Over half a century ago, the researchers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril identified a paradox in American public opinion that largely holds true today. Most Americans, they argued, were “ideologically conservative” but “operationally liberal” when it came to their beliefs about government. People liked the idea of limited government in the abstract, believing they could and should be able to get along without government’s help. But when you asked them about the specific things government does, it turned out that they liked just about all of them, and thought government should spend as much or more to keep performing those tasks.
This contradiction, and the persistence of that abstract belief in small government, is in large part what allows Republicans — whose positions on policy issues are mostly unpopular — to stay competitive and hold on to power. But the partial shutdown of the federal government is giving all of us a vivid demonstration of what government actually does. By taking it away.
Let’s look around at just some of what’s happening right now:
- The Food and Drug Administration has halted food safety inspections.
- Environmental Protection Agency inspectors are no longer monitoring compliance with environmental laws.
- Air traffic controllers, who make sure the 43,000 daily flights in the U.S. don’t slam into each other and send some of the 2.6 million passengers plunging to a fiery death, are working without pay.
- Aid programs like food stamps and the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which provides formula, food, and other kinds of assistance to poor mothers and their children, could soon run out of money and have to curtail benefits.
- Federal contractors are losing $200 million a day, according to Bloomberg.
- The backlog at immigration courts, already severe, is growing worse as the processing of cases has shut down.
- The E-Verify system, which allows employers to verify that employees are legal to work in the United States, is no longer operating.
- Small-business loans and government-backed mortgages are on hold, leaving businesses stuck and home buyers in limbo.
- Farmers who rely on government loans and services have been particularly hard hit, leaving the survival of many family farms in jeopardy.
- The FBI Agents Association is warning that the shutdown “is threatening national security as thousands of federal law enforcement professionals, working without pay, grow anxious that personal financial hardships may jeopardize their security clearances and as furloughs of their support staffs slow investigations.”
- Preparations for the vital 2020 U.S. Census have been impeded by the shutdown, and “dozens of other surveys the bureau conducts have been stopped, leading to information gaps that could destabilize the U.S. economy, economists say.”
- Without park rangers to keep order, national parks have been overrun with trash, vandalism and misbehavior by visitors; some people have even cut down trees in Joshua Tree National Park.
That’s just a small selection of the effects the shutdown is having, which range from the inconvenient (museums being closed) to the life-threatening (no food inspections to make sure your kids don’t get E. coli poisoning). It’s almost as if the federal government, rather than just being an oppressive bunch of faceless bureaucrats taking your money and getting all up in your business, actually performs lots of important duties that allow a modern society to function!
And as we’ve seen so often, Donald Trump has a unique ability to take something that’s bad and make it worse. The administration is now considering declaring a state of emergency and taking money from “dozens of flood control projects in areas affected by recent natural disasters, including the Texas coastline inundated by Hurricane Harvey” in order to pay for Trump’s border wall. If you find that horrifying, that’s the whole point. One administration official told The New York Times that floating ideas like that “was as much a political exercise intended to threaten projects Democrats valued as a pragmatic one.”
The idea behind that is the same one that has driven Republican strategy in every shutdown they’ve created. It says that since Democrats care about government and Republicans don’t, as the effects of the shutdown on the country get worse and worse, Democrats will inevitably cave to Republican demands. The Democrats’ concern for human suffering makes them weak, while Republicans can watch the chaos unfold and be assured that if anything, it will just convince voters that government doesn’t work and therefore they should elect the party that holds government in nothing but contempt.
This strategy is not completely crazy, but it does have one major flaw: Taking away government reminds people of what government does. It puts the focus not on the ideological, abstract sense of government but on the operational, specific sense of government. It shows people all the things so many would prefer to ignore as they convince themselves that they’re completely self-reliant.
That’s why it’s usually Republicans who lose these conflicts. They may not care about what happens to Americans in a shutdown, but they do care about their own political fortunes. As the public grows more and more dismayed over the situation, and properly affixes blame on the GOP, Republicans eventually decide that it needs to end. The only question is how much damage will be done by the time we reach that point.