As articles fly round and round proclaiming the disaster of the U.S. government, we need to make one thing clear: Yes, the government may have shut down, but our democratic system is not broken. This isn’t the first time, nor will it probably be the last, that the experiment of democracy seemingly faces a crisis.
The gridlock between House Republicans and President Obama over the funding of the government and Obamacare represented frustration over the political process, and it prompted a larger conversation over the priorities of lawmakers. Specifically, there seems to be an increased concern for the continuously dangerous preference for standing in positions to garner power rather than in the name of principle, resulting in gridlocked battles with no end in sight.
But this isn’t an uncommon theme; it is actually characteristic of a multiparty democracy that deals with such gridlock on a seemingly daily basis, such as in the case of the rise to power of the Gracchi Brothers in the Roman Republic or, more recently, when the Belgian people actively encouraged feuding politicians to overcome their regional differences.
We can find further explanation for today’s gridlock through the game theory model of Hotelling’s game. The model assumes constituents are equally distributed over the political spectrum. As in the American party system, the model assumes two different parties that each want to choose a political position that guarantees the most votes. In the Nash equilibrium — a point where neither party can move to gain more votes — the two parties arrive at middle ground instead, splitting the electorate 50-50.
With the insertion of a third party, however, there can be no equilibrium. Each party is able to change its positions to outgain the other because there always is a beneficial deviation. This is what has happened in America’s two-party system with the rise of the Tea Party. Usually in the United States, one can find the oscillation between Republican and Democratic ideology meeting at the equilibrium — the theoretical center of the political spectrum— to find compromise. The emergence of the Tea Party as an influential faction in the American system, however, has shaken up the political system, introducing a new set of unstable equilibria. This lack of stability of optimal outcomes frees political parties to move around the spectrum in a pursuit of political advantage for themselves throughout the spectrum. As is clear in the Tea Party’s demand for the defunding of Obamacare, this change in equilibrium has pushed parties to extreme strategies. Each of the parties must fight for the biggest political victory or risk conceding everything.
In the history of democratic governments, this isn’t anything new. In Europe, the existence of three or more political parties is common. As described above, an increase in the quantity of parties within a political system causes more instability in positioning from a theoretical standpoint.
The U.S. government’s budget shutdown lasted a little more than a couple of weeks. However, only certain parts of the government were closed. For other countries, such a gridlock is practically insignificant. In Belgium, the frictions between the political parties from the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south have prevented the formation of a stable government for periods of up to 18 months between 2007 and 2011.
Belgium can be used as a case study for the consequences of extreme multiparty politics. French-speaking Belgians were frustrated with the Flemish-led government elected in 2007 due to the issue of granting greater autonomy to the Flemish-speaking regions. The impasse continued as the frictions between the two communities erupted from disagreements about how power is distributed between the regions and peoples. The regional tensions between the Flemish and French ultimately ignited and felled government coalitions over questions of identity, linguistics, citizenship, unity and the distribution of wealth and power.
This European case, however, ends differently from our own. It actually ends up demonstrating why our current shutdown isn’t exactly apocalyptic — and how we, the citizenry, need to respond.
Dissatisfied with the government’s leadership, or lack thereof, Belgian citizens forced a national conversation regarding the political state of the nation and its unity through large-scale protest in Brussels. The people rallied, spoke, discussed and debated the political issues that came to light during Belgium’s political crisis. Even though the politicians held to their respective positions, the people discussed and finally acted to bring a government together with marches and other attempts to bring about reconciliation. The people’s effort to soothe the differences between the politicians show citizens have power and agency beyond the voting booth in the way a nation is governed.
The gridlock we find so frustrating today should not be seen as the crisis of democracy or the crisis of the American political system. It is not the symptom of a disease but rather proof the democratic experiment is working.
Democracy can survive these temporary gridlocks and setbacks, but without the voice and civil engagement of its people in the political process, it will fall short of its ability to express the will of its people.