The dust has cleared. The din is fading. Washington licks its wounds.
Was it all for naught?
Talking heads across the political spectrum insist as much. Democrats aspire to frame the “shutdown” as a pointless tantrum, mainstream Republicans hope the episode is rapidly forgotten before it damages their reputations, and Tea Party types need to convince their base that opportunities remain for fruitful fights in the future. Of course conventional wisdom is coalescing around the notion that we’re right back where we’re started—that message makes everybody in Washington a winner.
In policy terms, that view checks out. The only “concession” conservatives managed to cash out was an utterly inconsequential tweak to Obamacare’s red tape. By and large, the laws of the land look just as they did before the storm and stress. And the same goes for politics, as the Federalist’s own David Harsayani argued persuasively: “The dynamics of the debate are the same as they were two weeks ago.”
Status quo ante bellum. Meet the new New Normal, same as the old New Normal. What a frustrating waste of time and energy! Right?
Wrong. Popular though this paradigm may be, it is incomplete. Though it generated no movement along any measurable axis of public life, Congress’s loud and messy freak-out actually highlighted something of real importance: Our country’s defining, enduring, and truly radical willingness to let passions and principles actually reshape our lived experience as a people.
Our age is infected with detachment and irony. More and more, we treat values and creeds of all kinds as mere conversational playthings; like spoiled children, we idly poke and prod at the shadows of once-vibrant ideas, and then return them to the shelf when it comes time to actually live. Ideas, virtues, dogmas—we familiarize ourselves with these funny old things only insofar as necessary for good grades and cosmopolitan conversations, our sights set ultimately on efficiency-maximizing careers and small-talk friendships in which we’ll never have to bother with them again.
Edmund Burke saw this coming. Two centuries ago, the famous curmudgeon sighed that “the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded. And the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” All around him, Burke saw the principled passions of his continent dying out, nations that had once teemed with dynamic philosophies and lively faiths being overrun by exhausted apathy. Think of David Brooks’s “Organization Kid,” but on a world-historical level: Modernity sees societies trend towards impatience with Big Questions. Why bother with archaic speculation when clear-eyed practicality can wring so much utility from our present surroundings?
And look at European governance today. The continent is mired in macroeconomic quicksand, yet its putative leaders dare not explore dramatic ways to unwind the tangle. Why? Because bondholders might not like it—and Heaven knows the end-all, be-all of modern politics is not upsetting The Markets. Terrified of rocking the boat, Europe’s technocrats confine their dispassionate debates confined to small-bore bureaucratic battles. They meekly accept mutable circumstances as indelible constraints, dutifully coloring inside lines that truly imaginative statesmen would never accept as binding.
Thankfully, America has always been different. In fact, we’ve been fundamentally, beautifully different before we were even a nation. What could be a more dramatic display of putting principle before pragmatism than blowing your life savings on a miserable sea voyage to an unknown land just so you could pray how you wanted?
This inspiring spirit reemerges endlessly. A classic paper in U.S. economic history shows that no strictly rational actor would ever have opted to rebel against Britain and pursue independence: Even when punitive measures like the Navigation Acts were at their worst, the costs they imposed were nothing compared to the expense of obtaining and securing independence. The birth of our nation itself annihilates any suggestion that practicality or efficiency ought to be our lodestar.
What if Standard & Poor had been around when Andrew Jackson was ripping apart the Second National Bank limb from limb, no doubt roiling financial forecasts in the process, simply because he truly believed it had failed to serve the people? Was it cautious prudence or courageous principle that inspired Lincoln to free the slaves?
America’s enduring willingness to stand on principle has long struck observers of our culture as deeply inspiring, if slightly insane. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville waxed admiringly about how these feisty provincials preferred dynamism and volatility to complacent rule by wise elites:
Democracy does not confer the most skilful kind of government upon the people, but it produces that which the most skilful governments are frequently unable to awaken, namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, under favorable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits.
In contemporary terms, Americans expect much more from our politics than talented technocracy. It is easy to imagine a thousand ways that a non-ideological people could manage their affairs more efficiently, more “skillfully,” than the systems we have put in place. But recall the poetic way in which Chief Justice Warren Burger explained why a nifty bureaucratic scheme that polluted the separation of powers could not stand: “Convenience and efficiency are not the primary objectives — or the hallmarks — of democratic government.”
There is more to the soul of America than perfect econometric parabolas and trains that run on time. To the unending dismay of Morning Joe panelists and the self-parodying No Labels, we actually don’t see politics and policy as some amoral math problem. We see them instead as a form of moral anthropology, as a collective drafting board for a communal autobiography we are constantly writing and rewriting, forever elaborating and refining just who it is that we are and just where it is that we’re going.
So the handwringing caucus is half right: Something truly outlandish did pour out of D.C. over the past three weeks. But it was less the partial shutdown itself and more the vapid whining it elicited.
Why feign shock that asking a pluralistic populace with wildly differing ethical and economic priorities to elect a representative government will produce—drumroll, please—a deeply divided Congress? That’s a feature, not a bug. Our American birthright is that we actually have our knock-down, drag-out arguments, not play with them in debating halls only to check them at the doors of Congress so that Beltway elites can double down on some split-the-difference future in which zero ordinary citizens find hope or inspiration.
This country’s true telos is not soothing skittish investors. It’s not bowing before ratings agencies. It’s not minimizing Economic Uncertainty or maximizing GDP. That much should be obvious to the sons and daughters of revolutionaries who put first principles first and let second-order practicalities reconstitute themselves in their wake.
We are on this Earth to continue a breathtakingly bold experiment in advancing human freedom that is bound to come at some cost, not to hush up and mind our manners.
I’m not saying that real Americans must have supported the shutdown—not by any stretch. Nobody believes that the past month showcases the best we can do as a country. But while exhausted quiescence and lowered expectations may empty the air of shouting, the nihilism they reflect is not any kind of national harmony worth having.
Yeats famously rhapsodized that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The poem that contains these words is a critical reflection on the soul-sucking aimlessness and disillusionment of post-WWI Europe, but the Axis of Acela seems to have mistaken it for a how-to manual.
The American way is not to push all our passions aside whenever a continuing resolution comes due. We are called to something much higher: To dive deep into our differences with enthusiasm and energy, and to see what serendipitous new syntheses we can build from the pieces we find there. If this makes our very own “sophisters, economists, and calculators” deeply uncomforable, then we might just be on the right track.
Andrew C. Quinn studies public policy and human happiness at the American Enterprise Institute.