From Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers lunging at a colleague during a contentious speaker vote last winter to Nancy Pelosi tearing up speeches on TV, American politics in recent years have had their fair share of moments that would belong in your favorite reality television program. Last week’s near-government shutdown was just another one of these examples of the dysfunctional, yet sometimes comical, state of our government.
This time, the public did not seem to have much to say about it. Unless you tuned into the news or are a federal employee, you might not have even known that a shutdown was looming. No one I know was posting on social media and it was barely addressed in classrooms at the University of Connecticut. There was an alarming lack of panic from the American public and the fear of a shutdown almost became normal. With vital government programs and the livelihoods of 800,000 federal employees on the line, why weren’t Americans outraged?
The history of government shutdowns has shown an interesting progression in American politics. Under Ronald Reagan’s administration in 1981, a funding gap caused the first total government shutdown in American history, resulting in the furlough of hundreds of thousands of employees. From that instance through the end of his administration, the government shut down periodically but never for more than a few days at a time.
As time went on, these day-long shutdowns turned into multi-day shutdowns. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush caused a three-day shutdown when he refused to sign a short-term funding measure. Five years later, President Bill Clinton and the congressional Republicans caused a five-day and subsequent 21-day government shutdown.
From that time on, government shutdowns became commonplace in U.S. politics. Over the past two decades, there have been multiple long-term shutdowns under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The longest spanned 34 days under the Trump Administration.
The increasing frequency of government shutdowns and other political catastrophes has created an environment where Americans have come to expect drama and therefore, will not take notice when it occurs. According to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research archive, there were 10 polls asking for American views on the 2018 shutdown. This time, there were two. Even in the past four years, there has been a drastic change in the amount of attention that Americans give to political dysfunction.
The shift in the way that Americans respond to politics seemed to have happened in the past two decades. As social media took over as the main source of news for much of the public, American politics were polarized and changed for entertainment purposes. Donald Trump’s tweets about “Crazy Joe Biden” and the Bernie Sanders mittens photo are just two examples of the reality TV-worthiness of the U.S. political system.
What will it take for Americans to finally care that D.C. is broken? How do we fight the sensationalism that clouds the real-life impacts of politics?
In order to beat the desensitizing influence that social media has on the public, Americans need something sensational. Americans need to experience something more dramatic than the comical tweets from government officials that they are used to. They need their usual threshold for drama to be exceeded and to feel personally affected by the governmental chaos.
Maybe it will take another event like the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection to garner the public’s attention, or maybe the upcoming 2024 election will be entertaining enough to cause the public to speak out against the inefficiency and injustice in our government. Whatever the breaking point is, Americans need to stand up and demand change from our leaders. They must demand a government that is focused on improvement and unity for all. If not, the next time we are in a political crisis, I will not look to the government to fix it.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to fix an error concerning the number of federal employees at risk of furlough.