As the government shutdown grinds on, Americans seem to be increasingly focused on the behavior of Congress, not the policy that will result from it. According to a recent CNN poll, 69% of those interviewed say that Republicans in Congress are acting like “spoiled children.” With this characterization comes astonishment that people in suits and cufflinks who are elected to hold office could possible exhibit such dishonorable conduct. “What would the Founding Fathers say?” lamented one Facebook poster. While harkening back to a more civil past may give us comfort, it’s not grounded in fact.
Here is a fact: change is hard. Whenever the country considers progressive reforms that will fundamentally alter the power structure in our democracy, people (even members of Congress) are bound to throw a tantrum. When Harry Burn (State Senate, TN) cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of women’s suffrage in 1920, he was chased by opponents from the House Chamber and was forced to hide out in the Capitol attic until morning. Does this response to democracy in action sound mature? Then there is man-child Senator Strom Thurmond, who executed the longest filibuster in history (24 hours, 18 minutes) to stubbornly prevent a bill from passing that would protect voting rights for African Americans. He resented the inevitable wheels of change so much that he was willing to urinate in a bucket in the Senate cloakroom so that he could continue his tirade against equality. Oh, but they were much more civil in the 1800s, right? Well, not if you count the brutal caning of abolitionist Charles Sumner in 1856 as he sat at his desk on the Senate floor. Didn’t Congressman Preston Brooks’ mother ever tell him not to hit other people, even when you disagree with them? Let’s not excuse the current game of chicken that has put 800,000 federal workers on indefinite vacation. But history may not be the nostalgic warm “blankey” we’re looking for. // Andrea Jones