A Political Crisis in the US?

From December 22, 2018, all executive departments and federal agencies in the United States are shut for 26 days. The last time they were closed for nearly so long, 21 days, was between December 16, 1995, and January 5, 1996, when President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was fighting the Republican-controlled Congress to keep up the finance for his social programs. President Donald Trump, who is fighting a Congress controlled by the Democrats for funding the construction of a US-Mexico border wall, has broken Clinton’s record. Clinton won the battle 23 years ago. Trump’s prospects are not so obvious.

Some 800,000 federal employees have been sent home or are working without pay. Many of them are lining up at the food distribution centers organized for them by the Washington DC based charity, Capital Area Food Bank, which dedicates its work to food banks, food pantries, and food distribution.1 According to recent polls, 83 percent of the respondents believe that the gap in federal funding caused by the shutdown has unfairly impacted federal workers, who should get back pay for the time they worked.2

Three out of four Americans (74 percent) feel “frustrated” or “angry”. They say that apart from hurting the economy the government shutdown is also embarrassing for the country. Although the number of angry Americans is greater among the Democrats rather than among the Republicans (86 percent vs. 56 percent, respectively),3 the public outcry can be described as bipartisan: 71 percent of the respondents believe that Congress should pass a bill to reopen the government now while budget talks continue.4

But the conflicting parties are not ready to back down, despite the negative public sentiments their fighting has provoked. The thing is that the allocation of $5 billion for a US-Mexico wall, which President Trump demands and which the Democrats in the House of Representatives have refused to release, is nothing more than a pretext for the conflict.

The battle in Washington is not over money but over values. The border wall is the symbol of a split in US society.

It is a wall that divides two worlds within the United States rather than two neighboring countries. One is the world of white workers in the central states, who have been descending the social ladder over the past decades and whose fear and aggression President Trump represents. The other is a young and multifaceted cosmopolitan world of the open coastal states.
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The Trump Wall will not solve the problem of security, illegal migration and drug trafficking, as the US commander-in-chief claims it will, but it could create an illusion of stability and inviolability of values of his electorate, the 38 percent of Americans who have sided with Trump in this conflict.

For those who are directly involved in the confrontation over the wall, it is also the first round of the election race, which is why its outcome is so important for both sides. They are fighting tooth and nail, not for the wall but for their electorates and thus for their putative victory in 2020. Worse still, each conflicting side is working only for its electorate, with both camps keeping to diametrically opposite views on the participants in the battle and its subject.

Trump has the support of his core electorate, for whom any concession on his part would amount not only to a defeat but also to his refusal to fight for their world to the last drop of blood. President Trump, who has failed to expand his electoral base in the two years since being elected, cannot afford to lose those who voted for him in 2016 and on whom his possible reelection in 2020 depends.

The Democrats cannot back down either. The war against Trump’s wall is an opportunity to show that the time of uncontrolled presidency is over, that the Americans voted for the Democrats at the midterm elections for a reason, and that they will set the rules of the game from now on. If the Democrats back down, this will send a signal to the electorate and President Trump himself that he can use blackmail and threats to push through his own agenda in the next two years.

In other words, the stakes in this conflict are so high that the public sentiment can hardly influence its outcome. The American society is both a hostage and the audience that can influence the conflicting sides’ political future.

1 As Shutdown Continues, Thousands Of Federal Workers Visit D.C.-Area Pop-Up Food Banks//National Public Radio. January, 13. 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/01/13/684824384/as-shutdown-continues-thousands-of-federal-workers-visit-d-...

2 Ipsos poll on behalf of NPR. January, 10. 2019. https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2019-01/ipsos-npr_shutdown_topline_01101...

3 Ibid.

4 Ipsos poll on behalf of NPR. January, 10. 2019. https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2019-01/ipsos-npr_shutdown_topline_01101...

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.