Deterring Government Shutdowns

Trump photo: Michael Vadon (CC, BY-SA 4.0), Pelosi photo: US Dept. of Labor (public domain)

Even if Trump makes seemingly reasonable demands, the Democrats should refuse to negotiate as long as the government is shut down.

The word "deterrence" conjures images of Cold War nuclear standoffs, but its dynamics occur in lots of other situations as well. The current confrontation between Trump and Pelosi is one example. Both deterrence and its brother, compellence, are involved. The stakes are even higher than the shutdown and furloughed government employees: How this ends could determine whether shutdowns become ever rarer or ever commoner.

Deterrence is when someone attempts to maintain the current situation by threatening someone who wishes to change it. Compellence is when someone attempts to change the current situation by threatening someone who wishes to maintain it (or by punishing them until the demand is met). Trump has not yet gotten his wall, so the current situation is "no wall,"1 which makes Trump the "compeller." He is punishing Congress with the shutdown and offering to stop if he gets his way.

It is harder to compel than deter, though. That's because deterrence seeks to keep things the way they are. There are no new demands. With compellence, giving in to the compeller could bring not an end to the punishment, but further demands. It's just like when a TV character is being tortured for information and you think "don't tell him! Once he knows, you're useless! Then he'll definitely kill you!"). Anyone facing someone attempting to compel them to give in therefore has a strong incentive to dig in their heels. That is exactly what is now happening—and rightly so. The stakes are high, and anyone who wishes to see good government should be very worried.

Many moderate commentators on both sides of the political divide have argued that there's a simple compromise that could end the whole thing: Give Trump his pittance for the wall (after all, what's $5 bn in a budget that runs in the trillions?) in exchange for a deal that protects "DREAMers" (undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children). With a clear path to do what most Americans want and allow DREAMers to stay, wouldn't it be immoral for the Democrats to leave them at risk to fight for an anti-wall principle?

The morality of pigheadedness
What would be true in any normal political negotiation becomes fatally flawed when coercion comes into play. The principle here is no longer anti-wall; it's anti-shutdown. If presidents or Congress find they can bully their way to passing laws by shutting down the government, shutdowns will come to be seen as useful bargaining tools for breaking Washington gridlock. They will become more frequent, with dire consequences for good governance and Americans' faith in their system. Any party faced with a shutdown ultimatum must stand its ground and refuse any terms offered in connection with one. Only when Americans' elected representatives refuse to pay bribes to free government workers held hostage will political bullies stop taking those hostages in the first place. Hostage taking and coercive diplomacy are no way to run a government. Unfortunately, Pelosi and the Democrats must stand firm and answer pigheadedness with pigheadedness in this situation.

The way forward
In the end, Trump will likely cave (the alternative is almost unthinkable—almost). The flip-side of the threats issued in deterrence and compellence is a conciliatory promise: If you don't do the thing you're threatening to do, I will not carry out my threat. I have argued that Israel could strengthen its deterrence of the Hamas terror group in Gaza by carefully timing a quiet easing of the blockade during periods of relative peace. Likewise, politicians would be less tempted by shutdowns if there were greater willingness on both sides to negotiate while the government were open. When the government reopens, it will be time to negotiate in earnest. That doesn't mean Trump will get his wall—that's not what being president means—but it might, especially if it were part of more wide-ranging immigration reforms resulting from intensive coalition building and consensus-seeking (but don't hold your breath). Deterrence may be able to make shutdowns less likely, but it cannot resolve the gridlock in Washington that has led to them in the first place.

1. That is, no additional wall—much of the southern border already has one


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