The government shutdown opens up bigger questions than balancing the budget

As the partial freeze of federal government activity enters its second week, the finger-pointing panic which both Republican and Democrat figureheads tried to disseminate has subsided and settled into a full revelation of the cracks in the United States’ political vitality. As each side refuses to blink first in a globally broadcasted staring contest, Congress has essentially tipped its hand and shown the country (and the rest of the world) the lumbering machine that operates our government — or at least attempts to. For me, the discussion over health care reform is a distraction more than anything at this point — haven’t we heard enough over the last five years? Instead, we should redirect the debates around the shutdown to deeper-rooted systemic flaws in the priorities and dynamics of political discussion as it is today.

The federal government’s own classification of services and personnel as “essential” or “non-essential” should raise eyebrows on its own – if it isn’t essential, why have we been bothering with it to begin with? As usual, the mainstream media has hinged the question on a periphery incident of minimum large-scale relevance, a group of wheelchair-bound vets rolling past traffic cones and security guards into the National World War II Memorial. Randy Neugebauer, a Texan and Republican member of the House, told a park services worker at the memorial that she and her coworkers “should be ashamed of themselves” for trying to deny access to the memorial. That’s pretty dramatic, especially coming from someone whose own party’s pride in obstructionism made way for the shutdown to begin with.

The difference between park service workers and Mr. Neugebauer, along with his congressional peers, is that the former have made an attempt to do their job as directed — a feat absent from Congress’s recent history. Policy discussion aside, the entire legislative branch of our federal government has allowed itself to effectively lock into partisan stalemate, each half demonizing the other as stubborn or disconnected. Congress operates in teams, and only two are allowed on the field at the moment. This inevitably paralyzes political dialogue, as it portrays our options as being glued into a red and blue dichotomy which pretends there is a cap of two answers to any question. Other issues are rubber-stamped with unquestioning bipartisan enthusiasm, most often those which degrade Americans most (the Patriot Act and federal drug policy being two prominent examples).

The current immobility of Congress is a direct spotlight on the need for varied perspectives in the national dialogue. As long as so few voices are represented, we are doomed to subject ourselves to more petty insults and streamlined discussion from Capitol Hill. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party both started as valuable grassroots organizations before quickly being claimed and compromised by their respective political gangs. The Republican-Democrat paradigm is holding a monopoly on political discussion, and monopolies ultimately lead to stagnation. If we learn anything from the “government shutdown,” it should be that the present environment for ideas has devolved into an impenetrable muck which demands an injection of vitality through vocal, independent dissent.

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