Politics - January 21, 2018

How the government shutdown looked to the rest of the world

The shutdown of the US government was, of course, substantial international news — it’s fundamentally the world’s most powerful country and its most significant economy going haywire.

How does this chaos look through international eyes?

The overall idea is that the shutdown happened because there is something profoundly wrong with the American political system.

“Canadians like to think their system of governance is better than the American one. If they want more evidence, they need only look at what’s happening now — a government shutdown in Washington — and be thankful their system doesn’t allow the same shenanigans,” writes Lawrence Martin, a columnist for Canada’s right-leaning Globe and Mail newspaper.

Reporters in democratic nations like Britain and France are stunned; authoritarian propagandists are downright giddy that America’s political system could collapse into chaos so quickly.  Some of the blame seems to be apportioned to President Trump and the Republican Party in general, and some to the basic design of the American political system. But overall, there is a sense that the shutdown has exposed something very wrong about the United States.

A lot of the international press was interested in the nuts and bolts of the shutdown, especially as it affected their citizens’ travel plans. But the world, like many Americans, was also interested in playing the blame game: Who is responsible for this, and why?

Trump came in for a lot of the blame, personally. Others looked beyond Trump personally, choosing to see the fact that both sides are willing to shut down the government as evidence of something gone wrong in the United States.

This broader narrative — that America’s political system is fundamentally broken — was the dominant theme in authoritarian countries as well. China’s state-run Xinhua News Service blamed the shutdown on “chronic flaws” in the American political system.

In most parliamentary systems, government shutdowns are not possible: There’s nothing like interference that allows a minority party to block essential legislation. If there aren’t the votes to pass a budget, new elections are held within months while current government funding levels are maintained. After new elections, the new government can almost always pass a budget.

Hence the level of shock not just from Chinese state-run media, which has an incentive to make America look bad, but from reporters for outlets in democracies. This level of dysfunction literally should not be possible; it is incomprehensible to many of their readers that government could function this poorly.

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