Government Shutdown Revisited: Causation/Responsibility/Blame And The Fallacy Of Conventional Wisdom

[NOTE: For anyone who read this post between midnight and dawn today (I’ll refrain from commenting on why you were blog reading rather than in bed or having fun, or both), be aware that I’ve added some examples at the end.]

Here we go again — with the looming possibility of another government shutdown and the frantic preliminary effort in the mainstream press and sympathetic circles to blame the Republicans.

A scholarly presentation of the conventional wisdom on relative Democratic innocence and Republican perfidy can be found in a recent Columbia Law Review article by Joseph Fishkin and David Pozen, “Asymmetric Constitutional Hardball.” That article is worth reading, but even more worth reading is the devastating response to it by George Mason law professor David Bernstein, also in the Columbia Law Review, “Constitutional Hardball Yes, Asymmetric Not So Much.”

Part I of Bernstein’s Response discusses “Shutting Down the Government,” and it begins by asking, “Who To Blame For A ‘Shutdown?’”

So-called shutdowns and threatened shutdowns of the government by Republicans in Congress loom large in the authors’ analysis. These shutdowns are mentioned frequently in both the text and footnotes. The authors seem to believe that shutting down the government is something Republicans—but not Democrats—are inclined to do. Indeed, the authors suggest that until recently, Democrats shutting down the government to get leverage in a policy dispute was “unthinkable….”

Before elaborating on why those beliefs are false, it is worth pausing to examine the proposition that when Congress refuses to accede to the President’s budgetary demands, as occurred in the showdown between the Gingrich-led Republicans and President Clinton in 1995, it means that Congress and not the President is shutting down the government. From a purely constitutional perspective, if Congress passes a spending bill that would keep the government open and the President vetoes it, then the President—not Congress—has shut down the government. At a minimum, if the President and Congress are una­ble to reach a compromise that would lead the President to sign a spend­ing bill passed by Congress, both the President and Congress played constitutional hardball to shut down the government.

Long-term readers of this blog with good memories (if there are any) will recall that I’ve been expounding a version of Bernstein’s argument (more like beating the drums, or shouting in the wilderness) for nearly 10 years. Here are the main examples:

Causation Confusion, 23 September 2013
Again, Why Blame Republicans?, 28 September 2013

Blindly Blaming Republicans (Continued), 24 December 2013

Don’t worry; I’m not going to reprise them all here. In fact, anyone reading them in order would see that there is a good deal of repetition. They all argue, to one degree or another, that the conventional wisdom on government shutdowns — as reflected in mainstream press articles even by highly respected commentators and journalists — stumbles over the issue of causation, resulting in purportedly neutral, factual descriptions amounting to little more than partisan preference.

The problem of causation, of course, is central to many historical controversies, and most of the above posts refer to or discuss the similarity between assigning responsibility for government shutdowns to the perennial historical favorite, what caused the Civil War?

One example, from here:

Did slavery cause the Civil War? It is certainly true that without slavery, and the secession of 11 Southern states that resulted from it, there would have been no Civil War. But it is equally true that without the Northern opposition to the spread of slavery and to secession there also would have been no Civil War. To conclude that slavery caused the war is to assume that Northern behavior was a given — fixed, essential, inevitable, immutable — while the Southern position was contingent, the result of free will and choice. One need not be a defender of slavery or secession to point out that they were not more a cause of the war than the response to them. Similarly, one need not defend radical ideologues to point out that the argument that those demanding the immediate abolition of slavery or at least a halt to its expansion were the villains responsible for causing the Civil War is analytically identical to arguing that those trying to abolish Obamacare or at least impede its expansion were the villains responsible for the government shutdown.

The attribution of “causation,” in short, is often, as here, simply blame dressed up to look like history or social science. (Anyone interested in pursuing this issue should read the superb article by the impressive philosopher of history, William Dray, “Some Causal Accounts of the American Civil War,” Daedalus 91 [1962: 578-92], which can be found here.)

To apply this incontrovertible (if I do say so myself) analysis to the recent partial government shutdown, the Republicans were no more (or less) responsible for causing the government shutdown by insisting on impeding the implementation of Obamacare than the Democrats were  for refusing to agree to any delay.


Civil War revisionists who blame fanatical abolitionists for provoking secession and war implicitly assume that the evil of slavery was given but the degree and nature of opposition to it was contingent, an “option.” (And while we’re at it, is there an objective, unbiased, factually determined answer to the question, “which was the primary cause of the Civil War, the secession of the Southern states or the unwillingness of the North to allow secession?”)

In short, today’s major media journalists at the Post and elsewhere, writing what is commonly called “the first draft of history,” are writing bad history when they assume that the Democrats’ willingness to close down the government rather than accept any tinkering or delay with Obamacare is given and the Republican opposition to Obamacare, despite majority public opposition to it as confirmed by polls, is contingent and hence responsible for any shutdown.

Oh well, one more example (from here), comparing ideologically zealous radical abolitionist opposition to slavery to the ideologically zealous Republican opposition to Obamacare (substitute Republican desire to build a wall to bring this discussion up to date):

The revisionist school of Civil War historians in the mid-20th century frequently blamed the often moralistic abolitionists for making compromise impossible, but there is no objective, scientific way to say their extreme response to evil was the cause of war rather than the extreme evil to which they were responding. To say they were “the” or even “a” cause of war is to say they shouldn’t have acted the way they did, but that is a matter of moral and political judgment, not fact.

I was reminded of the Civil War, as I frequently am, by our current partisan civil war, and specifically by the passage below from the current dean of establishment punditry, David Broder.

Broder cited new polls from Republican pollster Bill McInturff finding “striking” numbers: voters oppose the Democratic health bills by 52% to 40%,

with more than twice as many strongly opposed as are strongly supportive.
By a similar margin, 54 percent to 42 percent, they support the Republican argument for starting over and focusing on smaller pieces of legislation embodying bipartisan agreement, rather than merging the more comprehensive reform bills passed by the House and Senate….

Moving on to the health care summit, Broder continued:

A bit later in the day, during the session at Blair House, Obama cited other polls showing broad  support for provisions in the pending bills that would change insurance rules to tear down barriers for those with pre-existing illnesses and remove the caps on benefit payments.
But armed with McInturff’s evidence that those who have been following the debate most closely and those most likely to vote in November are swinging to the Republican side of the argument — just as they did in 1994 — the GOP legislators at Obama’s summit resisted his efforts to draw them onto common ground. [Emphasis added]

Wait a minute here. Who’s resisting whom? Did Broder forget that he had just finished saying that it was the Republicans who wanted to focus on “smaller pieces of legislation embodying bipartisan agreement,” and the Democrats who wanted “comprehensive reform”? How, then, did the Republicans all of a sudden become the villains who “resisted [Obama’s] efforts to draw them onto common ground”?

Easy. They weren’t acting the way Broder would have had them act, just as the abolitionists didn’t respond to the evil of slavery in the calmer manner preferred by the revisionist historians.

Finally (really, this is the last example), one more, from here, criticizing a Dan Balz article in the Washington Post:

On its surface (and an expansive surface it is) Balz’s article amounts to a very long “he said, she said” traipse through the bitter partisan divides of the Obama presidency to date — the stimulus, health care, Simpson-Bowles, the debt ceiling debacle, etc., etc. Reporting each side’s blame of the other at least provides the appearance of fairness and balance, but despite that appearance the article founders on — because it doesn’t even recognize — the fact, long known to historians, that judgments of causation inevitably turn to a large degree on what is assumed as given and what contingent, and even on the judge’s preference for what should have happened. (For a philosopher’s astute discussion of this issue, see William H. Dray, “Some Causal Accounts of the American Civil War,” Daedalus 91 (1962): 578-92.)

Here is a perfect example of Balz’s no doubt sincere effort to be fair stumbling over his implicit Democratic bias:

That Obama ran into a wall of opposition from the Republicans on many of those initiatives is indisputable. What is at odds in these varying interpretations is whether anything might have changed that. Republicans say it could have been different. But there is little evidence that, once their leadership decided to oppose Obama, there was much he could have done to win them over — and there are plenty of examples showing how dug in they were.

Balz could as easily — and, importantly, as accurately — have said that “once Obama decided to offer a highly partisan, left leaning [stimulus, health care bill, whatever] there was little the Republicans could have done save capitulating, which is not compromise, and there are plenty of examples showing how unwilling the president was to accept any  Republican input on his proposals.”

For chapter and verse of this causation/responsibility/blame confusion in the work of a number of prominent journalists in the mainstream press, see my posts linked above.

Say What?