The danger of unbridgeable faction

George B. Crawford is adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Florida.

The recent partial closure of the federal government holds a meaning beyond a temporary political spectacle. It involves more than funding cuts, elimination of public services or diminished international stature.

What this episode may well have illustrated is a more precious long-term risk: a fracture of the bond between the average citizen and the basic institutional function of national governance.

Our diverse republic has thrived thus far without a uniform ethnic, religious, racial or tribal identity. The sense of national identity shared by each of us rests upon a graduated tier of relationships extending from the family and community outward to the nation at large. Civic values, expressed in fundamental law, custom and practice, have routinely confirmed these connections in everyday life.

The most important expression of such a civic identity is at the ballot box. Citizens exercise the ultimate sovereignty of government.

But a widespread erosion of confidence in the very operation of government could change the basic meaning of citizenship.

To phrase the issue bluntly, what would be the result if a substantial portion of voters decided that national political institutions no longer served a valuable purpose for them or was irrelevant to the needs of contemporary society?

If this perception became commonplace, the question of which political party might gain dominance in the Congress or successfully campaign to move its leader into the White House would hardly matter. A continual emergency of dysfunction, reinforced by repeated failure to build effective compromises for public policy challenges, provides no remedy.

Of course, signs of civic fracturing have been visible for some time. An undercurrent of cynicism toward government at all levels has colored discourse on public policy for decades. Relatively low voter turnout during national elections could be fairly interpreted as a lack of institutional confidence in itself.

Yet the shutdown may have heralded a new era of civic disengagement. A citizen population unwilling to give its assent for the operations or decisions of government undermines its legitimacy. The possibility arises that other institutions or group associations might even usurp the existing framework of government.

Farfetched, you might say? The U.S. has already experienced one colossal failure of leadership that led to a breakup of the Union and a terrible civil war. Although today we applaud the fact that the conflict preserved the Union and finally led to the abolition of slavery, the precipitating political debacle is a sobering example of what can happen in an extreme situation when a large number of citizens lose faith in the function of our central government.

Our national tradition of building compromises may not always work well. But it is the secret behind the success of the republic, regardless of the flaws inherent in the process. Only by working to bridge differences in opinion and perspective can we all live together peaceably and securely in a nation as diverse as ours. This task is the essence of governance.

We might do well to follow the words of advice offered by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. While burdened by the appalling death and destruction of the Civil War and a pending presidential election, he paused to address a public gathering on the subject of citizenship in the midst of the national crisis.

Lincoln called upon his listeners to “maintain the government and institutions of our fathers, to enjoy them ourselves and transmit them to our children and our children’s children forever.” He admonished the audience not “to be diverted from the support of all necessary measures for that purpose by any miserable picayune arguments addressed to your pockets, or inflammatory appeals made to your passions or your prejudices.”

His advice could hardly be more apt or worthy of our attention than now.

George B. Crawford is adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Florida.