From my perch overseas, I’ve also been watching the run-up to the government shutdown in Washington. At times, I have tried to explain it to bemused foreigners. Many of them think, mistakenly, that Americans are having an argument about the budget or the deficit. I have to put them straight: This is an attempt by one part of the U.S. political system to use the budgetary process to stop the implementation of a single law, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). If my interlocutors come from democratic countries, they then look puzzled.
…The Affordable Care Act passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by the president. It was confirmed by the Supreme Court. The president who sponsored the health-care reform was then sent back to the White House after an election during which that reform was a major topic of debate.
Obamacare is the law, as confirmed by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our political system. A portion of one of those branches is not now legally or morally empowered to change that law by holding other parts of the government hostage, no matter how strongly its members or their constituents feel. So how is it possible that so many Americans, including some who have been elected to Congress, no longer understand this principle, which is fundamental to our political system and vital to the functioning of democracies?…
[B]ecause Americans, even irrational Americans, no longer use violence to achieve their goals, and because this process is still — just barely — taking place within the boundaries of those institutions and because the protagonists still observe the language — if not always the spirit — of the law, the result is peaceful. That is indeed impressive. But it is a narrow achievement.
Americans are paying a high price for this week’s events. The cost of shutting down the federal government, for a few days or even a few weeks, pales in comparison to the damage done to the credibility of the United States abroad — and the credibility of democracy itself.