It’s now been more than a month of federal government shutdown. President Trump and the Democrats of the House are in a standoff over funding the border wall, and they are holding the federal budget hostage. Trump wants $5.7 billion from Congress to pay for the wall, while the Democrats say they will provide a much smaller amount for “border security.” The strategy for the Democrats is to fund the government, minus wall funding, and leverage the outrage into a 2020 victory at the polls. Meanwhile, Senate Republican leaders in the midst of the crisis have tried to pass a bill to force poor women not to have abortions and pretend as if the government shutdown crisis isn’t happening.
But the shutdown is happening and the impacts are harmful. In schools across the country, children have had food taken away from them. Federal safety workers are furloughed or working without pay; many now struggle to make rent or pay for health, food, and other necessary costs. Unemployment claims by federal workers have skyrocketed 400%. Hurricane rebuilding efforts in places like North Carolina are stalled. Local mass transit agencies are going without repair and operating funds. The effects of the shutdown are beginning to impact the economy, with banks reducing their economic forecasts for the year.
Immediate Impacts, Broader Crisis
These impacts are real, and hurting working people, but the government shutdown also serves as a symbol of the failures of the US constitutional system. As we enter 2019, we are heading over the cliff of potentially catastrophic climate change and the sixth great planetary mass extinction that threatens humanity’s very survival. While we likely only have ten years to turn that picture around, politicians twaddle about a completely fake security crisis at our border.
Indeed, the shutdown shows us that, on nearly every major issue facing humanity today, the US political system is failing us.
“The government and politicians, even very progressive ones … aren’t going to do it for us. We ourselves have to make the future we want to see. … The only way we can properly fight back is in open revolt. We need to threaten and scare the rulers that our precarity is their precarity.”
In the economy, we are experiencing a “Second Gilded Age” where the rich get astronomically richer and the rest of us are left to suffer and struggle to survive with poor wages, increased uncertainty, lack of jobs and careers, outrageous housing costs, ballooning student debt, and inaccessible health care. These pressures are having psychological and social impacts, with rising rates of suicide and drug overdose, as well as decreases in the national birth rate and in the divorce rate as people stay together to pool their economic resources. And these are supposed to be “good” economic years. Many indications point to a recession just around the corner in 2019 or 2020.
For African Americans and people of color, this situation is far worse. Black unemployment rates are twice that of white workers: their uncertainty is high even in “good” times. Black people face higher mortality, including infant and maternal mortality, and worse health outcomes across the board than whites do. On top of this, police murder and mass incarceration has taken the place of racial segregation and Jim Crow, as black communities are hounded by hostile and violent police forces.
For women, Justice Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court means that their reproductive health and rights are under immediate threat. Women have already seen an increase in mortality in the US— a moral crime in a rich, industrialized country— and this includes increased rates of maternal mortality, higher even still for black women. Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement has exposed how prevalent sexual violence and sexual assault are for women at the highest levels of social achievement, as actors, politicians, and executives have all assaulted women working for them in a pattern that is widespread. And, much like black women facing police violence, trans people also face increased rates of violence and homicide from police and intimate partners.
The Immigrant Crisis?
As a nation of immigrants, the descendants of enslaved people, native peoples, we are failing its historically proclaimed “responsibility” to protect and provide for the world’s most vulnerable. Instead, this nation locks up children, as young as six years old, separates them from their families, and leaves them to die in cells from medical neglect. Immigration rates to the US are down, but the cause of many seeking refuge in this country is its own foreign policy, where wars, coups, and support for dictators force many to flee in search of security.
Militarily, the US government has been involved in our nation’s longest running and most costly wars, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria, where the US military has killed countless people, destabilized the Middle East and Central Asian regions, and created the ongoing humanitarian and refugee crises there. Meanwhile we spend billions and billions in the furtherance of war, bloodshed, and imperialism.
Politically, our systems are failing us too. Trump was elected president despite losing the popular vote by more than 3 million votes. Our Supreme Court is now home to men who sexually assault women and don’t care for the normal rules of appointment, denying seats to President Obama, but giving new ones to Trump— and there will likely be more like this. At the local level, the criminal justice system harshly penalizes young men of color for drug crimes, but when major banks, like HSBC, launder billions of dollars of drug money, there is no criminal prosecution. And for Trump, too, who has clearly violated campaign finance laws, and the Clintons, who appeared to give special privileges in exchange for foundation donations, there have been no criminal repercussions. Indeed, it is not surprising that major watchdog agencies have downgraded their assessment of US democracy to “flawed” two years in a row.
The Problem is the System
This crass insensitivity to the suffering caused by the US government is not an aberration, a mistake, of the US constitutional system. It is how the US government was designed. It was baked into our system hundreds of years ago by slave-holding framers who were more concerned about protecting their power than about creating a truly democratic system. The electoral college, the Senate, the Supreme Court, are all mechanisms to keep power out of the hands of working people and in the hands of a privileged elite. And the failures of the government shutdown makes this all the more clear to us. People are suffering while politicians dither.
But there is more than one way to shut down a government. We, the working people, need to organize, to agitate, to get active, and to build the healthy communities and sustainable futures we want to see. The government and politicians, even very progressive and comparatively benevolent ones, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, aren’t going to do it for us. We ourselves have to make the future we want to see. And we can do it. By getting involved in our workplaces, in our communities, in our schools, and with the people we know and care about, we can transform this system into something better. The only way we can properly fight back is in open revolt. We need to threaten and scare the rulers that our precarity is their precarity.
Indeed, in places all over the world, in Paris, in Sudan, in India, working people are taking to the streets and winning change from their governments. We need to do the same. And we don’t need to stop with change; we can start to demand something new, something that works for us, not against us. We need a new world, one organized on the principles of libertarian socialism, a world beyond capitalism, and Trump, and shutdowns. The government shutdown shows that the system was already failing us. It’s time we create something better.
Frank Ascaso is a historian, educator and member of Black Rose Anarchist Federation based in Seattle, Washington.
If you enjoyed this piece consider you may also enjoy “No Time for Patience: Fascism, Climate, and Capitalism” by Mark Bray or “In November We Remember Those Who Gave Everything” by Tariq Khan.