Conventional wisdom has it that the Republicans were the political losers of this latest fiscal crisis. As a late-breaking NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed, the public's scorn was directed most pointedly at conservatives. More specifically, many Americans believe that it was the tea party's unyielding demands that drove Washington into paralysis.
But while it is widely held that the government shutdown was pointless and harmful, it would be a mistake to conclude that uncompromising politicians were acting irrationally. The uncomfortable truth for those frustrated with Washington is that the tea party legislators were sent to Washington to shake things up. It's certainly fair to question whether we ought to maintain an electoral system that's been contorted to reward candidates from the far left and far right or a fundraising structure that encourages destructive tactics. But if the business of politics is getting re-elected, we have to acknowledge that many tea party Congressmen were simply doing their jobs.
Now, that's not to suggest that everyone was responding rationally to the prevailing incentives. Indeed, as we look back, what we really need to question is why the nation's economic leaders acted, until the very end, with seemingly little regard for their own self-interest. In the run-up to the crisis, the titans of the business community – a group which knows quite well how to exert influence in the corridors of power – largely watched from the sidelines. Sure, they signed letters suggesting it'd be better for the Washington to get its house in order and met with the president to voice their concerns. But more generally, they averted their eyes in the hopes that some among their peers would take on the extremism threatening the economy. It was, in essence, a corporate version of the tragedy of the commons.
Thankfully, at the eleventh hour, the leaders of industry began to employ the tools they reserve to protect their bottom lines: they threatened to support moderate Republican primary challengers; they deployed intense lobbying efforts; CEOs encouraged their employees to call their representatives; they produced reports tying default to job losses in key congressional districts. This was the real stuff – and that's when things began to churn again.
The key question now is whether that campaign will continue. In 10 weeks' time, we will be back in the same mess unless Congress addresses the underlying conflicts that drove us to the brink of default. While a variety of dynamics will influence this next round of negotiations, the role business leaders choose to play may be the linchpin for success.
Some have come to despair over the dysfunction on display of late, and for good reason. But by some measure, we have to acknowledge that this is how Washington is supposed to work. Our democracy has suffered, surmounted and been strengthened by rebellious political movements innumerable times over the past 200-plus years. Just when it seemed that ideological intransigence would do us in, a more judicious force swept in to save the day. In the process, insurgency became the catalyst for necessary change.
When Congress does finally confront our spiraling debt, the tea party will have played an important role. And that's the point: at the core of our democracy has long been the ability to evolve and metabolize dysfunctional moments.
Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that American exceptionalism was driven largely by our unique capacity to make "repairable mistakes." It wasn't that we were congenitally more moderate or reasonable than our counterparts across the Atlantic. It wasn't that we had always made better initial decisions. Rather, it was our great blessing that the founding generation had developed an ecosystem where the public interest would overcome parochial concerns when a minority's demand promised to steer the nation off track. As made so evident of late, it's messy, quite frequently frightening and invariably infuriating. But it's also the secret to the longest lasting democracy in modern history.