The United States is a bizarre nation. Our government is shut down today because our entire system of government is poorly designed. And it is poorly designed in a way that many of our peer nations had the good sense not to emulate.
Our Constitution contains no safeguard — or, at least, no meaningful safeguard — against a rogue president who refuses to fund his own government in order to extort Congress into passing an unpopular policy into law. Sure, the Constitution allows supermajorities of both houses to override Donald Trump’s veto — as well as permitting a supermajority of the Senate to remove Trump from office altogether — but neither one of these things are happening.
In one of the worst predictions in our nation’s history, James Madison wrote that our “well constructed Union” would have a “tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” The framers were adamantly opposed to political parties — John Adams wrote that “there is nothing I dread So much, as a Division of the Republick into two great Parties.” They were of the belief that the system of government they’d built would thwart their rise. And they were hilariously, disastrously wrong.
And so the mechanisms the Founding Fathers devised to control a rogue president depend upon many members of that president’s own party turning against him. That’s a rare occurrence in any nation. And it ain’t happening in the United States in 2019.
The reason the government is shut down right now is because our system of government does nothing to incentivize Trump’s fellow Republicans to reopen it. And that’s fairly unusual among modern democracies.
As of this writing, Trump’s shutdown is the third-longest in the nation’s history. It’s likely to last much longer. Trump says he could keep it going for “months or even years.”
Compare that outcome to what happened in Canada when its government was unable to pass a budget in 2011.
In 2011, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party controlled a plurality of Canada’s parliamentary seats but not a majority. Without such a majority, Harper’s proposed budget didn’t have enough votes to get through the legislature.
Canada did not shut down because of this impasse, however. In Canada, if parliament defeats a budget bill, that triggers an entirely new election (technically, the 2011 Canadian election was triggered by a no confidence vote, but a new election was widely viewed as inevitable). As it happened, Canadian Conservatives were well-positioned when this election happened, so they won an outright majority. That meant that they passed a budget and the nation moved on.
This practice of calling a snap election rather than shutting down the government, moreover, is common in parliamentary democracies. It’s also more respectful of democracy itself than the American system. If Canada’s government reaches an impasse, the voters get to decide how to resolve it.
It helps if your nation is a democracy
A crucial reason why the Canadian system works is that, in a parliamentary system, the chief executive is chosen by the legislature rather than being elected separately — as presidents are chosen in the United States. Moreover, while Canada has a senate that technically has the power to block legislation, it only does so rarely. The Canadian senate is an appointed body without democratic legitimacy, so it flexes its muscles too hard at its own peril.
This means that a Canadian snap election is likely to produce a decisive result, rather than creating a situation like what we have in the United States right now, where two rival parties each control veto points that can be used to block the other party’s funding proposal.
And the United States also has another, even more fundamental problem. Donald Trump lost the 2016 election by 2,864,974. The Senate Republican “majority” represents 15 million fewer people than the Democratic “minority.” If the United States had fair elections, Democrats would control all three branches of government and the government would not be shut down.
We are in this mess because the results produced by American elections bear only vague resemblance to the will of the people.