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US shutdown: Why are Americans so complacent?

There are few better remedies for pessimism on the state of South African politics than some time spent in the United States. Despite having six times as many people, a national wealth that dwarfs our own (South Africa's GDP is roughly equal to that of North Carolina), one of the world's oldest democracies and perhaps its most respected academic and cultural institutions; its government seems to be continuously divided and increasingly inept at advancing the interests of its people. 

While the state of political action and discourse in America is certainly distressing, worse still is the willingness of its citizens to tolerate it.  

The recent shutdown of the federal government – now in its third week – due to Congress's failure to adopt a budget is a stark example of this. The undisputed belligerent has been the influential ultra-conservative faction of the Republican Party, which is seeking to block funding to a new scheme to provide public healthcare to millions of Americans. This, however, is merely the latest in a long and coordinated sequence of malicious attacks intended to delegitimise US President Barack Obama's administration at all costs.    

The consequences of the shutdown have already been devastating, though the full extent of damage will not be known for some time. Since October 1, almost a million federal government workers have been "furloughed" (put on unpaid leave). This is almost half of all civilian employees, and includes 52% of the department of health, 96% of the department of housing and urban development, 95% of the department of education, 89% of the treasury, and 93% of the environmental protection agency. The figures are difficult to comprehend. Here are a handful of examples that will hopefully illustrate the breadth and gravity of the effects:  

  • The Centre for Disease Control (CDC's) department of foodborne illness had to send home 86% of its workforce soon after it discovered the largest nationwide outbreak of salmonella in years. More than 300 people have since been infected by the deadly bacterium. Most other CDC departments are now operating with skeleton staff, severely compromising its ability to sustain public health. 
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission – agencies mandated to monitor the financial transactions and conduct largely responsible for the current economic situation – have had to send home 97% and 95% of its personnel respectively, essentially shutting down its operations.   
  • The National Science Foundation has had to furlough 99% of its personnel. As a result, thousands of lab mice used to research possible treatments for ailments ranging from cancer to down syndrome might have to be destroyed, which could cost thousands of dollars per animal and set critical research back months or even years.  
  • The Head Start Programme, which provides daycare and nutritional support to vulnerable pre-school children, has had to cease operations in several states leaving thousands without food or supervision. 
  • All major national parks and federally run public facilities have been closed. This includes everything from the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The Statue of Liberty – closed for two weeks – was only opened again this week after the state intervened and offered to foot the bill. 
  • Visiting government websites ranging from Nasa (97% furloughed) to the White House (74% furloughed) may leave you disappointed. The former is down completely, while the latter warns that the information may not be up to date. Most federally-funded websites are similarly inaccessible.  

It is of course not only Americans who stand to suffer. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have both warned that the political stalemate in the world's largest economy could lead to another global recession. Despite the grave implications of the shutdown, most people here seem more bemused than outraged. There have been no significant mass protests. A million public service workers have been suspended, yet there are no union marches or picket lines.

The only mobilisation that has occurred has come from those responsible for the shutdown. Last weekend, thousands of Tea Party supporters lead by Sarah Palin and other conservative leaders marched on the White House in protests against Obama. Some carried Confederate flags used by the American South during the country's bloody civil war.   

Many here seem to have grown complacent, after all this is the 18th government funding gap since 1976. There is a sense of submission to a political system that – unsurprisingly given the concentration of wealth and power – is held hostage by private interests and corporate lobbying. Many feel ostracised from party politics, and in large part struggle to find alternative channels in civil society, much of which has been co-opted into politics and civil service.                  

South Africa certainly has its share of problems, but we can be thankful that citizens still feel that they have the power to counter injustice and the abuse of power, and act on it. Much of this is due to our recent history and struggle for democracy. Time will tell whether current and future events will force similar sentiment and action to prevail in the United States. –

Gavin Silber is a founding member and former co-ordinator of the Social Justice Coalition. He is currently enrolled in a masters programme at New York University's Graduate School of Public Service. 

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