Opinion

The Shutdown Crisis is Far Worse Than Either Party Realizes | Opinion

In his recent Oval Office speech, President Trump invoked humanitarian motives, fears of beheadings, and even God to justify shutting down the government until he gets $5 billion for a wall to “protect” the U.S. border with Mexico. The Democratic response pointed up the bad faith of that position, and offered a pragmatic measure to reopen the government while continuing to debate the wall.

But what is at stake is larger than the shutdown. There is indeed a crisis, but the wall and the shutdown are the symptoms, not the cause.

The true crisis is not about border security, reopening the government or how we’ll muddle through the latest manufactured crisis du jour.  What is at issue is corrosion of the pillars of modern civilization: rule of law, respect for the truth, upholding basic societal values, and the imperative to be guided by them in policy decisions.

This chief executive is unaware of the values and principles upon which our most important institutions are built. The consequences of his ignorance include polarizing the electorate and demonizing opponents and innocents, aiding and comforting racists and sexists, upending strategic relationships and squandering American standing abroad,  manipulating and attacking agencies and branches of government that are supposed to provide a check on the presidency, fomenting trade war and pursuing cynical economic policies that are blowing up the deficit and roiling markets—the list of foolish, destabilizing conduct goes on.

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Aided by enablers in the legislative branch who won’t cross him for fear of alienating his “base,” and judges who act more like political ideologues, this administration isn’t just creating temporary chaos; it’s increasingly threatening the viability of government institutions at a national and international level.

Here is what is at risk and what we stand to lose:

1.   The rule of law, which depends on an independent judiciary above the fray of partisan politics, and on restraint of the exercise of the power of the state.   It’s what enables Americans to be free and prosperous, to live in a society where contracts are honored, business can flourish, people can express themselves without fear of reprisal, and where summary incarcerations or executions are highly abnormal. This president has attacked judges based on their ethnic heritage and sought to constrain legal inquiry into wrongdoing at the highest levels of state. 

2.   Fact-based analysis and believing in and telling the truth are fundamental for prosperity and democracy.  Without them, we can have neither innovation nor civilized debate on rational policies that serve the common good.  Rejecting the empirical findings warning us about human impact on the air we breathe and the climate challenges the very basis of a rational conception of truth based on the scientific method of discovery. If we reject a fact-based approach by allowing leaders to fabricate a worldview based on  persuasion, then the result will be prejudice, ignorance and policies that undermine society’s ability to function rationally. 

3.     Fundamental values and freedoms enshrined in the Declaration of Independence such as the equality of all, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and respect for diversity, justice and compassion are often disregarded and degraded by political leaders and media. These values are beyond the purview of science, but they set the moral compass for both public and private behavior. The very conception of the public interest is being undermined by the pursuit of partisan ends in derogation of the common good.

4.    America’s strongest power for leadership and global good is to set an example by living up to our stated values and freedoms. Yet this president has stated that U.S. policies will be guided by the commercial benefits of the sale of weaponry rather than shared values.  For example, he has expressed unwavering support for Saudi Arabia because it buys enormous quantities of weapons. That sends a signal that human life can be reduced to a dollar sign.

This is a genuine crisis.  It is reflected in the political obsession with the wall, an apt symbol. Bridges symbolize open, healthy societies that seek and serve the common good. Walls symbolize polarized societies that exclude, hide and control.

Whatever happens with the border wall and the shutdown, we cannot ignore the deeper challenges to national and global stability. The rule of law, truth, values, freedoms, and U.S. influence for the good are at stake. And the chaos that will be unleashed if all these collapse, taking any semblance of a global order with them, cannot be underestimated. With over 14,000 nuclear weapons a permanent threat to all life on the planet, our very existence may be hanging in the balance, too. 

Jonathan Granoff is president of the Global Security Institute, and United Nations Representative and Senior Advisor of the Permanent Secretariat of the World Summits of Nobel Peace Laureates. He chairs the Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation of the International Law Section of the American Bar Association, and he is a fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Science. He has testified as and expert before the US Congress, the United Nations, Canadian Parliament and U.K. Parliament. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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