American University

Government Shutdowns and Democratic Legitimacy by H. Upchurch

The longest government shutdown to date ended on 25 January 2019, and unless Congress reaches a deal on the border, the government will shut down again in three days. Republican support for the last shutdown took two forms: support for shutdowns as such, and support of the president and his policy goals.  The normalization of prolonged shutdown and other forms of constitutional hardball are yet another symptom breakdown in partisan forbearance.  In the long term, however, regular shutdowns are in themselves a threat to democratic legitimacy, because they threaten state capacity. Regardless of the justification, prolonged shutdowns will erode both state capacity and citizens’ perceptions of government efficacy and effectiveness. The radical position— that shutdowns are desirable as such— is troubling because it suggests increased openness amongst Republicans to explicitly anti-system ideas, but the more instrumentalist position— that government shutdowns are one more tool of partisan politics— is likely to be just as corrosive to state capacity in the long run.

In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Linz and Stepan parse state capacity into two components: efficacy, the “capacity of a regime to find solutions to the basic problems” it faces, and effectiveness, “the capacity to actually implement the policies formulated, with the desired results.”  A government shutdown begins as a problem of efficacy— the government is unable to reach a legislative compromise— and creates problems of effectiveness as it drags on and existing policies go unimplemented.   According to Slater, Smith and Nair, democracies require a capable civil administrative state to survive.  To maintain legitimacy, any government, democratic or not, depends on the capacity of the civil administrative state to carry out the tasks of governance.  They use taxation of income, capital gains, and profits as a proxy for bureacratic capacity, and show that democratic breakdown becomes more likely as a regime is less able to extract revenue from elites and therefore to enact its policies, and that the ability to tax is much more important to legitimacy and regime survival than any particular set of tax policies.  Therefore, threats to the capacity of the administrative state to enact existing policy provisions are threats to regime legitimacy.

The explicitly anti-system position was articulated in an op-ed by an anonymous administration official, published in the Daily Caller on the 24th day of the shutdown.  The anonymous author proposes shutdowns as a non-legislative solution to an administrative state that is bloated, inefficient, out of control, and allegedly subversive: only law enforcement and national security personnel should be retained, and furloughed workers should never return and never be paid.   Disagreements over the size and role of the administrative state are well within the bounds of democratic politics, and concern over the efficiency of the civil bureaucracy is not in itself illegitimate.  In theory, a more efficient administrative apparatus should increase state capacity, not threaten it.  However, the author of the op-ed has despaired of ever achieving their goals through the legislative process, and has instead to turned to an anti-system solution.  Shutting down the government to shrink the bureaucracy without the appropriate legislation will only result in a mismatch between the law and public expectations on the one hand, and the capacity of the state to carry out policy on the other.  Those with an ideological commitment to a smaller administrative state can only hope to salvage public perceptions of government effectiveness if the proper legislative procedures are followed and the public understands what changes will be made to government programs.

No Republican legislators have so far been willing to explicitly endorse the anti-system case for shutdowns, but the mainstream position— shutdowns are a legitimate hardball negotiation tactic— is just as irresponsible.  White House statements and the president’s tweets suggest he sees shutdowns the way most Republican lawmakers do, as just another tool of politics.  The effort to declare IRS personnel essential demonstrates an unwillingness to damage the economy and undercut the ability to collect revenue, and is another indication that the White House intended the shutdown as hostage-taking.  However, regardless of intent, prolonged shutdown causes vacancies in the bureaucracy and results in long-term damage to state capacity.  As public services become unavailable, government dysfunction becomes more and more evident to citizens, so that perception of government effectiveness will erode alongside bureaucratic capacity.  Because the practical consequences are the same, the normalization of prolonged shutdown as a political tool is just as dangerous to regime legitimacy as active attempts to undermine bureaucratic capacity.

Linz suggests that democratic regimes which enjoyed high levels of legitimacy at the time of their founding may be better able to withstand crises of effectiveness than regimes which had more contested origins.  As crises become more common, however, it may become harder to recycle past successes to bolster democratic legitimacy.  Through their willingness to engage in longer and more frequent shutdowns, Republican lawmakers and presidents risk squandering the US’s long history of effective governance in the service of short-term policy gains, and increase the chance of a more severe legitimacy crisis down the road.


  1. Felicia Gordon

    February 20, 2019 at 9:04 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. In your first paragraph you discuss some of the ways that government shutdowns and be destructive to democratic legitimacy and you mention “citizens’ perceptions of government efficacy and effectiveness”. This is certainly an outcome the members of our government should work to avoid. However, another political device historically used for polarization and “partisan politics”, as you mention, is the filibuster. Do you think that the effect of government shutdowns on public perceptions of the government could be similar to the perception of filibusters? Or more severe than that of filibusters?
    Throughout your post you discuss whether or parties endorse government shutdowns, mentioning towards the end that Republicans are endorsing them as a legitimate “hardball tactic” for negotiations, describing this as irresponsible. I feel that this, too, we could parallel to filibustering tactics in Congress. Would you agree?

  2. Samantha Rip

    April 28, 2019 at 3:02 pm

    Great post about the government shutdown! Your point of normalizing shutdowns is incredibly troubling, because Congress can keep shutdowns going indefinitely. The cost to the United States’ credit score (due to the debt limit) and the American people’s livelihood appears to be of little concern. The constitutional hardball is ineffective if parties keep thinking the other will cave or the blame will be placed on the opposite party. Republicans and republican voters who are supportive of anti-system behavior definitely weaken the U.S. democracy. Legislative compromise is certainly essential for efficient government and I wish you had delved into where the idea that comprising is equal to failing comes from. What other tactics constitute anti-system hardball? How did the anti-system behavior come into being? Polarization most certainly is a cause but are there any others? I also think that you could make the jump from this argument that as the government becomes more dysfunctional, people could turn more to local-level politics for their needs to be met. This comes with its own set of problems and benefits, however.

  3. Samuel Reeder

    May 7, 2019 at 5:33 pm

    This is a really good post. I love how you referenced Linz and Stepan’s book The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes to stress the importance of how government shutdowns do affect our democracy in negative ways. Linz and Stepan also point out in this book that when a complex problem appears in a democracy, and the legislative authority is faced with this complex problem, it can make just enough room for disloyal parties to break into the government and democratic system. These disloyal parties can claim to solve these complex issues with simple solutions, in this case a government shutdown. This can pose real danger to a democracy cause it could lead to the eventual eroding of the public’s trust in the democratic system and turn to something else to address their social and political anxieties. What they turn to can be detrimental to the health of the democracy in the short or long run. Donald Trump, in using the shutdown to take hostage the system to get exactly what he wants, does put the people in a position to lose faith in the very institutions that are supposed to protect them from this sort of stuff. Overall great blog post!

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