When my editor asked what I’d be writing about this week I replied, “Take a guess.” She responded with, “Oh right, something actually happened!” While I resent the implication that political activity isn’t a whir of constant exciting activity, both comments made the same point. Right now, there is one dominant topic of conversation in the American political world: the government shutdown. I’ve seen friends who have never shown an interest in politics post passionately about the shutdown on Facebook. The news is awash with stories about the woman whose cancer treatment is stalled because of the shutdown, the couple that can’t get married at Yosemite National Park and, of course, Cornell students not getting to work at their government internships. With all of these pressing issues at the forefront, adding something new to the conversation is difficult, but I shall endeavor to do just that by asking the following question: Does the fact that people are aware of the government shutdown matter? Will the spike in awareness about what Congress is (not) doing have noticeable political effects? Personally, I can see it play out in several ways.
The first possibility is that this government shutdown and the heightened attention people are paying to it will not have any political effects. Although we don’t know when the federal government will get up-and-running again, most experts predict it to be relatively soon (within a week from today is a safe estimate, I think). Most experts also agree that the next congressional elections will be held Nov. 4, 2014. This government shutdown may seem like very old news by the time most members of Congress have to stand for reelection. If elections were held tomorrow, people would want to hold members of Congress responsible for this shutdown, but who knows what the voting public will be mad about in November 2014?
The other reason to think the public attention won’t have an effect is that, even if the average voter is still angry about this government shutdown in November 2014, it is unlikely that the people responsible for the shutdown will lose an election. The shutdown happened because of the steadfast position of some extreme Republicans in the House of Representatives. The borders of congressional districts for most members of House of Representatives are drawn in such a way that the district has a strong bias toward one party or the other. Most members of congress do not worry about the general election as much as the primary election, in which they have to be concerned about challenges from the more ideological wing of their party. The ultra-conservative Republicans who caused this shutdown might have very little to fear from the electorate, so this awareness and anger might not be able to affect their elections.
The cynic in me says that there won’t be any political effect from the shutdown, but what if I let my inner optimist shine through? I think there are two plausible scenarios in which the public’s awareness about the shutdown can affect politics.
The first effect could be an electoral one. Forget what I said about the party bias of congressional districs for a second because we don’t need all of those members who are responsible for the shutdown to lose — we just need 17 seats to flip from Republicans to Democrats. Although this is not an easy task, right now people are as angry at Congress as they have ever been and the Republicans are getting most of the blame. More than 20 house Republicans have agreed to sign a “clean continuing resolution” to get the government going. That action translates to, “the voters in my district might actually fire me if this shutdown doesn’t end soon.” Maybe all this focus on the government shutdown will motivate enough people who are typically apathetic to vote next year. More likely than that, maybe people who are regular voters will be encouraged to up their commitment and become precinct organizers. This could be the deciding factor in some elections!
A final outcome this heightened political awareness could have is to make more Americans realize what the government actually does. Now that we’ve witnessed useful websites go down, parks and monuments close, school districts forced to wait for funding, visa and passport issues and dozens of other effects, maybe the conversation about government funding will shift. When people think about what the government does for them maybe they’ll remember that the government positively affects many areas of our life. I think most people like their food inspected for disease and having a place to report unsafe workplace conditions, both of which were scaled way down due to the shutdown. Maybe this heightened awareness will reveal to people that they actually like some of what the government does.
All of my friends know the federal government has shut down. I don’t know whether this will have any political ramifications, but I think it might. I hope that the members of the Republican party who caused this shutdown have to answer for it at the ballot box. I also hope that the next time my editor is able to guess exactly what my article topic is it will be because the government did something good rather than because it stopped working altogether.