The shutdown of the federal government feels like a direct result of the weakening of the political parties.
I know that sounds counter-intuitive to many: after all, aren’t we living in an age where partisanship and political polarization are at all-time highs?
Sure, but that’s actually a contributing factor. Remember that the party apparatus isn’t interested in winning any given Congressional seat. They are interested in winning the entire Congress and in winning the Presidency. They are only interested in the Colorado 1st district if it helps them achieve those greater goals–and would gladly sacrifice it, if they thought doing so would help them get to those larger goals. But individual members of Congress don’t think that way. They want to hold onto their own seats.
But over the last 20 years or so we’ve had a general weakening of the parties. Law changes and Supreme Court decisions have allowed candidates to raise huge amounts of money without the backing of their own party. This means that the parties can no longer use the threat of withholding resources from a candidate to curtail their votes on certain issues. At the same time, many parts of the country have been slowly sorting themselves out by social and political factors–that is, Republicans are moving to Republican neighborhoods, and Democrats are moving to Democratic neighborhoods. This has encouraged individual Congressmen, and even some Senators, to take ever more radical stances. Finally, the parties are both getting better at drawing Gerrymandered maps–with the help of more accurate population data and more powerful computers–effectively locking in the winners of many districts to a particular political party. This means that the most important election for many–most?–Congressman is their party primary, and not the general election.
The combination of those factors means that individual members of Congress are rewarded by their constituencies for perceived extremism, even as the punishments they face for those extreme behaviors are diminishing.
Now you combine that situation with an absolutely absurd “rule”: the so-called Hastert rule. The Hastert Rule, named after a recent Speaker of the House, says that the Speaker won’t bring a bill to the floor of the Congress if it is not approved of by a majority of the Speaker’s party. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing this is also an attempt to enforce Party Unity in an era of weakening political parties.
So now we have weak parties, unable to control their own membership, and a membership that is slowly drifting towards extremism–and a rule that allows less than 28% of the House to effectively stop a bill from passing. (The GOP controls 56% of the votes in the House of Representatives, and a bill has to be approved of by at least half of that 58% to come to the floor.)
Which is why the Government just shut down: the Senate version of the budget bill would easily pass if it were allowed to come to a vote, but the Speaker won’t let it onto the floor because of the Hastert Rule. And why won’t he violate the Hastert Rule? Because Boehner is afraid that if he goes against the extremists in his own Party, he won’t be reelected Speaker. The party leadership has become so weak, that they are afraid of their own back-benchers.
And thus does the governance of the most powerful country on the planet grind to a temporary halt.