” Ms. Julia Christensen argued that the current extremism of political parties was not present in earlier eras, pointing out how divergent and often times moderate members of each party are punished. Mr. Gavin Bade pointed to the plethora of parliamentary governments world-wide that, thanks to a diminished concern for extremist minority opinions and institutional safeguards against stalemates, function better than our own democratic republic. Ms. Emily Coccia argued that elements outside of the government encourage the two-party system that brings down our government, offering lobbyists and the sensationalist news media as examples.

Mr. Sam Klienman (COL ’16) argued that just as the MLB indirectly encourages managers to buy players who are “bad for the game,” so too does the US government create perverse incentive structures that reward extremism and a refusal to compromise. Ms. Charlotte Pennington (MSB ’16) countered that stalemates are in fact successes of the system and lead to eventual compromise. Mr. Alejandro Perez-Reyes (COL ’17) used the common adage that to vote for a third party candidate is to throw your vote away as evidence of a system that doesn’t enable people to vote with conscience. Ms. Rosa Cuppari (SFS ’17) reminded the Society that inflexibility has kept our system alive this long, and that we have the tools at our disposal to amend our founding document if we so desire.

Mr. Elijah Jatovsky argued that communication has little hope of overcoming stark differences in a system that offers no chance to communicate. Mr. Evan Monod, after congratulating his mentee Mr. Mellen and jokingly scolding him for calling Ted Cruz a rational actor, argued that our system is superior to a parliamentary system in that it allows for individual voices to be heard. Vice President Spagnuolo argued that a series of idiosyncratic events over time have shaped the system to make a shutdown inevitable, including universal sufferage without universal education. The good news is that a system is easier to repair than a nation’s political spirit. “If you’re on the negation’s side, you’re saying that the issue is a corruption of the American soul. That’s huge. I love Les Mis, but I’m not manning any barricade today.” Mr. Greg Miller asserted that while our political system allows for the government to shutdown, it does not cause it to do so. Learning from failures and voting in new representatives is a manifestation of our system doing its job. 

Ms. Colleen Wood responded that the government shutdown has alerted the American public to the horror of their representatives, implying that change was soon to come and assured the Society that America has not and will not crumble. Ms. Amanda Wynter cited Federalist Paper 14 in saying that the first end of a government is to protect liberties. However, for it to do so, leaders must want to run the system, and ours do not. Mr. Jacob Arber reminded us that in defunding the government, lawmakers were not proactive in causing a shutdown but merely voted in response to the 1982 Anti-Deficiency Act. Hence, the law, an entrenched part of government, is at fault rather than the actors and reactors.

To close the debate, Ms. Grace urged the society not to be swept up in a romanticized vision of a parliamentary system of government, reminding us that it took France many tries to “get it right.” Parliamentary values are not American values. Direct representation is critical to our governmental framework.

President Prindiville reminded the Society that politicians will always disagree, but the government cannot allow for its movers and shakers to render it incapacitated. “A shutdown renders the government unable to uphold its overarching goal of protecting its citizens.” A system should account for and be able to exist with its more radical members.

Mr. Musgrave asked the Society why, if the government were at fault, have we had years of shutdown-free prosperity enabling us to grow into a world leader? The reductionist culture that Buzzfeed and Twitter are emblematic of has ushered compromise and dialogue out of style in favor if “just winning.” But, Mr. Musgrave asked, “If one side wins, does America win?”

To close the debate, Mr. Riley Mellen agreed with Mr. Musgrave’s desire for voices to be heard. However, modern-day gerrymandering renders all voices the same, eliminating in districts the clash of party ideologies that generally fosters dialogue.  Mr. Mellen warned the society against the inertia of the past few weeks that has put the shutdown’s political catalysts such as Cruz at the forefront of our minds. “Believe you me, ladies and gentlemen, a shutdown was in the cards from the beginning.”

The Society voted 25 – 1 – 31 to negate.

Congratulations to the two newest members of the Philodemic, Mr. Mellen and Mr. Musgrave!


Madeleine M. Ringwald

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